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Go Fish?

A Look at the Debate Surrounding Pensacola’s Proposed Fish Hatchery
By Jessica Forbes

Despite its relatively unglamorous aura, the Florida Gulf Coast Marine Fisheries Hatchery and Enhancement Center — commonly referred to as “the hatchery” — has inched toward the spotlight in recent months, due in no small part to the increasing controversy it is evoking.

What grabs the attention of some previously disinterested parties is the fact that the funding for the proposed hatchery — currently estimated to be $18.8 million — would come from the first wave of money that BP has committed as part of the National Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Also significant is the proposed location of the hatchery at Bruce Beach, a city-owned, 5.5 acre piece of land on Pensacola Bay, immediately west of the Community Maritime Park and Pensacola Bayfront Stadium. If current plans took shape, the city would lease the property to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) for $1 a year for 50 years. FWC would operate the hatchery, where sport fish would be hatched, grown to a small size, and then released at locations throughout the Northern Gulf.

The hatchery is one of 44 Phase III Early Restoration projects proposed and would utilize approximately $18.8 million of $58 million that has been allotted for 30 projects in Florida, part of the $627 million dedicated to Phase III projects in the five affected states along the Gulf of Mexico.

NRDA is a process required by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, enacted in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. One of the act’s primary intents is “to restore natural resources that are injured and services that are lost as a result of oil spills.”

On April 20, 2011, exactly one year after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig and the beginning of the oil spill, BP agreed to pay up to $1 billion toward Early Restoration projects as part of the spill’s NRDA.

The Early Restoration money — two phases of which have already rolled out — allows the trustees to move forward in addressing injuries caused by the spill while the extent of the injuries is still being determined, meaning the $1 billion already agreed upon is effectively a down payment on whatever ultimate amount the NRDA trustees conclude will restore the Gulf to its pre-spill condition.

The proposed Florida Gulf Coast Marine Fisheries Hatchery for Bruce Beach would be the first of its kind in Florida, an “enhancement facility” for raising stock fish for recreational angling, where fish are spawned and raised to small size, then released into the wild “to enhance existing populations.”

Since final approval is pending until after the public comment period closes, no engineers or architects have been enlisted for project design purposes. Conceptual plans FWC presents intend for the tanks where the fish would actually be raised — up to 5 million small fish a year — to be located entirely indoors. The effluent from the hatchery would be treated and then discharged into a pond and marshes constructed outside of the building, which are planned to connect with existing marshes on the site. Aquatic plants in the marshes would act as filters before the water would, eventually, be discharged into the bay.

And while several local sports fishermen support the initiative as a way to enhance the multi-billion dollar a year recreational angling industry in Florida, independent environmental scientists have been raising concerns, citing dubious results from similar hatcheries in other states, and contending that improving water quality and habitat should take priority over simply introducing more fish into the Gulf.

At this point in the process, the money for the hatchery has been allocated, but not awarded. The project is in its public review/comment period through February 19.

As with many projects, politics, science and public opinion are converging in the debate. And for the next few weeks that debate will continue and call into question whether an experimental hatchery facility best addresses issues in the Gulf resulting from the oil spill.

The Plan
“The project is a Gulf-wide project,” explained Gil McRae, the director of the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI), headquartered in St. Petersburg, Fla.  “The siting of the hatchery in Pensacola is just because we’ve talked to the city in the past about potentially putting a facility there, but we will be looking at potential release sites throughout the Northern Gulf.”

The thought is that the stocking of fish raised at the Florida Gulf Coast Marine Fisheries Hatchery will compensate for “lost recreational use” in the Gulf caused by the BP oil spill by restoring the opportunity for recreational angling caused by closure of the waters, and also damage to public perception of the health of the Gulf and its impact on sports fishing.

Lost recreational use is one of the affected areas identified by the NRDA trustees for restoration. McRae explained that closing the Gulf to fishing had a significant economic impact, which is why the Early Restoration projects focus on that category. “We know there is significant injury in that category, and that the crediting we give BP for these early restoration projects in that area is not going to exceed the ultimate injury.”

