La Jolla Town Council hears concerns about fish farm proposed off the local coast

The Pacific Ocean AquaFarms project would encompass 719 acres off the coast of Bird Rock and Mission Beach.
The Pacific Ocean AquaFarms project would encompass 719 acres off the coast of Bird Rock and Mission Beach.

Opponents of an immense fish farm proposed off the coast of Bird Rock and Mission Beach let members of the La Jolla Town Council know how they feel Feb. 11 as the project is undergoing environmental review.

The Pacific Ocean AquaFarms project, spearheaded by the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute and Long Beach-based investment group Pacific6 Enterprises, would produce up to 5,000 metric tons of yellowtail fish annually in federal waters about four miles offshore.

A local research institute has proposed a new fish farm in the ocean off Bird Rock and Mission Bay, and some in the local fishing industry are unhappy about the prospect.

Sept. 24, 2020

Its backers say the 719-acre aquaculture project would create economic opportunities and provide a local source for a fish that is now mostly imported.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is serving as lead agency for the project and published a notice of intent in September to prepare an environmental impact statement for it.

NOAA then held two webinars and accepted public comment on the project throughout October.

Matt O’Malley, executive director and managing attorney for environmental group San Diego Coastkeeper, said the proposal is the latest attempt to “industrialize our ocean waters with large-scale fish farms.”

Finfish aquaculture, O’Malley said, “essentially is large pens and cages that are tethered to the ocean floor out in the coastal zone.”

“It will be visible from the coastline,” he said of the Pacific Ocean AquaFarms project. “It’s absolutely massive. We’re talking a 720-acre project within the ocean that has all these net pens laid out” to farm the projected 5,000 metric tons, “which is staggering. And if successful, it could be quite a profitable project.”

He said the location of the fish farm “is important because it falls within a federal regulatory jurisdiction and outside of the California regulatory jurisdiction.”

“California has a robust regulatory regime around aquaculture,” O’Malley said. “If this project were to be proposed within California waters, within three miles of the coast, it would perhaps not be permitted because the state is not seeking to advance aquaculture. In the federal regime, there is a lack of meaningful authority.”

The La Jolla Town Council heard comments about the proposed Pacific Ocean AquaFarms fish farm at its Feb. 11 meeting.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Fish farms “inevitably have problems,” he said, such as pollution in the water from excess food and fish feces. “There’s not a wall around this. When you put that many animals in one area, it’s been documented that there is sea lice, pathogens and disease” and that fish that escape will carry diseases to other species in the area.

Peter Halmay, a commercial fisherman and president of the nonprofit San Diego Fishermen’s Working Group, said the proposed fish farm presents “a number of environmental and socioeconomic risks.”

“It can affect a vulnerable marine ecosystem,” Halmay said.

He added that he’s concerned that “if this is allowed to go there, I envision 10 more cropping up. You’re privatizing the ocean.”

Pacific Ocean AquaFarms map

Town Council President Ann Kerr Bache said Don Kent, chief executive of Hubbs-SeaWorld, and representatives of NOAA were invited to speak at the meeting but declined.

Kent did not respond to the La Jolla Light’s request for comment. But he said in September that he hopes the fish farm “will help revitalize the seafood infrastructure down on the port, as well as provide jobs for ... people who work on the water.”

He said preliminary studies show that “if you site the farms appropriately, with the right depth and current flow, there is no degradation of the water quality, there’s not deposition of materials.”

Kate Goggin, a NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman, told the Light that NOAA, in coordination with the Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is preparing a draft environmental impact statement.

“There have been and will continue to be opportunities for public input on the Pacific Ocean AquaFarms project proposal as we develop an environmental impact statement,” she said. “Last fall, we conducted public meetings on the project proposal to gather initial input, which will inform development of the EIS. Once a draft EIS is ready, we will again seek public comments and suggestions to be sure we have considered all the relevant information and concerns.

“In addition, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency are also reviewing the permit applications for the project and will engage the public in the course of their review.”

She said a thorough project description is available online and that people can sign up for process updates, including public comment opportunities.

Some who spoke at the meeting worried about the source of food to feed the farmed fish.

O’Malley said it would deplete resources “that otherwise would be feeding our local, native fish. It leads to unsustainability.”

Bill Busch, a La Jolla resident and an “avid shore fisherman,” said: “There’s only so many anchovies in the ocean. ... The ratio of how much food you feed a finfish to how many pounds it grows is not one-to-one. It takes a few more anchovies to grow a pound of tuna. What’s going to happen if this enormous operation is basically sucking all the bait out of the system?”◆