Don Kent, President of the Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute, was standing in the seafood aisle of a Whole Foods in the affluent San Diego neighborhood of La Jolla recently when he took out his phone and snapped a photo of a fresh-looking branzino.
“Branzino is European sea bass,” Kent explained. “It’s grown in the Mediterranean. And it’s flown 6,900 miles from Greece to here and then it’s put on ice in La Jolla.”
Kent, whose organization studies the intersection of nature and human activity and offers solutions on how the two can co-exist, is one of the people who believes there’s a different way to approach how we get our protein here in the United States. He insists that there’s a new, innovative, and more efficient method of feeding people — not just in La Jolla, but all over the world. Aquaculture. Or, as it’s known to most people, fish farming.
“We spend 130 million dollars a year on air freight for the 300,000 metric tons of salmon that get flown into the U.S. from Chile. Think of the carbon footprint associated with that,” he says. “There’s absolutely no reason why that brazino shouldn’t be a white sea bass grown three miles off the coast. And then imagine the carbon footprint that’s saved in doing that.”
What, exactly, is aquaculture? The basic idea is that you’re farming aquatic life. The specifics, however, vary quite a bit. In the case of fish, eggs are fostered into small fish at a hatchery, raised for food, and farmed whenever they’re needed. The fish can be raised in tanks or in net pens, in fresh water, off the coast, or out in the open ocean. And fish are just one kind of aquaculture; a similar process is utilized to farm shellfish — like mussels or oysters — and for seaweeds.
CREDIT: Ocean Farm Technologies
Aquaculture right now is in an age of innovation. The advent of indoor tank farming is one promising way fish farming could grow. Another would be going out into the open ocean and dropping fish in large, globe-shaped aquapods down below the surface.
“Open-ocean aquaculture is one of the emerging frontiers,” says Michael Rubino, Director of the Aquaculture Office at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “There’s not much of it yet but we have crowded coastlines, we have coastlines that have a lot of new trees and they’re shallow, or they’re multiple uses, so some people think that going further offshore, you avoid those multiple use conflicts and get a more stable environment.”
Attempts to take aquaculture offshore include building farms off of decommissioned oil rigs. Farmers also hope it can help them to farm in rougher waters where weather events like hurricanes might get in the way. Some aquaculture groups even hope that there is a way to fuse offshore farms with renewable energy projects.
Spend just a few minutes reading news about agriculture and climate change these days, and you’ll understand what’s driving people to consider scaling up aquaculture: The latest report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us we’re headed toward a “breakdown of food systems linked to warming, drought, flooding, and precipitation variability and extremes.” Studies come out every week, practically, that say drought threatens our supply of key grains like wheat, corn, and rice. The warming globe is even slowing down cows’ production of milk.
And not only is our food on the fritz, but it’s causing a lot of the problems that seem to be leading to its own demise. Cows, a growing source of protein here in the United States, are major emitters of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Meat production is also a serious drain on other resources: A quarter pound of hamburger meat uses up 6.7 pounds of grains and 52.8 gallons of water. We’re paying a high price to get our protein, and all the while our population is growing at a breakneck speed. There are a lot of hungry mouths to feed. The United Nations has urged “a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products” altogether. But aquaculture might be a good stepping stone.
“Overall, if we’re going to continue to consume the amount of seafood we consume — or put more apocalyptically, if we’re going to adequately nourish the increasing number of billions of people on this planet,” Michael Conathan, Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress, told ThinkProgress, “more and more protein is going to have to come from aquaculture.”
Experts say there are myriad reasons why the world can and should shift toward getting more of its sustenance from aquaculture. For one thing, it can be much more efficient than the status quo.
“The thing about aquaculture is that from a resource efficiency perspective it’s one of the most resource-efficient ways to produce protein in terms of the amount of food and the amount of space it takes,” says NOAA’s Rubino. “Far more than land animals. You’re not using fresh water [to grow crops to feed land animals], and the feed conversion of fish is roughly one to one — one pound of food for one pound of flesh — as opposed to pork or beef where it’s seven or ten to one … So from an environmental footprint perspective, it’s very efficient. You can also grow a lot of fish in a very small space. They don’t need a lot of space whether it’s a pond or a tank, as opposed to grazing land or all the corn or soybeans that it takes to feed animals.”
As it stands now, 40 percent of the non-water surface of earth is used for agriculture. A whopping 30 percent of land that’s not covered in ice is being used not to feed us directly, but to feed the things that feed us, namely chickens, cows, and pigs. One of the effects of this is that agriculture is driving massive deforestation.
