By Neil Anthony Sims*
There were over 100 delegates from 18 different countries at the biennial event. These functions are always great opportunities for connecting and conviviality, and catching-up on latest advances in the field. The last OSM was held in Izmir, Turkey, in 2012. The Izmir conference was framed by the rapid expansion of seabass and sea bream production in Turkey. One of the largest Turkish companies was at that time predicting annual growth of 40% for the coming year. And, most notably, all of this expansion was to be in “offshore” conditions – the Turkish government had mandated that new farm permits were only to be granted if they were sited at least 1 km offshore, in waters over 30 m deep, with some minimum current level.
The best measure of the success of the Turkish expansion can perhaps be seen in the recent retractions in the Greek seabass and sea bream industry, which has been beset by bankruptcy and restructuring. (Though, to be fair, there have also been other economic forces at play across Southern Europe). But Izmir did herald a greater realization by governments – or one government, at least - of the opportunities for industry expansion further offshore.
We are not sure if this message has been taken to heart in Italy. The Naples conference included presentations on novel enabling technologies that will allow the industry to move further offshore, including new moorings, net pen designs, and netting materials. The legal and regulatory frameworks for open ocean mariculture – or rather, the lack thereof, in most instances - were discussed at some length, along with the various aspects of multi-use platforms and offshore IMTA.
There was also a field trip to the Piscicoltura del Golfo di Gaeta (P2G) co-operative fish farm, which is situated about a mile off the coast. The P2G farm produces around 2,000 tons of seabass, sea bream and meagre per year, in 72 HDPE surface cages, 24 m to 28 m in diameter. P2G has built an impressive traceability program, with individual cohorts tracked throughout the whole production and distribution cycles, with real time information on batch number, quantity, feed, farming days, temperature etc. But these capabilities seem to have not been matched with any increase in capacity. Offshore production of seafood in Italy has been “stagnant, at best” reports one knowledgeable informant, “due to lack of investments and closure of smaller farms”. So we aren’t talking Turkey, here.
Plans are already afoot for the next Offshore Mariculture Conference in 2015. I’m not sure how that fits the biennial tradition, but it is scheduled for Mexico in June, so they have won me over already. And Mexico – and Latin America more broadly – is a country that “gets” the opportunity that open ocean aquaculture presents.
At about the same time that OSM was meeting, the first meetings were also convened by conference call across the U.S. to discuss the most astonishing breakthrough in five years in the American offshore aquaculture industry – or rather, the aspiring American industry; there being no commercial culture of any seafood of any kind in U.S. Federal waters (i.e. over 3 miles offshore). After more than four years of deliberation (four years! It’s not as if we have an overabundance of seafood, and we don’t really need any aquaculture!), NOAA has finally moved forward a set of draft rules for implementation of the Gulf of Mexico Regional Fisheries Management Council’s Plan for Aquaculture; the first such plan in the USA.
The way that Washington works (if that’s not too laughable a phrase, in this overly-politicized atmosphere) is that these rules now need to be reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), to ensure that they are effective and appropriate, and do not conflict with other Federal rules or regulations. To the uninitiated, this is a nervous-making process, where the procedures and practices – and the timeline to completion – are all somewhat plastic, and largely occluded from public view. So those who would like to see opportunity for aquaculture have been caucusing to review the rules, and to urge OMB to move forward, if not with alacrity, then at least with some sense of timeliness, and purpose.
The U.S. soybean industry – most capably co-ordinated by Steve Hart – has leant their shoulder to the wheel, and has roused the usually diverse and disparate interests around a single banner: The Coalition for U.S. Seafood Production (CUSP: an apt acronym, as we feel as if we have been on the cusp for some time). CUSP and the Ocean Stewards Institute (the open ocean aquaculture trade association) have been reviewing the proposed rules, and – to our great pleasure – find them almost workable.
Almost… There are some provisions that appear to be misplaced in rules purportedly designed to foster an industry, or to foster industry growth. Production by any one entity is limited to less than 6,000 tons per year. (It’s not as if we have an overabundance of seafood, and we only need a little bit of aquaculture!). That offers little in the way of scalability that might attract an investor, and let’s be real - no-one will be able to bootstrap an offshore operation; investors will be needed.
There are lots of rules on fish genetics and landing times that appear to be founded in fears that unscrupulous fishermen will try to pass off wild-caught fish as aquacultured product, and so circumvent fishing regulations. There is also a mandatory exclusion of any fishing activity within aquaculture permit areas. (What a great way to poke a stick into the hornets’ nest, and ensure that every fisherman in the country is riled up and rabidly opposed to aquaculture!). The reality – as most readers are probably aware – is that offshore aquaculture and fishing can have great synergies, with net pens in deep water acting as phenomenal Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs). Fig. 1, for example, shows our Kampachi Farms feed barge located 6 NM (10 km) offshore of the Kona Coast, in Hawaii, on a typical morning, with a plethora of commercial, recreational and charter boat fishing boats trolling and droplining for tuna, mahi and marlin.
The draft regulations also categorically exclude all aquaculture from Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), yet if you wish to set up a fish refuge, then the above-referenced FAD effects would seem to be helpful, rather than a hindrance. Excluding aquaculture from MPAs also suggests that no-one from NOAA read the National Ocean Service’s report, which concluded that so long as they are sited in waters sufficiently deep, with some reasonable current (i.e. any and all offshore sites), then net pen culture of marine fish has no significant impact on water quality or substrate, beyond a 30 m radius around the pens, and often, no measureable impact whatsoever. So what, pray tell, is the problem with a net pen in a generic MPA?
There is also a silly prohibition against genetically modified organisms or products, which would appear to preclude most of the U.S. grown agricultural proteins and oils – soy, corn, etc - as substitute ingredients for forage fish products. (Weren’t we supposed to be alleviating pressure on forage fish, by connecting America’s heartland with her blue horizons?). There’s more minutiae to moan about, but let’s give credit where it’s due: it could’ve been a lot worse. This is, as I said, almost workable. And there now lies before us an opportunity to actually establish an offshore industry that could be a template for other regions in the U.S., and for other countries. (Well, those that aren’t already growing production offshore at an annual rate of 40%!).
The future awaits us all! Onwards!
More details about the Naples conference can be found at:
The P2G operation is located within the Gulf of Gaeta, about 1.5 NM from the coast. It consists of 72 floating cages moored in parallel rows of 6. In particular, there are 10 cages of 28 m in diameter, 34 of 22 m and 28 of 16 m. The latter are used for stocking of fry, which at the size of about 30 g are moved to a larger cage where they complete their production cycle. Cages have a depth of between 5 and 10 m, depending on the size of the cage and fish populations. The P2G routinely uses 6 boats; 2 for feed administration, 2 for the maintenance and replacement of nets and one each for harvesting and underwater inspection of nets and fish.
The annual output is about 1980 tons, which guarantees a monthly harvest of about 165 tons of seabass and sea bream. Harvesting is typically done three days a week, providing customers with a product that is fresh and of high quality. The product is distributed to large supermarket chains organized under annual contracts.
Feeding the fish is a scrupulous activity, being one of the most important phases of the production process. The feed formula used is purchased at most large animal feed suppliers in Europe. The annual consumption of feed is about 4,500 tons.
The technical staff consists of 30 employees including technicians, supply officers, administrative and maintenance workers, and temporary personnel added exclusively during post-harvest packing operations.