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Will experimental fish farm pave the way for privatizing federal waters?

The United States imports 90 percent of its seafood, most of it farmed and mostly from China.

By nearly any accounting, the United States has lagged in fish production even as demand has grown. In the early 1990s, the United States and Norway had similar marine aquaculture output. Now, the Scandinavian nation, with only 1.6 percent of the American population, raises about seven times as much fish. Worldwide demand for high-quality farmed seafood is rapidly increasing.

Experts predict two-thirds of edible fish will be farmed by 2030, but they frequently disagree on the best means for doing so.

This debate will come to a head Tuesday at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., the upshot of which may have significant implications for federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will hold a public permit hearing at 5:30 p.m. to consider final approval of the proposed Velella Epsilon aquaculture project.

If approved, it would be the first finfish aquaculture project in the gulf, capable of raising 20,000 almaco jack (a species similar to an amberjack) each year. It also would be the first in federal waters in the contiguous United States.

The prospective demonstration farm from Hawaii-based Ocean Era has engendered strong opposition from local residents and environmental groups, who worry that setting a chain-link mesh pen in open water 45 miles southwest of Sarasota would upset the ecosystem and establish a precedent of privatizing federal waters, paving the way for more farms.