By Neil Anthony Sims*
I know, I know… I’m as guilty as the rest of you. Actually, I’m probably waaaay more guilty than most of you. A lot of the talk, of late, has been inspired by the long-longed-for set up of the permitting pathway for aquaculture in Federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico. This was the topic of a gabfest at the World Aquaculture Society meeting in lovely Las Vegas. Jenny Molloy of EPA and Jess Beck-Stempert of NOAA’s South-East regional office bravely faced a crowd of the curious and the critical, and answered most of the curve-ball questions with confidence, if not aplomb. The Army Corps of Engineers were also represented, and outlined their permit process, but that largely flows from the NOAA Environmental Assessment. All of these various agencies have clearly spent a lot of time trying to anticipate every possibility, but it’s a little like engineering an aircraft, or building a boat, or having a baby: at some stage, you just have to do it – take off / launch it / or birth them, and hope that it flies / doesn’t sink / has ten fingers and ten toes. And if not, you just figure out what’s wrong, and try to fix it and move forward. At some stage, you have to stop talking about it, and – as the sneaker people say – just do it.
Susan Bunsick of NOAA’s national aquaculture office later gave a presentation on the “emerging roadmap” of the process, and the complexities of co-ordinating the various agencies. It is a daunting prospect, no matter how you paint it. Other folk also spoke in various other sessions scattered throughout the schedule; there was strangely no specific open ocean aquaculture session. Langley Gace proudly showed InnovaSea’s plans for a 14,500 cubic meter Sea Station, with copper-alloy mesh materials, and spoke of the forthcoming SS22000 (i.e. 22,000 cubic meters). That’s a significant – and highly commendable - step up in cage volume, which addresses in spades the oft-muttered mantra about small cage volumes and operational inefficiencies offshore.
Kelly Stromberg outlined Catalina Sea Ranch’s mussel farming plans off Long Beach, in California. One of the beauties of culturing a bivalve is that as an unfed (or rather, naturally-filter-fed) organism, the potential environmental impacts are almost all beneficial. After all, who wouldn’t want cleaner water? Well, as they say, you would be surprised. The permitting pathway – even for a mussel farm – has proven deeply problematic. Sigh.
Diane Windham, the Southwest Regional Aquaculture Coordinator for NOAA, described the growing interest in offshore aquaculture in Southern California, including various harbour agencies, who presumably see aquaculture as a way to maintain working waterfronts for their communities…. and yes, I’m sure, revenues for their coffers. Paula Sylvia – formerly of HUBBS and various tuna ranching exploits - was also present; she is now representing the San Diego Port Authority in their quest for aquaculture clients. So clearly, someone, somewhere, must think that someone else has some chance of something happening, right?
There is frequent hand-wringing about the genetic impacts of offshore aquaculture fish escapees on wild stocks. This is part of the reason why the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Plan for Aquaculture goes into so much minutiae over the source of broodstock for producing fingerlings. Some of us sceptics have long looked askance at this thinking. Sure, genetic blurring is a conceivable risk for salmon, where you have a high degree of genetic granularity between stocks, even in adjacent watersheds. But c’mon… we’re talking marine fish, here! They are birds of a markedly different feather; a different kettle of fish. Most of these species are broadcast spawners. A marine fish spawning aggregation is an oceanic orgy, where foreplay consists of asking “Who’s next?!”, or sometimes not even asking. The eggs and larvae drift for days… weeks… sometimes months!… in the oceanic eddies and gyres, before the fry settle out of the plankton wherever they can find a place to call home. Fish such as cobia and Almaco jacks – the prime candidates for offshore culture - wander the seas ad libatum – perhaps not migratory, per se, but just unfettered by any deep affinity for place. So how much damage can a few (or a few thousand) cultured fish wreck on a wild marine fish stock?
This question was addressed with some solid science, and not just hyperbole, at the Las Vegas meeting. Monica Solberg from Norway had looked at potential farmed salmon impacts on the already depleted wild Atlantic salmon stocks. Some salmon farmers are expending considerable effort to get in front of these issues, with six farms reportedly testing triploid-sterile fish, and with Norway’s IMR research institute testing mechanisms for genetic sterilization: CRISPR neutering, and the like (which even the deepest die-hard against GMOs would be hard-pressed to oppose, as it is clearly not an inheritable trait!). Tanya Darden of South Carolina’s Marine Resources Research Institute reported on a Cobia Genetic Risk Assessment, and Kristen Gruenthal, who works as a consultant to NOAA’s Office of Aquaculture, reported on the OMEGA project - Offshore Mariculture Escapes Genetics Assessment… (Dang, but I love a great acronym!). This is a model that assesses the actual genetic impacts of escapees, given the size, survival, and fitness of escapees, and the numbers of those let loose, and those upon which they are loosed. The latter is clearly a paramount concern: if you have a robust wild stock, it’s pretty impregnable (in the fullest sense of the word).
And it’s not just preventing bad: lots of good can also be done with genetics: Dane Klinger of Princeton reported a 113% improvement in growth rate of Atlantic Salmon through selective breeding over five generations. We all wanna get us some of that, right?
On the Wednesday night of WAS there was also the traditional Annual Membership Meeting and soiree of the Ocean Stewards Institute – the open ocean aquaculture trade association. This was perhaps by a factor of two, the best attended meeting in Stewards history, which reflects the increased interest in the space… the metaphorical space of offshore aquaculture, and the physical space, further offshore, in deeper waters.
The keener interest in offshore aquaculture had also been a recurring theme at the Seafood Summit, which had convened several weeks previously, in Malta. There were some peculiar parallels here: it was 10 years since the first offshore aquaculture panel graced a Seafood Summit, and it was about the same time since the Offshore Mariculture Conference convened in a nearby hotel a few bays around the coastline from the Seafood Summit site. Your humble correspondent had been one of the “Offshore Aquaculture” panellists at the 2006 Seafood Summit, which was held in that redoubt bastion of anti-aquaculture activism - Seattle. My co-panelists back then consisted of an Alasakan salmon fisherman, and Becky Goldburg from Environmental Defense Fund, and the panel was chaired by the legal counsel to Food and Water Watch. (You think I’m joking, right?… no, indeed! ‘Tis true!). While it was not exactly a tarring-and-feathering, the audience back then was not particularly warm to the idea of sullying their pristine seas with fish farms.
Well, what a difference a decade makes! The 2016 Seafood Summit panel on Offshore Aquaculture was chaired by Dr Konstantine Rountos of St. Joseph’s College, in New York, who is working alongside one of the other panellists, Donna Lanzetta, in developing a project to culture striped bass offshore of Long Island, NY. Also sitting on the panel was David O’Brien, the Deputy Director of NOAA’s Office of Aquaculture, and yours truly. The atmosphere in the room in Malta was diametrically opposite to the lynch-mob in Seattle: even the conservation group representatives in the audience were supportive of expansion beyond the nearshore. They could hardly have demurred: in the Seafood Summit keynote the preceding morning, Prof. Steve Gaines of University of California Santa Barbara presented compelling evidence of the global need to shift animal protein consumption away from lard-laden, methane-pumping terrestrial critters towards seafood. And – (Hey! Oceana! Please take note!) – Prof. Gaines relayed a global assessment that concluded that even if all wild stock fisheries management was optimized from here onwards (And what are the odds of that?!), then wild catches could only meet 5% of total global animal protein needs by 2050. You all can probably guess where Prof. Gaines thought the other 95% should come from – aquaculture! I was ecstatic! I wanted to stand on my chair and hoot and stomp! Academics arguing our case for us! Oh, frabjous day!
(Editor’s note: This contribution will be continued in the next issue!)
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.