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Gulf to teem with fish in cages if farms okayed

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 10, 2007

Technicians from Snapperfarm, started by an Eckerd College dropout, stand on top of a cage 2 miles off Puerto Rico. They harvest cobia, which grow to a marketable 10 pounds in about a year and tolerate tight spaces. One cage holds up to 70,000 pounds.
[Ocean Farm Technologies]

ST. PETERSBURG - Imports satisfy 80 percent of America's seafood craving. Shrimp, salmon, tilapia and other favorites journey thousands of miles to reach our plates but still undercut local prices because they are grown on high-intensity fish farms.

The federal government now wants to fight fire with fire, using the Gulf of Mexico as a vast, offshore fish farming laboratory.

Regulations under consideration next month would allow underwater cages the size of an average McDonald's restaurant, spread in clusters over dozens of acres. With each cage holding 70,000 to 100,000 pounds of fish, just two 40-cage farms in deep water could produce as much fresh seafood as Florida's grouper fleet hauls ashore in a year.

"Experts believe that offshore has great potential for all kinds of sustainable aquaculture," reports the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on its Web site.

Several environmental groups are leery.

Nearshore farming dramatically dropped global salmon prices but also polluted surrounding waters. Penned-in fish sometimes needed antibiotics and antiparasite medicine to survive. Non-native species, like the "Atlantic salmon" raised in Chile and British Columbia, sometimes escaped into the wild.

The proposed offshore rules "contain no specific pollution standards. We don't know what kind of effluent is going to be acceptable," said Maryanne Cufone, of Food and Water Watch. "We don't know what likely chemicals will be needed to keep the fish healthy and keep the cages free of fouling organisms. This is a new industry the federal government is trying to promote, but there is no reason to rush."

Horror stories from the salmon industry will not repeat themselves in the open gulf, said Wayne Swingle, director of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which regulates gulf fish stocks. Gulf farms would probably locate 20 to 50 miles offshore. Steady current would quickly disperse fish waste and uneaten feed, he said.

Cages in deep water

These issues will be debated tonight in St. Petersburg at a special public hearing. After similar hearings in three other states, the management council is expected to vote on the regulations in January.

Brian O'Hanlon, who dropped out of Eckerd College several years ago to start a fish farm off Puerto Rico, said the gulf is ready for mariculture.

His Snapperfarm consists of two cages moored in the Caribbean, 2 miles offshore in 100 feet of water. One, an 85-by-50-foot cone, stays about 30 feet below the surface. The other, a 65-foot sphere, can float to the surface for feeding, monitoring and harvesting.

In 2004, Hurricane Jeanne passed over the cages with only minimal damage, he said, because the wave energy of hurricanes dissipates at about 20 feet.

Snapperfarm tried mutton snapper first, but they were slow growers. Now O'Hanlon raises cobia, a tasty white fish caught wild in the gulf. Cobia, also known as ling along the Eastern Seaboard, grow from egg to a marketable 10 pounds in about a year. They are also natural schoolers who tolerate tight spaces more than a territorial species like grouper would. One cage holds up to 70,000 pounds.

At first, the farm lost about 30 to 40 percent of its fish, mainly 1-month old fingerlings from the University of Miami that died during transport and transfer to the cages. Over time, the company learned to manage fish stress, O'Hanlon said, and now brings 90 percent of its fingerlings to harvest. They use no antibiotics, he said.

Snapperfarm is a niche operation, selling to New York and South Florida wholesalers. To compete globally, O'Hanlon said, a farm would probably require 20 to 40 cages in water 200 to 1,000 feet deep, perhaps with permanent floating platforms for on-site workers.

"The deeper the water, the more dilution (of feed and waste) you have," he said. "What we have to be careful of is loading the bottom."

Joe Hendrix, a Texas mariculture consultant, briefly operated an experimental redfish farm off an inactive oil rig in the late 1990s. A hurricane destroyed one of the pipe-and-netting pens and a second was ripped apart when it snagged on an oil rig.

Threat to fishing

Modern offshore cages, like O'Hanlon's, are made from wire mesh and can cost $100,000, plus installation. A cluster of eight, generally viewed as the smallest competitive scale, would cost more than $1-million before the first fingerling entered a cage.

Hendrix said cobia, redfish, pompano and flounder are farmable species because fingerlings are available.

Several investment groups are eager to start farming the gulf if the proposed regulations pass, he said, but now, only temporary permits are available. No one will pony up the initial cost for only a year of operation. As a lay member of the management council, Hendrix represents one of the nine votes necessary to implement the rules.

Other permits from the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Coast Guard may also be required. Large-scale fish farming is new to the United States and regulation is disorganized. Legislation that would have a single agency regulate fish farming has stalled in Congress. So NOAA wants to move forward in the gulf.

The proposed rules would forbid non-native species and require that one-fourth of the brood stock change every year, so the gulf doesn't fill up with one, genetically vulnerable strain. But the rules do not specify where the farms would locate, raising the possibility that acres and acres of gulf bottom would be leased out and therefore be off-limits to competing fishermen.

If the Alaska salmon fishery is any example, plummeting prices might devastate Florida's already teetering commercial fishing fleet.

"If it's coming, it's coming. Our guys are not going to be able to stop it," said Bobby Spaeth, a Madeira Beach fish house owner who lobbies for commercial fishermen. "ConAgra or somebody like that is going to come in and make a big business of it.

"Maybe some of the guys will be able to get jobs tending the traps and pens."

Fast facts

If you go

What: Public hearing to discuss offshore marine fish farming

When: 6 to 9 p.m.

Where: Comfort Inn, 2260 54th Ave. N, St. Petersburg

Who: Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council

[Last modified December 9, 2007, 22:42:12]

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