Fish hatchery for beach tough to land

The recent suggestion that Navarre Beach could be the new site of Pensacola’s proposed-but-troubled fish hatchery project isn’t gaining support.

Since December, when County Commissioner Rob Williamson floated the notion of moving the planned site of the controversial Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission hatchery, the realities of funding needs and bureaucratic complexities have surfaced.

Williamson said the 26,000-square-foot hatchery—which would raise sport fish for release into the Gulf of Mexico—might be a good fit on county-owned land at Navarre Beach. He reasoned there’s more room for it than on the current planned site on a narrow strip of shore near downtown Pensacola—a location opposed by some City Council members and in a pending lawsuit filed by two businessmen.

But hooking the hatchery for Navarre Beach would require dropping a line into murky bureaucratic and political waters.

No nibbles

For starters, there isn’t a clear precedent for reallocating the $18.7 million in BP oil spill compensation money that is supposed to pay for the hatchery. Most of the money is authorized as a Natural Resource Damage Assessment grant, which required Pensacola officials to gain approvals from five Gulf Coast states, federal officials and trustees of the BP funds set aside for restoration projects.

Responding to a Navarre Press query, Santa Rosa County Grants and Special Programs Manager Erica Grancagnolo said, “…I am not aware of a process for reassigning a NRDA (BP oil spill) project to a new recipient.”

Don Gaetz, the former Florida Senate president who has been appointed by the state Legislature to chair Triumph Gulf Coast, the organization assigned to oversee BP oil spill funds in Northwest Florida, replied to a reporter that the fish hatchery’s funding doesn’t come under his agency: “Triumph Gulf Coast, which I chair, is not a player in the fish hatchery issue.”

The hatchery’s leading proponent, FWC Director Gil McRae, declined to comment on the possibility of a new hatchery location “… due to the fact that we are in litigation on this project…”

When the Pensacola hatchery was proposed following the 2010 BP oil spill, McRae’s optimism included the possibility of building several more hatcheries around Florida after the one in Pensacola. But since then dozens of competing projects, from oyster farms to sea grass planting, have emerged in competition for the BP funding.

To be sure, the hatchery has both economic and educational promise. As designed, it would employ 15 workers and produce up to 5 million sport fish a year to boost the saltwater angling industry that economists estimate accounts for more than 60,000 jobs in Florida and more than $1 billion in state tax revenue.

But given the challenges to get the hatchery project moved to Navarre Beach and funded there, Williamson’s idea seems unlikely. He said in December that he planned to meet within a few days to speak with state officials in Tallahassee about prospects for relocating the hatchery. But if Williamson did have any meetings he has since grown silent on the subject—not responding to this newspaper nor offering details to commission colleagues.

Indeed, District 1 Commissioner Sam Parker replied to a reporter’s text last week: “I haven’t heard anything further since his comment…that one time in our (December) meeting.”

As seen in the Jan. 18 issue of Navarre Press. Click here to subscribe for as little as $38 per year.

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