Conditions in the ocean, on the other hand, wouldn’t really need to be changed to increase the amount of farming we can get from the sea. (Of course, conditions in the ocean are changing rapidly as a result of climate change. Ocean acidification, the process by which ocean waters grow more acidic from absorbing too much carbon, threatens all species in the long-run and shell species who need certain conditions to grow shells in the immediate term. “It’s still a pretty large unknown,” says Rubino, but he “wouldn’t say it’s in the top five or ten things for most species” right now).
Sebastian Belle is the Executive Director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, and he has seen how the industry is growing into its own. Maine was the first state, and is one of the only states, to come up with a comprehensive permitting plan for aquaculture projects. And because of limits on the permits for traditional fishing, Belle says that aquaculture is drawing a younger crowd who will be the future of fish production.
“The average age of a commercial fishing permit-holder in the state of Maine is 58 years old, the average age of one of my folks is 34 years old,” Belle said. “That age is probably somewhat artificially higher because we … have the guys who got into the business 35 years ago. Many of them are in their 60s at least, so that’s artificially bringing that average age up. But if you actually exclude those first pioneers from an age point of view, our average age is lower than that, probably 31, 32. We are becoming the face of the working waterfront in the state.”
But that hasn’t eliminated challenges that farmers face when dealing with contentious coastline territory.
“One of our biggest challenges is what we call the social license to farm. We are asking for a permit to farm in public waters. And many times, the people who own property on the coast — and particularly in the state of Maine — the only people who can afford to own nice coastal property are wealthy people. And they typically don’t want to see something commercial in their viewscape,” Belle said. “They paid a lot of money for this house and they don’t want to look at something commercial, they want to look at a sunset.
“It’s almost a cultural or a class clash between working waterfronts and folks who are interested in recreational use, and that slows the whole permitting process down. It makes it difficult to get permits, it makes it very contentious and sometimes litigious. And for a small farmer — say an 18-year-old kid who’s the son of a commercial fisherman, who can’t get a license for commercial fish because the fisheries closed but he wants to start an oyster farm — if he gets sued by someone who’s retired to Maine but was a New York lawyer, he’s kind of out-gunned.”
Permitting challenges is just one of the reasons Belle would like to take more aquaculture offshore. Going further out, he explained, also helps to stabilize temperatures. And experts say that the open ocean can have other environmental benefits, too; one of the big criticisms of the industry is that plopping a bunch of fish out in the ocean means increasing the amount of waste being put into the seas. Open ocean environments can help deal with this concern by creating free-flowing water to distribute that waste evenly.
“If I go five miles out to sea, I’m in 300 feet of water that has a quarter to a half-knot current that’s consistently moving clean water across it,” explains Hubbs-Sea World’s Don Kent. “So, the water itself doesn’t accumulate the materials that the fish are producing — the metabolites, the nitrogen, the phosphorous, that they’re putting out. And it disperses the carbon waste that they’ve got coming out of them in such a manner that it feeds bottom fauna on the bottom, but it doesn’t accumulate so densely that it overpowers them. This has all been demonstrated in models, computer simulations that allow us to say, ‘if I want to grow this many fish in this location with this current, what impact do we think we can predict on the bottom?’”
Models are all that researchers have to go off when assessing the potential impact of increased fish farming, though. That’s because the United States is far from a leader in the industry — we’re way behind. Commercial fishing has remained stagnant while aquaculture is on the rise worldwide, but here in the U.S. we’re still importing farm-raised fish from other countries — places including China and Chile — instead of growing it ourselves. About 91 percent of our seafood originates abroad, and half of it comes from aquaculture.
Kent says that system won’t last too long.
“What’s happening on a global level is that the cost of seafood, because we keep seeing a need for more and more of it — populations are growing, people are eating more and more of it because it’s healthier for them — what’s happening is the economies in the world that are growing right now, like China, Brazil, where economies are starting to grow, their middle class is growing and their ability to buy seafood is increasing,” he explained. “And so the very countries like China that’s producing the majority of the seafood is keeping it now. So it’s becoming more and more expensive now for us to source the product here.”
Kent also argues that we should actually want to produce our own seafood here. From a regulatory standpoint, Americans can have more faith in the quality of fish produced under regulations from our own government. “We are importing all of this seafood but it’s impossible for us to check it all for all of these chemicals,” he said, “so who knows how it was really grown? But if it’s grown here, unless the farmer is being illegal in his operation, it’d be illegal to do it. ”
There’s plenty of opportunity for growing more protein from the sea here in the United States. Exclusive Economic Zones, EEZs, are the area of ocean over which a country has exclusive access to natural resources. The U.S. has the largest EEZ of any country on Earth. But we’re outsourcing our fish production instead of doing it ourselves. In 2010, the tiny country of Bangladesh — with an EEZ of a little over 78,000 square kilometers — produced 1,308,515 tons of aquaculture. The United States — whose EEZ is nearly twelve times the size — produced 495,499 tons.
