About three miles from shore, a fishing boat tethers to an immense circular ring bobbing on the surface.

The fish pen sways with the current but is moored to the ocean floor nearly three hundred feet below. Inside the carefully structured net, hundreds of Yellowtail flash as they move effortlessly up and down the water column.

The pen casts a shadow and as with pads of broken kelp, wild fish cluster near, claiming shelter in the open sea while others shuttle beneath the pen looking for food.

This is the vision that Don Kent, CEO of Hubbs Seaworld Research Institute (HSWRI) shares with scientists, the Port of San Diego and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). While shellfish farming has been successful locally for years, ocean finfish pens would be a first for the region.

Today Americans import 90% of the seafood they consume. Fish farming could reduce that percentage and harvesting close to home would lower the carbon footprint.

How it would benefit local markets and fishermen is another question.

Eating fish is a healthy, environmentally positive option and aquaculture can make the benefits more accessible and affordable. The scientists at Sustainable Fisheries point out, “The more seafood that is eaten in place of cow, the better, since [industrial] bovine farming is the largest driver of rainforest and biodiversity loss on the planet.”

Aquaculture, the practice of growing water based species, has been going on for millennia.

A thousand years ago, the Chinese farmed freshwater fish; in the Middle Ages, people in the Mediterranean raised carp. Much later, in 1851, the State of California began regulating fisheries.

By 1970 the Aquaculture Development Act declared that “it’s in the interest of the people that the practice of aquaculture be encouraged in order to augment food supplies, expand employment, promote economic activity, increase native fish stocks…and better use the land and water resources of the state.”

California aquaculture has been in process ever since.

There have been growing pains, and well-documented aquaculture fails outside of California have left deep impressions, concerns, and mistrust.

In 2018, the only ocean-based, salmon farm in the Pacific Northwest failed and over 300,000 Atlantic salmon escaped into Puget Sound. There’s little evidence that many survived and whether they’ll compete with wild salmon has yet to be determined.

The Yellowtail that Hubbs is proposing for pens are a local species that is mostly caught in Mexico. San Diego waters, on the northern end of their habitat, are just warm enough to make farming them sustainable.

Issues and opportunities

Pen density is one of the environmental issues that local aquaculture must manage. Elsewhere around the world, packed cages have increased the risk and transmission of disease.

Kent and HSWRI scientist Mark Drawbridge have been refining aquaculture best practices and know to keep pen populations low to yield healthier fish. Since 1982, HSWRI has worked with the State’s Ocean Resources and Hatchery Program to grow and release Sea Bass raised at their Mission Bay facility for both sport and commercial fishermen to harvest.

However, HSWRI has been exporting technical knowledge as well as hatchlings across borders to operations like Pacifico Aquaculture, the striped bass farm in northern Baja California. Kent points out, “Our investment goes across the border and then we buy the product back.”

Originally the striped sea bass came to Northern California by train for the World Expo in the 1920s and were then released into the San Francisco Bay. In Southern California, the fast growing striped bass flourish in the Pacifico pens but couldn’t spawn successfully outside of their freshwater hatchery.

Pacifico founder Omar Alfi and partner Daniel Farag graduated from USC with degrees in business and private equity. Alfi felt that they “weren’t making anything tangible or impacting the world” before looking at food spaces and the growing global need for more protein. When they took over an existing northern Baja aquaculture facility that was in bankruptcy, they quickly realized that success was dependent on a closed system.

Today, the fish pens float above an offshore, submarine canyon. The health of their fishery is validated by the nearly 200 men and women they employ plus weekly water and ocean floor tests conducted by the Mexican regulatory agencies.

Other environmental concerns with aquaculture include “elevated levels of antibiotic residues, antibiotic resistant bacteria… and viruses in aquaculture raised finfish and shellfish,” as outlined in a San Diego Coastkeeper report. But not all fish farms have these problems.

In the US, much has been learned and remedied. Local operations could continue to make improvements, oversight would be easier, and the carbon footprint would be reduced by harvesting close to market. Problems with fish deformities, genetic integrity, and euthanasia have also been reported. Survival of the fittest is a hard reality in the natural world that is echoed in the practice of raising healthy, farmed fish.

Feed is 50% of the cost of aquaculture and another touchpoint in the discussion. HSWRI is interested in a fish-based diet made from byproducts, or fish cuttings that are currently considered waste.

This feed would reduce impacts on wild caught fish and keep valuable protein out of landfills. Over feeding or feed waste is not a problem for aquaculture companies like Pacifico where, employees watch a video monitor as fish pellets drop into the pens. When the fish stop feeding, they turn off the food, avoiding waste that lands on the ocean floor.

Most wild fish harvests are reaching maximum sustainable yield.

In US waters, fish stocks are managed carefully on many levels. However, imported seafood, whether wild or farmed, is not subject to the same verifications, restrictions, size and capture limits, humane labor conditions, and water monitoring regulations. Kent says, “If we farm it ourselves, we set our own standards.” We’ll know what we’re getting.

For example, fish farming could help address the confusion over labeling or fish fraud.

Initiatives like Love the Wild, a packaged farmed-fish product, endorsed by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, has labels that show where the fish was harvested.

Kent envisions a QR code system at fish counters that would disclose when the fish was caught, who caught it, and where.

Fishing jobs and the independent fisherman

Commercial and sport fishermen aren’t convinced that US aquaculture development is in their best interest and demand a place in the discussions at national and state levels. What impact fish farming will have remains to be seen but there is evidence that aquaculture pens can be fishery enhancement tools.

Pablo Sanchez-Jerez from the University of Alicante reported at the Offshore Mariculture Conference in 2010 that “the effect of attraction seems to be higher around farms than around traditional FADs (Floating Attraction Devices)…with up to 2,800 times more wild fish in their immediate vicinity compared to areas without farms.”

Hubbs scientist Mark Drawbridge agrees citing a study at their Catalina fish farm that found “pens are aggregating devices where fish seek shelter and create a thriving ecosystem, one that fishermen could utilize.”

Aquaculture is creating some fishing jobs, as Pacifico has shown, but most fishermen prefer their independence. Aquaculture might also provide stability for those in the ever-shifting industry. Kent says, “I know guys that leave from San Diego and go all the way up to Oregon to fish for tuna, and they’re tired of it. They’d like to make a living for their families here. We need the boats. We need the labor. The 75 jobs on the farms themselves aren’t guys in white lab coats. It’s going to be guys that know how to work in rough water handling product. We’ll create another 200 jobs upstream and down, directly and indirectly. That’s 300 jobs from less than one-tenth of a square kilometer of surface area in the open sea.” The farmed species could also supplement wild landings, and it’s possible that wild-caught seafood would continue its trend towards greater value.

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