The trustees are representatives from federal and state agencies who are designated to act on behalf of the public to assess damages caused by spills and implement restoration of the injured natural resources and services.

BP and the Deepwater Horizon NRDA trustees — representatives from each affected state, and from federal agencies including the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — must negotiate and agree on each of the projects to quantify their merits in a “crediting” system, which allows BP to offset a portion of their total liability.

Florida’s trustee is Mimi A. Drew, special advisor to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) Secretary Herschel T. Vinyard, Jr. and co-trustee is Nick Wiley, Executive Director of the FWC.

The BP funding would allow FWC to expand its Florida Marine Fisheries Enhancement Initiative (FMFEI) including stocking projects and habitat restoration.

FWC currently operates the Stock Enhancement Research Facility (SERF) in Manatee County, a research hatchery that has been in operation since April 1988. It is the only saltwater hatchery that the state operates, and is not set up for the large-scale production planned for the Pensacola facility.

“This is part of a bigger effort that we’ve rolled out over a number of years,” McRae told the crowd at a public meeting at Sanders Beach Community Center in September 2013. “This project has been conceptualized for a long time. Only recently have we sort of brought it to the point where it’s ready to be shown to the public and get your opinion on it.”

An educational component is also planned for the hatchery to draw visitors to the facility.

“We’re going to do everything we can to expand and build as much of that education and outreach into the project as we could,” McRae stated. “It’s not something we could really get BP to agree to in the crediting context of the project, so we’re looking for partners to come in and help us expand that component.”

Part of the anticipated collaborations for educational efforts would include documenting the history of the property, which, for many years under segregation, was a beach designated for African-Americans and served as a community gathering place.

“We’re committed to working with the community to make sure that historical use is properly recognized as part of this project,” McRae said in September. “We intend to partner with universities and other research organizations to run this. We don’t want this to be a fully government-run operation. We want it to be a partnership and part of the community.”

As for the science, McRae stated that of the experiments based from SERF, releasing redfish into Tampa Bay has been the largest to date. “We got a real good idea of the best combination of size of fish to be stocked, the habitats to place them in and the timing relative to the seasonality the fish normally experience.

“We’re going to have a very extensive post-stocking monitoring program to evaluate stocking as a management tool. We want to build the body of science and get ready for that increasing trend in angling that we know is going to continue to go up,” McRae said.

FWC has regularly named three species — red drum (redfish), spotted sea trout and flounder — as potential initial focus species for the hatchery. As McRae explained, they have the production and monitoring methodology worked out for those species. FWC is welcoming input from local anglers as well, taking suggestions of species they would like to see raised at the facility.

McRae explains that all fish raised in the hatchery, after being certified as healthy by an aquatic veterinarian, would be released only in areas where “high quality” habitat — submerged seagrass — exists, to provide the fish a place to hide from predators and eat.

FWC presently envisions a system of three hatcheries serving as “core facilities” for enhancement programs, one in the Panhandle and one each on the east and west coasts of Florida. The Pensacola facility is the only one to reach the current level of conceptualization and possible funding. “As we learn more about what we’re able to do in Pensacola, we’ll probably adjust our thinking on the nature of those other core facilities and what they focus on and what their production capacity would be,” McRae said.

“The reality is, depending on what species we raise and again, we’re leaving that open because we want the local fishing community to be involved in that decision, we’re going to be going to different places and different habitats.”

The Pros
The word “hatchery” has been in the air in Pensacola to some degree since June 2011. At that time, only two months after BP had agreed to pay up to $1 billion for early restoration projects under NRDA, Mayor Ashton Hayward called a special meeting of the City Council, asking that they grant approval for him to begin lease negotiations with FWC for the property at Bruce Beach. After a presentation by Brett Boston of the Wildlife Foundation of Florida, the non-profit affiliate of FWC, mention that Walton County was reportedly interested in the facility and that a vote was needed in order for FWC to proceed with applying for NRDA funds or the opportunity would be lost, the council approved the negotiations.

Mike Williamson, a local lifelong fisherman, first heard of the hatchery plans in 2011 and remembers being enthused about the project from the start. “When we first heard about it, it was right at the very beginning. I actually went to a town hall meeting about two years ago and spoke and told the mayor about Cobia, that we ought to look at raising these.”

