Capt. Casey Streeter’s crew is waist deep in the commercial icebox on its 36-foot Thompson boat. Ice is shoveled overboard, while fish are pulled from the ice into bins, some separated by size and others by species. What was once a dry surface on the ice box and boat floor is now covered with melted ice and the occasional drop of blood.
Fishermen Greg Trammell and Jimmy Bergan just returned from being on the water for seven days. Bins and baskets full of fish filled to the rim as they offload their catch to be sold at Island Seafood Market in Matlacha. It is owned by Streeter and his wife, where they catch and sell their own fish. Streeter is a first-generation fisherman, fishing commercially for 10 years.
Streeter’s livelihood relies on the health of marine ecosystems. With the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s search for aquaculture opportunity areas in the Gulf of Mexico, he fears the lifeline of his career may be at stake.
“We’re setting our fisheries up for failure,” Streeter said. “This is a disaster waiting to happen.”
In May 2020, the administration issued Executive Order 13921 on promoting American seafood competitiveness and economic growth, directing the Secretary of Commerce and NOAA Fisheries to identify areas that might be suitable for future aquaculture development.
NOAA then released a notice of intent to prepare a programmatic environmental impact statement for identification of aquaculture opportunity areas on June 1, 2022.
Aquaculture is the cultivation of aquatic organisms in controlled environments for any commercial, recreational or public purpose.
Nine atlas locations off the coasts of Texas, Louisiana and Florida were chosen as aquaculture opportunity areas. In Florida, 500- to 2,000-acre areas off the inlets of Fort Myers, Tampa and Clearwater were identified.
The Gulf was chosen because of industry interest and a history of aquaculture in the Gulf, according to Andrew Richard, regional aquaculture coordinator at NOAA.
“The ideal water temperatures and ocean conditions, access to local markets, a high seafood consumption rate. Those are all things that really generate interest both in wild captured fisheries as well as aquaculture,” he said.
NOAA also has done past work in the Gulf such as siting analysis, and permitting and environmental reviews for aquaculture projects. “There’s sort of this foundation of aquaculture work that’s already there,” Richard said.
While NOAA pinpointed the Gulf as an ideal location to begin looking at opportunity areas, those who are on the water often disagree.
“Our water is too shallow and is too warm,” Streeter said. “We have too much extreme weather with our hurricanes, and we have water quality issues, especially in Southwest Florida. We have enough issues. We do not need these fish farms in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Aquaculture encompasses not only finfish, the type of aquaculture most known for negative environmental impacts, but shellfish and seaweed as well. Whether the areas identified would be finfish, shellfish or seaweed aquaculture is up to future proposed projects, Richard said.
“Water quality impacts we typically hear are regarding finfish aquaculture because shellfish and seaweed aquaculture are restorative methods that are actually really helpful in improving water quality,” Richard said.
Streeter owned an aquaculture clam lease for several years and had to let it go because of red tide and the inability to harvest. He said he’s seen what shellfish aquaculture looks like with bad water quality.
“It’s a nonexistent business,” Streeter said. “We don’t want aquaculture offshore because there’s really no value in them anyway since there’s potential for upset every year.”
The Gulf is known for its warm temperatures, averaging between 82 to 85 degrees year-round. Warm water temperatures increase thermal stratification, favoring the growth of algal blooms, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Red tide blooms feed on excess nutrients, which will be increased with the introduction of fish farms. Fish farms create a high amount of waste, adding nutrients to the waters and contributing to algal blooms.
An additional factor on top of the existing depletion of water quality in the area raises concern. “Water quality concerns and harmful algal blooms are definitely something that we’re cognizant of,” Richard said.
Commercial fishermen also fear farmed fish escaping and breeding with wild fish, along with diseases escaping the pens.
Farmed fish may also impact the market prices and profitability of wild fish, according to Steve Miele, who has 30 years of fishing experience, with eight years of commercial experience. Farmed fish are typically cheaper than wild caught ones because of the decreased cost to harvest, process and ship.
“The wholesale market is going to go down,” Miele said. “They’re going to flood the market and put everybody out of business.”
NOAA is in its public scoping process for the identification of aquaculture opportunity areas that initiated on June 1, running until Aug. 1. Public comments about the process can be submitted to the federal e-rulemaking portal, with specific information on NOAA’s website. The third and final public meeting to provide comments verbally is July 12.
“Our fishing communities in the country as a whole are very vulnerable communities,” Streeter said. “So many things can upset the balance of how we operate and if we’re in business or not, whether it’s access to fish, red tides or water quality. We’re very vulnerable and how we operate is always very tight.”
Although fishermen will bear the brunt of aquaculture’s potential impacts on the Gulf, Streeter said it’s a problem that will affect everybody.
“We’re just like the canary in the coal mine,” he said. “We’re the first to go out if something goes wrong because we’re directly dependent on these fish. But when we had our major red tide events here, there was not a business that was safe. It’ll be everyone’s problem in the end.”