In San Diego we are accustomed to having the bounty of the sea to fill our fridges and bellies. We are fortunate to a have a year round variety of fresh, delectable seafood; but we must be ever mindful of how we manage this resource. Our seafood consumption stands to impart permanent damage to fisheries and environments worldwide. More than ever before, sustainable seafood is one of the most important food choices we can make; but the choice isn’t always simple.

We all know fish comes in either wild or farmed form. There are vague notions that wild fish is healthy and nutritious, and farmed fish is bad, but the picture is much more complex.

Carlsbad Luna Oysters in the purge tank & workers gloves.

Some wild fish is good, but many populations are overtaxed. Some farmed fish pollutes local environments/gene pools, and consumes more protein than it produces. But some can be kept separate, or even enhance, the local environment and consumes little to no wild protein at all.

Put simply, choosing sustainable seafood means harvesting limited and measured amounts of wild fish, whose populations are strong. It also means establishing aquaculture methods that don’t destroy the environment and don’t suffer from a protein imbalance. Carlsbad Aquafarm has been working hard on the latter, for over 20 years.

John Davis founded Carlsbad Aquafarm in 1990, along with his partners at Acacia Pacific Investments. It is nestled in Agua Hedonia Lagoon, alongside an NRG power plant, a desalination plant, and the Hubbard White Seabass Hatchery. The project was originally conceived in cooperation with SDG&E. The original owners of the power plant actually sought out environmental businesses to partner in the lagoon.

Carlsbad Luna Oysters in the purge tank.
Carlsbad Black Mussels in the purge tank.
Carlsbad Luna Oysters in the purge tank.
Carlsbad Black Mussels in the purge tank.

From the beginning, Davis wanted the farm to be his “giving back” project, restoring some of the decimated sea life along our coast. He is motivated from a deep sense of responsibility, “My ultimate dream was to help restore the abalone population in California; a population that I personally helped devastate. He goes on to describe the mistakes of his youth.

“In the 50s, 60s, and 70s divers would pluck abalone off the rocks like barnacles, coming home with gunny sacks full. We didn’t realize how slowly they grow. They’re opportunity feeders. If a piece of kelp doesn’t float by, they might not eat for 8 months; then they don’t grow. And they’re broadcast spawners: sperm and eggs are shot out into the water. If there’s not another animal within about a half mile, they don’t breed.” The foot-long wild abalone harvested back then were likely 20-30 year old specimens; old breeders.

Davis is driven by his desire to replenish. “It’s absolutely staggering how much sea life comes out of the oceans to feed humans. Here, we grow seafood that does not destroy the ocean. When you buy a dozen oysters from me, that’s a dozen wild oysters that don’t get harvested. Together, that’s our gift to the sea.”

Carlsbad Aquafarm started out raising black mussels and pacific oysters; supplying restaurants in San Diego and LA. Several years ago they began selling directly to the public at local farmers markets. Recently they expanded to raising abalone and edible seaweed, and they are currently experimenting with Manila clams and scallops.

Carlsbad Mussels steamed in white wine, with saffron, mustard, shallots, and cilantro.

In spite of farmed fish’s bad reputation, farmed bivalves actually improve the local environment. Oysters and mussels are filter feeders, consuming phytoplankton and bacteria by passing water through their gills. Even pollutants are eaten (and denatured) or expelled as harmless pellets. A single oyster can filter 50 gallons of water in a day, and Carlsbad Aquafarm has millions of them. Bivalves also destroy the protein imbalance, converting microorganisms to delicious, edible protein. Since something like 80-90% of the Earth’s biomass is bacteria and plankton, filter feeders can be sustainability farmed on a massive scale.

As for flavor, freshness, and price, Carlsbad oysters and mussels can’t be beat. Every batch of Carlsbad oysters and mussels is “purged” in UV sterilized and filtered seawater, before harvest. Each batch is also tested for three major bacterial hazards before going to market; not true of other famous shellfish of the Pacific Northwest. When you buy them at market they were harvested only hours before. A dozen oysters is $10 and 2 lbs of mussels is $8. Or you can have a few oysters shucked on the spot by a professional; $5 for 3 and served over ice with your choice of condiment. Of course oyster purists take them plain and raw, savoring the juice in the shell.

As filter feeders, oysters hold a bit of seawater when they close up. They continue to filter this retained water and by the time you open them, the so-called “liquor” is the cleanest, purest seawater you can find. Fresh oysters should be brimming with liquor, and Carlsbad oysters don’t disappoint. Davis calls the first touch of liquor to the tongue the ‘taste of the sea.’ The following morsel is briny, pleasantly and subtly fishy, and minerally.

Carlsbad Black Mussels

Mussels are typically steamed, but they release their liquor to the broth, giving it a pleasant brininess. Carlsbad mussels are impeccably fresh, juicy, plump, and slightly sweet.

Next time you are considering plucking a few mussels off the rocks in OB, or contemplating that farmed salmon at Costco, think instead of Carlsbad Aquafarm. Go for the freshest, most ecofriendly, sustainable seafood in town, and help John Davis give a little back to the sea that’s given up so much already.

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