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Sustainable Fish Startups: From the Open Seas to the Inner City

| Wednesday May 7th, 2014 | 0 Comments

Editor’s note: This is the first post in a three-part series on sustainable fish farming startups. Stay tuned for the next installment tomorrow! 

Fish swim in a net pen at the Kampachi Farms

Fish swim in a net pen at Kampachi Farms, an open-ocean mariculture startup off the Big Island of Hawaii.

Powered by their rapidly expanding populations, emerging world economies are working hard to close the gap with developed nations. As this trend of convergence continues and accelerates, growth in the coming decades will increasingly focus on the developing world.

Even now about 1 billion people, mostly in developing countries, depend on seafood as their main source of protein. How to feed a hungry and growing population from an increasingly stressed resource, in many places teetering on collapse?

Got fish?

The World Bank estimates that by 2030, as the global population tops 8 billion people, only 38 percent of seafood consumed globally will be wild. The rest, fully 62 percent, must come from fish farming and aquaculture.

As vital as wild fishery preservation is to ocean health and biodiversity, given this outlook for the necessity of farmed fish, the focus for building an adequate source of healthy seafood for human consumption must look to the expansion of sustainable fish farming, aquaculture and aquaponics.

Bringing sustainable fish production to scale requires a variety of new approaches and techniques developed by visionary — and sometimes controversial — business startups, operating in diverse circumstances. From the open ocean far offshore to inner-city “post industrial” warehouses, solutions are emerging.

Farmed fish falters

“It used to be individuals that were farming salmon,” says Neil Sims, co-founder and CEO of Kampachi Farms on the Big Island of Hawaii. “Often there were salmon fishermen that had increasingly constrained (fishing) seasons and so they went and banged together some boards to make a net pen and bought some salmon fingerlings from the hatchery, they had a couple of net pens out on their dock – and that was pretty poor practices. There was poor siting, it was poorly engineered, under-capitalized, it was unsustainable feeding systems … and it was fairly impactful. It was not well done.”

It wasn’t a good start.

These initial poorly-conceived attempts at fish farming have left a bad taste in many people’s mouths, even as they unwittingly consume farmed fish, sustainably grown or not. Resistance to change is natural, just as it is inevitable. Overcoming resistance to new approaches is an uphill battle. We shouldn’t make light of the genuine environmental concerns and significant challenges that persist with aquaculture and aquaponics, especially if it is to scale to the level required to feed a hungry world. But surely this resistance must be countered, proving to public and expert alike that not only is sustainable, healthy and nutritious fish farming and aquaponics possible, it is essential.

For Sims, what some pejoratively call “factory fish farming” is a promising new, low-impact method of raising healthy native fish in the deep waters off Kona, Hawaii. On the other hand there is Jason Green, founder of Edenworks  building a new, whole-systems approach to the centuries-old technology of aquaponics, even while battling preconceived (and Green says unfounded) notions of it as an unscalable means of producing tasteless fish and produce.

From the sultry warm ocean waters off Hawaii to an inner-city factory of post-industrial America comes what could be the answer to the question of how to feed upwards of 11 billion people by century’s end, most of whom will depend in large measure on farmed fish to survive.

First, to Hawaii!

Kampachi Farms: Sustainable harvest in the open ocean

Kampachi Farms, an open-ocean mariculture* startup co-founded by Neil Sims and Michael Bullock, has not only faced stiff opposition from some (not all) environmental groups, but it has also played a central role in helping to define aquaculture law and policy.

Based in Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii, Kampachi Farms evolved from its predecessor, Kona Blue Water Farms, a firm pioneering basic scientific research in open-ocean aquaculture. Sims and Bullock launched Kampachi Farms in 2011 to leverage their research and begin work on developing efficient, commercial-scale methods of producing sashimi-grade Kampachi near primary markets.

Most mariculture occurs in protected bays and estuaries, where effluents and interactions with wild stocks can easily cause environmental damage. Sims and Bullock believe the only viable solution to scalable and sustainable mariculture is to move it further offshore into deeper waters. And that’s exactly what they did with the start of the Velella Project

*Mariculture refers to growing fish in salt water, aquaculture in fresh water

Velella Project

When I first visited Kampachi Farms’ onshore hatchery, located on the grounds of the Natural Energy Lab in Kona, in the spring of 2012, the “beta” run of the Velella project was well underway. Once the Kampachi fingerlings grown in large onshore tanks were ready, the young, native fish were moved to an untethered deep-water drifter pen riding through the natural eddies flowing around the leeward side of the Big Island. An escort tender ship accompanied the pen to make small course corrections to ensure the pen didn’t come near the fragile coral reef system and to provide sustainable, efficient feed, mostly from U.S.-grown soybean products.

At that time, 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. In what was already an uncertain atmosphere, the suit brought the founders of Valella into a complicated area that spanned legislation, the role of governments and NGOs, and how to best help environmental groups understand mariculture.

Image credit: Kampachi Farms

Read the rest of Startups in Sustainable Fish Farming: 


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