“The parts of the world where they have to feed their people or they’re going to starve, like Bangladesh, they get it. They’re doing it,” said Kent. “The people in our country, where we’ll just go buy it somewhere else, are now having to learn the lesson the hard way. Because the sources are drying up. ”
There are complications and concerns with scaling up aquaculture, however. In some ways, it’s just like agriculture: Big Ag may supply us with affordable food, but that can be done by cutting corners or taking a serious toll on the environment. The same could be true for what’s happening in fish farming now, and some of the same big players are even involved in the industry. Christy Walton, the billionaire of WalMart fame, is deeply involved in the aquaculture game, pouring money into a group called Cuna Del Mar, where her son works, that invests in aquaculture projects around the globe. Peter Drucker, a famous management consultant credited with helping to invent the modern corporation, once said, “Aquaculture, not the Internet, represents the most promising investment opportunity of the 21st century.”
CREDIT: Cuna del Mar
“The salmon farming industry over the last couple of decades has gone from a series of small mom and pop operations to a major global industry with a few huge corporate players,” explained George Leonard, Chief Scientist at the Ocean Conservancy, a group that has long regarded aquaculture with some skepticism. “There is an ongoing debate around things like genetically engineered salmon, which is an aquaculture product. There’s an ongoing debate about whether organic aquaculture should exist and what it means.”
A longstanding concern about how to feed fish is also being met with a Big Ag answer. Since fish in nature actually eat smaller fish to get their omega-3 fatty acids and nutrients, and since that depletes already-strained wild resources, fish farming is requiring a new look at how to feed the animals. One alternative is using seaweed feeds, since they contain many of the elements that fish require. Another is using old carcasses from fish that have already gone through production. A third and newer innovation is soy-based feeds, similar to what’s currently used to feed land farm animals.
But the other big question looming over aquaculture is how to parcel out land where the farming could occur and in the U.S., the Ocean Conservancy and other conservation groups worry that we aren’t looking holistically at a solution for mapping out the sea and preempting the overcrowding on the horizon. Otherwise, they say, you can run into a situation where an illness among fish quickly spreads from one farm to another. Chile, for example, suffered a massive outbreak of infectious salmon anaemia virus (ISA) on its farms, which hurt fish production and employment prospects in the country. It’s a double-edged sword, but no antibiotics are currently permitted in the U.S. for aquaculture.
“What we want to avoid is a case-by-case, permit-by-permit approach to aquaculture. That’s what’s gotten others in trouble, because fish farms are connected to each other depending on how close they are, because of the flow of water from one farm to the next,” said Leonard. “So if you don’t take into consideration your neighbors, you can get yourself in a world of hurt, which is what happened in Chile and their salmon farming industry when the ISA virus spread like wildfire there a number of years ago. It was basically too many fish in too many cages too close to each other.”
But where the negative rhetoric around the corporatization of fish farming is true, so is the more positive. The industry, for example, has the potential to bring a significant number of jobs to the United States.
Don Kent says he’s done the calculations based on estimates that 1,000 tons of aquaculture produces about 40 jobs. “California has 37 million people in it,” he said from his office in San Diego. “If we grew all the seafood we needed for those people … we’d need something like a quarter million tons of seafood just for California. And figuring, when you filet the fish, you eat half and the other half gets thrown away — the bones and guts and everything — you’d actually need half a million tons of seafood. That’s 500,000 tons times 40. You’re talking about tens of thousands of jobs. Well over 20,000 jobs, just to feed our own people.”
And what about taste? After all, is it worth giving up parcels of our oceans and creating a whole new industry in the United States just to have some mealy, flavorless fish as a new form of protein? Kent says that’s not the only option.
“I’ve tried our fish with gourmet chefs. We grew striped bass, grown in tanks, grown with pelleted diets,” he recounted. “We gave 20 striped bass, all harvested on sequential days (so we had 20 day-old striped bass, and one day old striped bass harvested), and we had the chef from the Hyatt Regency hotel come in and do a comparison. He said, ‘Well I can really tell the difference between the 20-day-old, and the one-day-old, but I gotta tell you the 20-day-old is better than any product I could source from any provider I have right now.’”
“He wanted to turn it into a signature dish at all Hyatt Regencies in the world. “