Fish Farm Threatens Coral Reef, Enviros Say

     HONOLULU (CN) - Environmentalists and native Hawaiians say the National Marine Fisheries Service broke the law to bend over for big business and issue a "Special Coral Reef Ecosystem Fishing Permit" to let private company to run a "a free-floating fish farm in a vast area off the western coast of the Island of Hawaii."
     Food and Water Watch and Kahea say the NMFS and the Secretary of Commerce issued the permit illegally, under pressure from the fish farmer, and did so without the required environmental impact study.
     Kona Blue Water Farms' 1-year permit "is the first ever commercial fishing permit issued for an aquaculture facility in federal waters," according to the federal complaint.
     Kona Blue is not named as a defendant. But the plaintiffs say Kona Blue misrepresented the scope and scale of its project and did not conduct a full environmental impact study, and that the NMFS and Secretary of Commerce failed to fully evaluate the project's effects.
     The NMFS reduced the public comment period on the project from 90 days to 10, claiming it did so to "'meet the applicable deadline for acting on the coral reef ecosystem permit,' even though the regulations for issuing a special permit provide more than 90 days for a decision to be made after an application is submitted, and, even then, they allow for a delay when issuing a permit in that time period is impracticable," according to the complaint.
     Kona Blue wants to use the area to "propagate an estimated 8,000 pounds of fish for commercial sale and distribution," according to the complaint.
     The floating fish farm would include "two spherical aquaculture cages composed of brass-mesh netting and connected by tow-lines to an eighty-foot boat. After the towing vessel and cages depart from Kawaihae Harbor in West Hawaii and enter federal waters of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone ('EEZ'), a separate vessel would pump thousands of juvenile fish from its holding tanks into both cages. Each cage was to hold approximately 3,000 almaco jack fish, or Seriola rivoliana. "Once stocked with the fingerlings, the cages would be submerged approximately 25 feet under water. Lacking any specified course, the tender vessel would then tow the cages anywhere from 3 to 150 nautical miles off the coast of the Island of Hawaii. After the completion of the fish's tenth-month growth cycle, the cages would be brought to the surface so that they could be removed and transferred to shoreside facilities, where they would be commercially distributed under the brand name, 'Kona Kampachi.' KBWF's application anticipated producing and marketing approximately 20,000 pounds of fish from this operation over the duration of the permit."
     The environmentalists say the Kona Blue pressured the federal officials to hurry up and approve it during what should have been a public comment period.
     "On several occasions during the application process, Mr. Neil Sims, co-founder of KBWF, e-mailed defendants, pressuring them to issue the permit despite only limited analysis of its likely impacts. In an e-mail to NMFS, dated February 3, 2011, Mr. Sims wrote: '[w]e have cages en route, dock space reserved. ... The machinations are all scheduled for a Feb. 21st launch date of the cages. We simply cannot defer the launch' (emphasis added). A month later, in an e-mail dated March 6, 2011, Mr. Sims reported: '[t]he net pen materials are now on the dock in KWHE .... We plan on launching the array later this week ... we cannot push back the stocking date any further.'" (Ellipses, parentheses and brackets as in complaint.)
     The plaintiffs also complain that the draft environmental assessment "framed the scope of KBWF's project as 'small-scale,' [but] the permit grants KBWF's floating fish farm access to over 7,200 square miles of federal water."
     They object that "the towing vessel and accompanying cages would be required to motor through part of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Support vessels would operate out of both Kawaihae Harbor and Honokohau Small Boat Harbor and traverse through part of Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park to reach the facility."
     The draft environmental assessment "acknowledged that this project may affect several threatened or endangered species," the complaint states. "A number of protected or endangered species dwell in the waters of West Hawaii both year round and seasonally, including: cetaceans (such as the humpback whale, sperm whale, blue whale, fin whale, and sei whale), sea turtles, seabirds, and monk seals. Numerous animals listed in the Marine Mammal Protection Act also reside here, specifically: pygmy and dwarf sperm whales, killer whales, false killer whales, pygmy killer whales, pilot whales, melon-headed whales, rough-toothed dolphins, and several species of spotted dolphins.
     "The draft EA also admitted that the facility may attract fish and other marine species, such as sea turtles and dolphins, thus acting as a fish aggregation device."
     What's more, Kona Blue already has damaged a coral reef, the environmentalists say. They say a "mishap" occurred during an "experimental phase" in March this year, as two aquaculture cages were being towed: "inclement weather snapped the rigging lines holding the two aquaculture cages to the towing vessel. Subsequently both cages were lost - one sunk in 12,000 feet of water and the other remained adrift but was unable to be immediately located or recovered. This event occurred only a few months after KBWF was fined for damaging coral reef off the Kohala coast with another aquaculture project."
     And the environmental assessment did not address for damage to the ocean floor and coral reef if it sinks, or the danger of ensnaring marine animals, according to the complaint.
     The groups say the project also will discriminate against other fishermen: "Adverse effects on commercial fishermen in the area are likely because they will be prohibited from fishing near KBWF's facility, even though KBWF's floating FAD [fish aggregation device] will be diverting their potential catch."
     Plaintiffs say the West Hawaiian EEZ waters are fishing grounds for more than 436 licensed commercial fishermen; they are not a "remote" site, as the draft assessment implied.
     And they worry about disease transfer between wild and farmed fish, pollution, waste and excess feed.
     Sea cage ocean aquaculture is still characterized as a "non-fishing" activity under Hawaii's Fishery Ecosystem Plan; not all of the nation's 8 regional fish management councils have created aquaculture plan
     The plaintiffs say the federal agencies violated the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.
     They want the permit revoked, further illegal cage enjoined, and costs.
     They are represented by David Lawton with Gallagher & Gallagher in L.A.