Williamson formed “Think Cobia,” a group dedicated to promoting Cobia enhancement, and began speaking about the species’ plight regularly. “Cobia has been in decline for years, even before the oil spill. The heart of the breeding migration was in the oil field at the time of the oil spill,” Williamson said. “Of all the fish that got hurt in this oil spill, Cobia was probably one of them that got hurt the worst.”

As a host of “Catchin’ Fish,” a television show on Blab TV, Williamson said he and co-host Bill Menges have become “the face of the pro-hatchery movement.” After speaking at a town hall in late 2013, Williamson said City Administrator Colleen Castille approached him and asked if he’d share his views on the hatchery before City Council.

“There had been somebody on a regular basis, for several months, going down there and badmouthing the hatchery; come to find out it was Bill Young. So she asked me if I would go down there and speak, just so that they would see that there are some other people that have a different view of this thing.”

Williamson has spoken before council about the hatchery since Castille’s invitation, which he reciprocated, offering the mayor a chance to discuss the project on “Catchin’ Fish.” Mayor Hayward accepted and appeared on the show in January. Williamson also serves as a fill-in host on Florida Sportsman Radio, and in January had both McRae and Don Kent the president and CEO of Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute (HSWRI), a partner in the hatchery project, as guests.

Talking with “all the key players” like Kent and McRae, Williamson said he’s taken a crash course on hatcheries in the last month and is hoping to encourage fellow fishermen to voice their opinions on the hatchery, as well as the species of fish that they’d like to see raised there.

And while Williamson is an advocate for Cobia, he said he supports the hatchery even if that particular species is never raised there. In speaking with McRae, Williamson is aware that Cobia, a species the agency has not previously worked to raise and stock, would be a challenge for FWC. If Cobia weren’t a possibility, Williamson named sea trout and flounder as species he believes needs a boost and which FWC has also mentioned as an inshore species they could work with.

“A lot of the opposition, they’re spouting things about this fish hatchery that aren’t true. First of all, this money was negotiated from BP, and it cannot be used for anything else, so if we decide that we don’t want to do this hatchery we don’t get that money to do something else,” Williamson said. “BP likes the idea. BP still has their fingers pulling the strings on these things, because they have control of that money, and they’re wanting to replace things that the recreational fishermen had damaged during the oil spill.”

Williamson said he acknowledges concerns about degraded underwater habitat, like seagrasses, but points out that there are restoration projects included in the NRDA plans. The hatchery, in comparison to those projects, is getting a larger chunk of change, however.

But criticism of the hatchery’s economic impact — a jobs estimate was originally 80, but has since been revised to 10 to 12 full-time positions — also frustrates Williamson, who sees the project as serving a purpose far beyond the community of Pensacola.

“Look at Project Greenshores. That’s a project that all your environmentalists and everybody loves, it didn’t create any jobs, it didn’t raise any taxes — it wasn’t supposed to. This hatchery is the same way. It’s not about jobs, it’s not about tax dollars. The truth of the matter is the fishing industry is a five billion dollar a year industry here in Florida, and this is a cog in the machine of the fishing industry that’s going to help jumpstart a lot of stuff.”

Williamson, who will speak at an event the League of Women Voters (LWV) is hosting regarding the hatchery on Thursday, Feb. 6, is looking forward to discussing the issues about the hatchery with others who have also been actively participating in the dialogue, including those who are not in favor of the project.

“With this big opposition that has kind of come out of nowhere in the last month, I’m really shocked because, you know, the truth of the matter, this thing’s free,” Williamson said.

The “free money” aspect of the project is a focus of Mayor Hayward as well, who, when addressing the panel at a NRDA public comment meeting on Feb. 3, emphasized, “We should not look a gift horse in the mouth—a billion dollars that we’re going to be able to take a big share of for our community.” Saying he was “100 percent in support of the hatchery,” Hayward stated, “We’re going to take a disaster and we’re going to turn it into a positive for Northwest Florida.”

