Editor’s note: This is the second post in a three-part series on sustainable fish farming startups. In case you missed it, you can read the first post here.
In the first post of this series, we introduced Kampachi Farms, an open-ocean mariculture startup on the Big Island of Hawaii co-founded by Neil Sims and Michael Bullock. When their mariculture fishery, the Valella project, got started in early 2012, the future of aquaculture and mariculture was uncertain, as a lawsuit brought by Food and Water Watch against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was wending its way through court. Principal among the issues Food and Water Watch had with NOAA was allowing the Velella project to proceed in federal waters.
Food and Water Watch characterized Velella as “factory fish farming,” challenging its legality in court with the Magnuson-Stevens Act as the basis for its argument.
The Magnuson-Stevens Act of 1976 is the primary law governing management of marine fisheries in the United States. Formally known as the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, the law has undergone a number of amendments since then, including the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 and the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006.
“They [Food and Water Watch] thought that aquaculture was not fishing,” says Sims. “NOAA’s position is that, under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which refers to the harvesting of living marine resources, there can be aquaculture as well.” Food and Water Watch lost their initial suit as well as an appeal in the 9th Circuit.
“It’s pretty much settled law now,” Sims says. “The Magnuson-Stevens Act for years, probably 15 years, has been swirling around. A lot of effort and emotion has been expended on trying to set in place national aquaculture legislation.”
The result of all the effort and emotion as that, under Magnuson-Stevens, aquaculture in federal waters should continue, regulated by the Regional Fisheries Management Councils, that already manage federally regulated fish species.
The Gulf of Mexico has led the effort over the past decade, drafting a regional fisheries management plan for Aquaculture which authorizes NOAA to issue permits and oversee the industry in the Gulf. Despite frustration on the pace of actually writing and implementing rules around the plan, Sims credits NOAA and the Department of Commerce with finally coming up with a national plan for aquaculture.
“NOAA has collated a lot of information on fish farming impacts,” Sims says. “There’s a beautiful bit of work done by two NOAA folk… from the National Oceans Service. They come at it more from a disinterested environmental perspective.” The research, entitled Marine Cage Culture and the Environment: Twenty-First Century Science Informing a Sustainable Industry, looks at all global environmental impacts from net pen aquaculture.
Summarizing their findings, Sims says: “As long as you’re in deep enough water — water that’s twice as deep as your net pen is [and] as long as there’s a reasonable current — your pens have no impact, no significant impact on water quality. And 30 meters away from the pen no significant impact on the substrate. It’s pretty hard to argue with that.”
With impartial research done and federal policy, currently undergoing review by the Office of Management and Budget, finally falling into place, Sims hopes to see comprehensive rules in place for issuing permits for aquaculture by the end of the year.
“It’s been very, very frustrating how slowly NOAA has moved,” Sims says, “but they’re moving.”
What’s also been frustrating, not only for Sims but for anyone interested in developing sustainable net pen aquaculture, has been pushback, misunderstanding and sometimes misinformation coming from environmentalists and NGOs.
Fighting anti-corporate sentiment: When the NGOs just don’t get it
“Two years ago there was a lot of frustration from industry aspirants that the NGOs just didn’t get it,” says Sims. But, just like the progress made in management policy and regulation, things are finally changing for the better. “In the last two years there has been a significant swing in the conventional wisdom amongst the more progressive-thinking NGOs,” Sims says. Among those progressive NGOs Sims points especially to WWF.
“WWF essentially said: ‘Let’s stop beating up on aquaculture, because we need aquaculture - desperately. Let’s start supporting good aquaculture and give it this seal of approval.’”
To that end, WWF has launched the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), providing globally available ASC-certified farmed products. “Credit to WWF for taking that visionary stand,” Sims says. He also applauds Conservation International’s study Blue Frontiers finding that aquaculture is, by far, the least impactful means of animal protein production.
“And this is coming from Conservation International,” says Sims, “the paragons for purity in terms of the environmental movement.”
The ongoing anti-aquaculture sentiment that continues is, in Sims’ view, a combination of emotion — reacting to something new and not fully understand, with elements of an “anti-corporate” attitude. “They just don’t like businesses involved in the food production system,” Sims says.
“Now that’s a far bigger issue than aquaculture. It’s just that because aquaculture is new it’s easy for them to beat up on a smaller, new industry than to take on bigger … what, are they going to take on beef?”
But as we’ve seen, much of the problems of early aquaculture come from individuals starting under-capitalized, poorly-conceived operations.
“When large corporations get involved and they get a proper engineering department, they get properly capitalized, buy the right sort of cages. they can get selectively-bred salmon that perform better. more efficient converting the feed, and they operate these facilities very, very well.”
For Sims, the “emotional swirl” against business and specifically the business of aquaculture is a very sore point. Business, good business, is how things get accomplished.
“It wasn’t corporate agriculture that created the dust bowl,” Sims says, “it was small landholders overgrazing.”
Velella Gamma and beyond
The next, or “gamma,” phase of the Velella project, as Sims describes it, involves testing “over the horizon” aquaculture. “The drifter cage idea was a lot of fun,” he says, “some spectacular biological performance of the fish; difficult to see how we could commercialize it.”
For the Gamma test, Sims and his team take the same cage, same species, same stocking density and diet in the same body of water, but instead of a drifting net an anchor is put down. One mooring line is used to hold the pen at a 6,000-foot depth six miles offshore with 12,000 feet of line anchored to 20,000 pounds of concrete at the bottom.
“The initial indication are very encouraging. We are also looking at taking this Velella technology globally. We have keen interest from Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. We are in the planning stages of the world’s first high seas aquaculture project. Aquaculture in international waters in the Mediterranean.”
A project is also in the works in Mexico. “We’re moving forward in a Mexican operation, we have some initial investment there and we are planning to out fish in the water by July of this year (2014) and have fish in the market by May of 2015.”
Image credit: Kampachi Farms
Read the rest of Startups in Sustainable Fish Farming:
- Part 1: Sustainable Fish Startups: From the Open Seas to the Inner City
- Part 2: The Future of Mariculture: Bridging the Gap Between Startups, Lawmakers and NGOs
- Part 3: Sustainable Fish Farming: Global-Scale Aquaculture in the Big City