By Neil Anthony Sims*
The meeting was well-enough attended, but it was a little disappointing to see how little there was that was new to talk about. There was, most notably, a very large hole in the list of attendees, and in the schedule of speakers…. not a single Norwegian salmon farmer! Sure, they’ve never shown up at Offshore Mariculture Conferences before, but we have all been staring goggle-eyed at the drawings of oil-rig structures and mega-yachts without hulls which had been gracing the pages of various publications over the preceding months. Salmar and Nordlaks had gone public with their plans for bold new expansion into the legendary “Green” concessions of Norway.
These more ambitious salmon farming companies were responding to the Norwegian government singing the alluring siren-songs of new, larger concessions (leases) and higher production quotas for operations in more exposed sites, beyond the fjords, or even out in the middle of the North Sea. We in Barcelona were all eagerly hoping to hear from some or more of these Norwegians as to how they were approaching this challenge; the where, when and how of an established fish farm industry pushing the envelope into some of the roughest waters on the planet. But they all stayed home. We were bummed. But we talked about it, all the same, as we gorged ourselves on baby octopus, calamares, and Spanish sardines, to salve our sorrows. Even if the Norwegians don’t want to talk about it, it is still tremendously exciting to see the inklings of their expansion offshore. This is validation, of the highest order, of what we have all been thinking and working towards, and talking about, for years.
Chile has also begun to look at incentives to entice their salmon farming industry into ‘more exposed waters’, if not actual ‘offshore’ aquaculture. There have been anecdotal reports among Chilean salmon farmers of lower infestation rates of Caligus (sea lice) and SRS (Salmon Rickettsia Syndrome) in farms that are in deeper water, with better circulation, so there are now public-private initiatives looking at how to best encourage this industry shift. This was even before the recent carnage from the red tides (algal bloom). There are conflicting accounts as to whether the algal bloom was equally intense in inshore areas as in offshore waters, but these arguments are largely moot: if you are moving to more exposed waters, you are probably going to want to have submersible net pens, and if you can put a cage 5 m or 10 m below the surface of the water, you are going to avoid the worst of the algal blooms (or even avoid them altogether… most blooms are confined to the upper layers of the water column).
One of the questions that keeps reverberating amongst all these discussions is: are we just going to keep talking about it, or is someone actually going to go out and do it? Sure, there have been a range of various pioneering projects around the planet over the last 10 or 15 years, but… is anyone going to go and build an offshore fish farming industry? The Norwegians certainly seem intent on doing precisely that, and before they’ve even started, they have already overcome the two primary impediments: money, and permits.
Let’s not kid ourselves: the money is critical. You cannot bootstrap an open ocean aquaculture operation. This industry will not work at small scale. You are either boots-in, neck-deep, or you aren’t in the ball-park. Even with lower oil prices and a crushed kroner, the Norwegians still have the commitment and the cash to make this work. They have seen the future of seafood, and they want to dominate the market, and the market for the technologies involved. Good luck to them! It also must help tremendously when your government is encouraging of such entrepreneurship, and makes straight the crooked permitting path.
When the question is posed to U.S. aquaculture (“Who is actually going to lead the offshore aquaculture industry in the Gulf of Mexico?”), most of us look down at our shoes, and shuffle our feet. We sure hope that someone is going to step forward, but… who is going to put down that much money on what will be, essentially, a research project? Here in Kona, our Velella Project has had some hard-won successes, but that has been in spite of the Federal permitting process, not because of it. This has been an iterative research project, far out offshore – the same species of fish that is already farmed commercially off the Kona Coast, and the same feed that is used commercially, just testing different cage designs and mooring structures. The Velella Beta-test was un-anchored; it was a transient, ethereal, nomadic net pen of 2,000 fish, that peregrinated in the eddies between 3 and 75 miles offshore. The research permit for that project took over 18 months to obtain. Our Velella Gamma-test was the very same cage, same fish, same stocking density, same feed; the only difference was that we got smarter, and decided to anchor the pen on a Single Point Mooring. This SPM was sited in 6,000 feet deep water (2 kilometers), some 6 Nm offshore (10 kilometers). The research permit for that project took a mere 23 months to be approved. We are now awaiting another permit – the Velella Delta project - for the same mooring, same fish, same feed – just a larger cage, capable of growing 15,000 fish. It has been, so far, 21 months since we first submitted the application for that research permit.
I don’t mean to use this podium to complain and bemoan our own beefs with our U.S. offshore aquaculture regulatory agencies, but there’s something deeply wrong, here. If we are going to develop an industry – any industry - then we have to be allowed to try, and to fail, and to try again. That is the course of human endeavour. It’s the only way that mankind has ever become better at anything.
I would, however, like to suggest one way that the U.S. regulatory process – and that of many other nations – could be improved, and could greatly accelerate offshore aquaculture innovation. Let’s take a leaf out of the Mexican government’s playbook. In Mexico, it is possible to obtain, with a minimum amount of paperwork and headache, what is called a “Fomento” permit. It is designed to do precisely what it says: to foment revolution, but revolution of a blue-hue. It allows for up to 12 months of non-commercial production at a specific site, using specified gear and species. It’s not “No Rules”, but it’s minimal rules, and minimum hindrance of forward progress. It is recognition of the widely-accepted fact that – so long as an aquaculture operation is of limited scale, culturing native species, and is located in a non-sensitive area – there is no chance of any significant long-term detriment. None. Zilch. Nada. All of the accumulated evidence (and it is now a vast amount of accumulated evidence – best sourced through those oft-cited gems from NOAA: Price and Morris, 2013, and Rust, et al., 2014)… all of this evidence affirms that no matter how badly awry a project goes – no matter how much immediate, ugly impact there may be on water quality or substrate health from an aquaculture experiment gone horribly wrong - that if you take the offending pen or line or raft or rack away, and leave the site alone, it will revert to its pristine state in around 6 months…. maybe 12 months, max.
So what is it that we, as a society, are so afraid of? A simple research permit process for offshore aquaculture would have no lasting negative effects. It could dramatically accelerate the learning and the growth in this much-needed industry. It could provide a stepping stone for commercial operations to test the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. And it could take all of our talking, and turn it into action. At some stage, we really do have to just do it.
Neil Anthony Sims is co-Founder and CEO of Kampachi Farms, LLC, based in Kona, Hawaii, and in La Paz, Mexico. He’s also the founding President of the Ocean Stewards Institute, and sits on the Steering Committee for the Seriola-Cobia Aquaculture Dialogue and the Technical Advisory Group for the WWF-sponsored Aquaculture Stewardship Council.