“It’s got an impact in this community,” stated Castille—who served as served as Secretary for FDEP from 2004 to 2007—at a recent “Mornings with the Mayor” press event. “When you have a fisheries enhancement center and you have hatchery raised fish, just the perception that you are restocking and restoring the whole area brings fishermen to this community,”

While none of the proponents have projected the economic impact the hatchery may have on the recreational fishing industry of late, many are operating on the notion that it will be significant, and as a result, are viewing the project as a boon for both the Gulf region and Pensacola. “I’d hate to see just a handful of folks mess this up because this is something big, it’s something we will be proud of,” said Williamson.

The Cons
Bill Young, who Williamson mentioned as the opposition who speaks at city council, is a fishery biologist and vocal critic of the hatchery.

Young previously worked in fisheries management and conservation. He also led the failed effort to convert the ECUA Main Street Wastewater Treatment Plant into an aquarium, but hasn’t given up advocating for a similar project to be realized on Pensacola’s waterfront, maybe even at Bruce Beach, if the hatchery plans were to fall through.

“After failure with the aquarium project, I wasn’t ready to jump at another cause and needed some time off,” said Young. “The aquarium project took a lot of my time, energy and money. But I learned from it.” After hearing of plans for the hatchery, Young decided to speak up once again. “They are interpreting mitigation for lost fishing opportunities very narrowly to support their own agenda,” he stated.

Having taken some time away from the fray, Young first started speaking out about the proposed FWC facility in 2013 after researching hatcheries, a topic that periodically captured his interest as a student and later professional biologist.

“I would replace the hatchery with a facility to support habitat restoration work,” Young said of his conclusion for a more effective approach to boosting fish populations. “More is needed in educating the public in the areas of marine/estuarine ecology, marine conservation and water quality protection. So, in conjunction with habitat restoration, I would expand on an education and visitor center that would include an aquarium.”

Young, like several other environmentalists speaking out, said more attention and funding should be given to addressing the loss of seagrass, the underwater plant habitat where many inshore fish spawn and eat, which is largely the result of poor water quality in many bays.

“All of the bay systems of the Panhandle have lost a significant area of seagrasses, with losses ranging 30 percent to 90 percent, and don’t have the carrying capacity to support the targeted fish species — seagrass dependent — to be released from the hatchery,” Young stated.  “A bottom-up approach of restoring lost seagrasses benefits not only the targeted sport fish species, but many other non-sport fish species and other organisms, as well. Also, of particular importance, is that it benefits the forage fish that the sport fish feed on.”

Young, like other independent local scientists, also contends that the success of hatcheries in enhancing rather than replacing existing fish populations is uncertain.

“Marine fish hatcheries like that proposed for Pensacola have been operating in South Florida and Texas for 25 to 30 years, releasing millions upon millions of sport fish without evidence of boosting the fish populations,” Young stated. “The hatchery and its promotion distracts from the real problem and forestalls the real solution, that being seagrass habitat restoration.”

“We all want more sport fish and better fishing that will restore the lost human use. I propose that a much better way to get there is to improve water quality and restore seagrass and oyster reefs,” Christian Wagley, another environmentalist said, echoing Young’s beliefs. “It’s the environment, not how many fish are released that determines the size of fish populations.”

Wagley is an environmental and green building consultant with a master’s degree in biology/coastal zone studies. Active in local environmental issues — he is the Environmental Representative on the county’s RESTORE Act Advisory Committee and served on the mayor’s Urban Redevelopment Advisory Committee (MURAC) — Wagley said he first learned of the hatchery at the June 2011 special meeting.

“I remember thinking at the time that it didn’t make any sense,” Wagley said. “Our bays are in such bad shape that it will take decades of work in order to significantly restore that missing habitat. I wrongly assumed that the project would never advance and be funded through the NRDA.”

Like Young, Wagley went to work researching hatcheries throughout the U.S. and came to the conclusion: “There is a dramatic difference between the public’s opinion of hatcheries, and the results of scientific studies assessing their effectiveness.”

One of the examples Wagley gives is of Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute’s work with the Ocean Resources Enhancement and Hatchery Program (OREHP), a partnership with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which marked the release of the 2 millionth white sea bass in June 2013.

