By Mark Drawbridge
Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute (HSWRI), a San Diego-based nonprofit marine research institute, and Cuna del Mar (CdM), L.P., a private equity firm dedicated to developing sustainable aquaculture, formed RCF to entitle, construct and operate the farm. It will be the first commercial operation of its kind in the U.S. exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The applications to agencies ranging from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (anticipated lead agency) to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to the California Coastal Commission seek permits to grow yellowtail jack (Seriola lalandi), white seabass (Atractoscion nobilis) and striped bass (Morone saxatilis) in state-of-the-art cages located 4.5 miles west of Mission Beach.
“About 91 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. – worth $14 billion annually – is imported,” said Don Kent, President & CEO of HSWRI, as well as CEO of RCF. “There is enormous need for new domestic supplies of safe, healthy, sustainable and locally sourced seafood.”
“Globally, wild fisheries are reaching their limits,” he added. “Worldwide, fully half of all seafood is now produced by aquaculture, yet the U.S. grows only 2.5 percent of its own supply. With the U.S. seafood demand projected to increase by another two million metric tons within the next decade, all signs point to the need to develop economically and environmentally sustainable domestic aquaculture. The U.S. has the largest EEZ in the world, coupled with leading technologies and scientific expertise. And organizations such as the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Dept. of Agriculture recommend Americans double our seafood consumption.”
A recent World Resources Institute report concluded that farmed fish production must increase by 133 percent by 2050 to meet projected demand worldwide. However, the U.S. has lagged in developing a robust aquaculture industry due to environmental and regulatory uncertainty.
“The time has come to launch a new industry – commercially successful and environmentally sustainable aquaculture in the U.S.,” said Robert Orr, Managing Partner of Cuna del Mar and Board Chair of RCF. “We expect the success of this project to provide a new paradigm for domestic seafood production and thereby catalyze nationwide development of the industry.”
Once operational, the farm will also create jobs in hatchery and feed production, equipment manufacturing, port facilities, seafood processing and food service, as well as reinvigorate underutilized seafood infrastructure.
If commercial offshore finfish farming has a near-term future in the U.S., the HSWRI-CdM partnership certainly looks to be a winning combination. HSWRI brings over 35 years of aquaculture experience and associated regional knowledge of the ocean environment, candidate species, regulations, and the social and political landscape. For the past 20 years, HSWRI has operated the only commercial-scale, marine finfish hatchery on the west coast of the U.S. and one of only a few in the country.
HSWRI has conducted extensive research in areas linked to environmental and economic sustainability including published research in genetics and breeding, fish health and nutrition, environmental monitoring, and engineering. HSWRI established the first demonstration cage farm for white seabass in California in 1998 with funding from NOAA’s Saltonstall-Kennedy grant program. Those cages are still in operation and used to support regional replenishment efforts for seabass.
HSWRI also has conducted larger scale growout and feeding trials in both surface and submersible cages off the coast of Mexico, partnering with existing tuna cage operators. In both cage examples, HSWRI has worked in partnership with local commercial fishermen for fish hauling and maintenance activities. This is a model that RCF plans to use, especially as it expands its operations, which will likely require large vessels and open ocean operating experience that commercial fishermen can provide.
In complementary fashion, the CdM team and its associated portfolio of companies offer extensive experience in aquaculture technology and the commercial culture of salmon and marine species like cobia (Rachycentron canadum). This includes hatchery technologies and state-of-the-art technologies for surface and submersible cages.
One of their portfolio companies, Open Blue, has a few years head start on RCF with a similar vision for sustainable hatchery and cage production of marine fish. Their target species, cobia, and location in Panama entail significant differences from RCF, but most of the operating principles will be the same relative to achieving economic and environmental sustainability.
Open Blue is already the single largest supplier of fresh cobia to the U.S. and its growth plan is ambitious. A newly constructed hatchery on the Caribbean coastline of Panama is a state-of-the-art facility that is expected to produce up to two million fingerlings when it is fully operational. Their offshore growout farm uses fully submersible sea pens in the largest deep-water, open-ocean aquaculture site in the world about seven miles off the coast of Panama.
RCF must still navigate an unproven permitting landscape for fish farming in the U.S. EEZ before it can begin executing its vision for healthful, homegrown seafood production.
While other entities have found the uncertainties too daunting, the RCF team is focused on the goal and betting that the undeniable need for sustainable seafood and national pride will prevail in launching a new ocean industry for the United States.
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Mark Drawbridge has a B.S. degree in biology and a Master’s degree in Marine Ecology. He’s currently a Senior Research Scientist at Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute in San Diego, where he also serves as the Director of the aquaculture program.