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An inhumane fish farm off the coast of Florida would be an environmental monstrosity

Its reported location is 45 miles southwest of Sarasota, in the middle of the state’s fishing grounds, where tens of thousands of Midwesterners vacation every year. 

“The pristine character of the Gulf of Mexico must be preserved,” writes David McGrath. “The sea is the last frontier where sportsmen, tourists, their grandchildren and, hopefully, great grandchildren, may encounter wilderness, solitude and wonder.” 

I don’t have the exact coordinates for the proposed fish farm in the Gulf of Mexico for which a Hawaii-based company, Ocean Era Corp., is seeking a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

But its reported location of 45 miles southwest of Sarasota, Florida, puts it smack dab in the middle of the state’s fishing grounds, where tens of thousands of Midwesterners vacation every year.

Permitting this underwater monstrosity would be a tragedy.

A chain link cage, anchored to the sea floor 130 feet below, with 20,000 almaco jack fish packed in like cattle, in a suspended swarm with waste and pharmaceuticals, would alter the ecology and pollute and deform the uncorrupted Eastern Gulf.

That the Corps would contemplate a permit is befuddling, considering what they already know. A study published in Science Direct in December 2019 detailed the chronic accidents imperiling Norway’s offshore fish farm industry, including “mass mortality of fish during and after operations, introgression of genes from farmed salmon, the spread of disease and material damage to assets...”

The conservation group Friends of the Earth echoed the same dangers: “From the release of untreated fish waste and excess nutrients to the overuse of antibiotics and endangerment of marine life, industrial ocean fish farms are nothing but bad news for our oceans.”

Ocean Era itself acknowledged that in their other existing farm off the coast of Hawaii, which they saturate with thousands of gallons of hydrogen peroxide, “leakage” is common and escape risk “high” for the penned fish invariably infected with “skin fluke parasites.” They also admit to hazards for large fish and mammals (dolphins and whales) attracted to the cages that can become trapped inside and die, as happened recently with an endangered tiger shark and a monk seal.

Ocean Era argues that aquaculture would make the United States less dependent on imported seafood. But countering their argument was a report just last week that more humpback whales are being observed off the coast of New York than ever before, as they feed on massive schools of menhaden that have finally returned. Scientists say New York’s bounty is due to cleaner water and stricter conservation laws, which is what the focus of the Army Corps and the federal government should be for increasing domestic fish stocks, instead of polluting the Gulf with farms to make inorganic “seafood.”

As a sportsman and a human being, I plead also in behalf of the caged fish. Fishermen respect nature and appreciate the intelligence, complexity and intrinsic value of the Gulf’s inhabitants. As a freshwater and saltwater fisherman, I know the freedom, speed and magnificence of the nearer dwelling native amberjack, to which the almaco jack is a close cousin which can grow to 80 pounds. It is an offshore pelagic, a silvery torpedo high in the food chain who prowls the open ocean for prey (not pellets) in depths of 800 to 1,000 feet.

But in Ocean Era’s net pens, they cannot roam. They are confined in a watery cell at a shallow and unaccustomed depth; and they lead an artificial, immured existence before being slaughtered and frozen for shipment.

Finally, the pristine character of the Gulf of Mexico must be preserved. The sea is the last frontier where sportsmen, tourists, their grandchildren and, hopefully, great grandchildren, may encounter wilderness, solitude and wonder.

Sailing over hills of sparkling blue water, accompanied by platoons of dolphin, frigate birds with 8-foot wingspans soaring overhead, flying fish gliding iridescent in your wake and curious loggerheads surfacing to investigate, even an atheist suspects that this is where God, if he or she existed, would reside.

Imagine if you were vacationing in Yellowstone National Park, exhilarating in the mountains, the rivers and the wildlife, and your path suddenly were blocked by a barbed wire corral imprisoning 20,000 cramped and sedentary bison. In many of the same ways, a 24/7 barge parked over a submerged fenced-in enclosure stabilized with floating buoys and boiling with disoriented fish and a festering stew of contaminants destroys our Gulf wilderness.

In jeopardizing our seascape and its cleanliness, the Ocean Era fish farm may pose an even more serious threat to Florida tourism, the state’s No. 1 industry, than the grotesquely protruding and hugely dangerous oil rigs which the state has been successfully fending off its west coast for decades.

Denying Ocean Era a permit may seem like a no-brainer. But in view of the current federal administration’s preference for private industry profits to trump environmental health, and President Donald Trump’s executive order just last May to remove federal restrictions on aquaculture, I urge readers nationwide to make their views known by sending comments — before Nov. 4 — to the Army Corp of Engineers at this email address: OceanEra_VEaquaculture@usace.army.mil.

David McGrath, a former College of DuPage professor of English, is a contributing editor to Florida Sportsman magazine and the author of a new collection of essays titled “South Siders.” He can be reached at David.McGrath@fsw.edu.

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