“Biologists working for the State of California have not determined that the 20 year program to enhance white sea bass with hatchery-raised fish is working, and they do not include it in the management plan for white sea bass,” Wagley stated, citing a 2010 California Department of Fish and Game Marine Region report.

Regularly speaking before the City Council and at other meetings, Wagley — along with Young and others — will also present at the LWV’s Feb. 6 meeting to share his research and concerns.

“Marine fish hatcheries are at best experimental,” Wagley stated. “An experiment in restoring lost use is a long way from restoring lost use, especially when improving water quality and fish habitat are proven ways to enhance fish populations. That’s the ultimate tragedy in the hatchery proposal — that it would give BP credit for restoring the damages they caused, when the scientific evidence strongly indicates that it will not.”

Other Protests
Of the five affected states receiving NRDA funds, saltwater fish hatcheries were proposed in Louisiana and Florida.

The Louisiana Wildlife Federation (LWF) on March 11, 2012 adopted a resolution against the construction of a proposed Louisiana Saltwater Fish Hatchery stating it is “opposed to the use of NRDA oil spill mitigation monies, Conservation Fund dollars, or other public funds for the construction or operation of a saltwater fish hatchery,” and that NRDA funds “should be applied to projects that have broad scientific support and provide maximum benefits.”

LWF then wrote a letter to the NRDA trustees in August 2013 explaining their position further.

“I expect that affiliates will always talk about the need to restore habitat whenever the subject of hatcheries arises,” said Jessica Koelsch of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).  LWF is an affiliate of NWF, for which Koelsch serves as the Florida Policy Specialist for Gulf of Mexico Restoration. Koelsch explained that hatcheries are one part of what the parent organization is examining in the context of the NRDA process.

“We do not have a formal position on the effectiveness of hatcheries; however, we continue to look for (and not find) the science behind the decision to use hatcheries to restore either ecological damages or to replace loss of human use,” said Koelsch. “One of the main points that we re-iterate is that a hatchery is not the end-all, be-all to create more fish — there needs to be adequate habitat and water quality to support healthy fish, especially in estuaries, which are the nursery areas.”

Koelsch said a beach access project in Navarre Beach is also generating concerns, as it will likely have a detrimental impact on birds, but could be addressed relatively easily.  “I would hope that the trustees will modify projects in response to public concern, especially where it is easy to address — such as moving a walk-way to an area that is not bird nesting area, et cetera — but I do not anticipate there will be massive revisions to the project list or details.”

Under Review
Discussion of the hatchery’s merits has ramped up as the end of the public review and comment period for the NRDA Phase III Early Restoration plans, of which the hatchery is a part, draws near. Open since December 2013 when the Draft Programmatic and Phase III Early Restoration Plan and Draft Early Restoration Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement were released, the comment period end date was originally scheduled to be Feb. 4, but in January the NRDA trustees extended it by 15 days (to Feb. 19).

Increased opportunity for discussion and comment is something city councilmember Sherri Myers feels could improve the NRDA process and hatchery discussion.

“I’ve gotten a lot of comments from just ordinary, everyday citizens who are not environmentalists who do not speak favorably regarding the hatchery,” Myers said. “I think that the public needs and deserves to have this issue vetted fully.”

Though the mayor remains staunchly in favor of the hatchery plans—recently emphasizing educational opportunities and partnerships at what he envisions to be a “flagship facility” in newsletters and press events—part of the vetting Myers would like to see is increased attention from the city’s Environmental Review Board (EAB). Myers sponsored an item before the City Council, which the governing body approved unanimously on Jan. 23, requesting that the EAB review the potential environmental issues associated with the proposed hatchery facility.

“At the time the council approved the mayor negotiating the lease at Bruce Beach, we did not have an Environmental Advisory Board that was operational,” Myers stated. “I feel like if we are going to be doing environmental projects, regardless of whether they’re funded with BP [money] or not, I feel like they should be vetted through our Environmental Advisory Board.”

The EAB, an all-volunteer board, will have 90 days from its Feb. 26 meeting to report back to the city council or request more time for review. The EAB is tasked only with assessing potential environmental impacts of available plans and informing council what those impacts might be. Until the project clears the NRDA process, the lease negotiations between the city and FWC are on hold.

