The fumble is the latest turn in a year-long battle that may determine the future of open-ocean aquaculture in federal waters.
Since early October, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been collecting public comments on a controversial proposed fish farm off the Florida coast. There’s just one problem: It directed people to a faulty email for the first two weeks of the feedback period, the agency announced in an update last week. As a result, the Army Corps lost any and all input submitted so far.
“Due to a technical issue, the Corps became aware that the comment email mailbox … was not receiving external emails,” its statement read. “If you previously sent comments … please resend those comments as soon as possible.” The Army Corps added that it would extend the comment period by 15 days to make up for the error.
The fumble is the latest turn in an ongoing fight over the future of off-shore aquaculture. The proposal in question is a pilot fish farm by seafood company Ocean Era, which would raise 20,000 almaco jack fish in a net pen in the Gulf of Mexico, 45 miles off the coast from Sarasota County, Florida. In September, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave Ocean Era approval to dispose of up to 80,000 pounds of fish waste per year into the ocean, bringing the proposal one step closer to reality.
“That certainly does not instill us with much confidence that the Corps can get this extremely important permit decision right if it can’t even get the email address to operate.”
Authorization from the Army Corps is the final step before Ocean Era’s pilot can become reality, according to Neil Sims, co-founder of Ocean Era. In an interview, he said he expects to hear back from the Corps in November, and estimates that it will take six months after that to get the pen in the water. While aquaculture operations have been installed both inland and within state waters—which are closer to the shoreline—Ocean Era’s pilot would be one of the first open ocean farms in federal waters.
Aquaculture advocates like Sims have long argued open-ocean fish farming is a necessary industry in the United States, a means to reduce both seafood imports and reliance on marine resources. (While these battles have been unfolding for years, President Trump hit the gas in May on open-ocean aquaculture development, directing various agencies in an executive order to speed up project approvals.)
While the proposal is an exciting possibility for the industry, it’s an alarming one for activists, fishermen, and some Sarasota County residents.
Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity, compared the project to a “CAFO” in the ocean, a reference to highly polluting concentrated animal feeding operations on land. Major concerns raised by environmental groups are the impact of waste disposal on water quality and marine wildlife, as well as the potential to exacerbate harmful algal blooms, a common issue in Florida.
“A fish farm at this scale could set a precedent for further industrialization and movement of the industry into this region.”
In response to these concerns, EPA said in its September approval that “causal linkages have not been established between fish farming and phytoplankton blooms,” and that “due to the relatively small fish biomass production estimated for this demonstration and the limited discharges other than fish food and fecal matter, the volume and constituents of the discharged material are not considered sufficient to pose a significant environmental threat.”
In other words, EPA appears to be saying that Ocean Era’s pilot proposal alone is unlikely to have a noticeable impact on water quality in the Gulf. But activists say there are still too many unknowns to warrant the project’s authorization. Lopez also worries that this pilot could open the gates to the development of more and larger fish farms, the cumulative impact of which could be devastating to the region.
“A fish farm at this scale could set a precedent for further industrialization and movement of the industry into this region,” Lopez said. ”We—as the coastal communities and people that want to keep the ocean swimmable and fishable and livable for marine wildlife and Floridians and tourists alike—regard this experimental fish farm as an unnecessary and unreasonable risk.”
“The public’s ability to track and weigh in on these proposals is being circumvented if not blocked outright.”
Environmentalists also say that the Army Corps needs to go further to publicize its email mishap, which was first reported by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. They are demanding the Army Corps reset the commenting period altogether. Anything less, they argue, would effectively exclude community members from a crucial decision-making process that could determine the future of commercial fish farming in their coastal waters.
“The public’s ability to track and weigh in on these proposals is being circumvented if not blocked outright,” said Hallie Templeton, senior oceans campaigner for Friends of the Earth, an environmental nonprofit, in an email. “That certainly does not instill us with much confidence that the Corps can get this extremely important permit decision right if it can’t even get the email address to operate.”
The organization is calling on the Army Corps to hold a public hearing on the issue, and to “grant an additional 30 days for the commenting period, and provide a series of public notices in various media outlets alerting to the malfunctioning email address and the need for stakeholders to resubmit their comments.”
For anyone who’s already submitted feedback, they’ll have until November 4 to re-send those thoughts to the Army Corps’s now-functional email: [email protected] Otherwise, they’ll be lost in the ether, where undelivered emails are laid to rest.
We’ve reached out to the Army Corps for comment and will update this post if we get a response.