“It may be a great project; I’m not saying it isn’t, I don’t know. I just don’t have enough facts to make a determination at this point whether it’s feasible from an environmental perspective or whether it’s a good use of that land,” said Myers.

The Future
While it is still in the conceptual phase, other aspects of the hatchery plan are starting to take shape.

Dr. Richard Podemski, Associate Vice President for Research at UWF, stated that the university’s role in possible research at the facility is something Provost, Dean and Department Chairs on campus will be considering, possibly utilizing new and existing faculty, as well as graduate students.

“Some of the educational areas where there may be synergy between the project and the university are environmental sciences and biology. While this is not a UWF project, it is part of our service mission and responsibility to provide access to and support for research activities that may be beneficial to the region,” Podemski stated.

When the comment period for the Phase III Early Restoration plan closes, the NRDA trustees will review all of the public comments received and will finalize projects to receive funds. The public is also invited to suggest their ideas for restoration projects to the trustees, with forms available online.

Should the project be approved as part of the final Phase III Early Restoration projects, the $18.8 million is expected to cover the cost of construction and first five years of the facility’s operation. After the first five years, McRae stated that FWC is committed to funding the project from that point forward.

If BP and the NRDA trustees do no approve the project, Pensacola simply won’t be the site of a hatchery funded by Early Restoration monies.

The NRDA Early Restoration money is not the last round of BP money up for grabs. In addition to expected future payments under NRDA once the total injury to the Gulf is assessed, BP is also liable for fines under the Clean Water Act. The RESTORE Act was passed to structure how the Clean Water Act funds will eventually be distributed to affected states, but as the fine amount has yet to be determined, no funds have been distributed.

Initial estimates predict Escambia County’s share of eventual RESTORE Act dollars would be between $100 and $200 million, and those funds would be applied to projects reviewed by the county’s RESTORE Act Advisory Committee and ultimately chosen by the Board of County Commissioners.

And while maybe not glamorous, the hatchery puts numerous issues related to Pensacola’s development and the Gulf of Mexico’s recovery at the forefront; whether the proposed hatchery will be part of either of those things remains to be seen.

As for FWC, they are, of course, hoping Pensacola will soon be home to the hatchery. McRae said the agency looks forward to expanding research and determining whether hatchery-based stock enhancement will be an effective tool in keeping the recreational fishing industry, an important part of Florida’s economy, growing. “Is this going to be a tool we need 25, 30 years from now? We don’t know,” McRae stated. “But if we don’t get started now, we won’t have a chance to find out.”

The public can submit comments about the Draft Phase III Early Restoration Plan and EIS online, at gulfspillrestoration.noaa.gov, or by mail: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, P.O. Box 49567, Atlanta, Ga. 30345. The current phase of the NRDA public comment period closes on Feb. 19.

LEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS FISH HATCHERY PRESENTATIONS AND DISCUSSION
WHAT: Speaker presentations and question and answer sessions regarding the proposed Florida Gulf Coast Marine Fisheries Hatchery and Enhancement Center
WHERE: West Florida Public Library, 239 N. Spring St., Meeting Room “B”
WHEN: 10:30 a.m.—1p.m. (Morning Session) and 5—7:30 p.m. (Evening Session) Thursday, Feb. 6
COST: Free and open to the public
DETAILS: lwvpba.org

Morning Session Speakers:
Barbara Albrecht, President, Bream Fishermen Association
Fred Garth, Guy Harvey Magazine
Gil McRae, Director, FWC-FMRI
Christian Wagley, Principle, Sustainable Town Concepts
Bill Young, Fisheries Biologist

Evening Session Speakers:
Barbara Albrecht, President, Bream Fishermen Association
Glenn Conrad, Pensacola Recreational Fisherman’s Association
Bill Menges, “Catchin’ Fish” Show, BlabTV
Christian Wagley, Principle, Sustainable Town Concepts
Mike Williamson, “Catchin’ Fish” Show, BlabTV
Bill Young, Fisheries Biologist