Does the Future Lie With Offshore Aquaculture?

A very rich and productive conversation is going on in the Aquaculture Means Business group  on LinkedIn:  Initiated by group member Michael Albert with the post Future Lies With Offshore Aquaculture, the discussion (12 days old and 45 comments long as I type these words) has been dissecting the original article’s argument and exploded to explore the relative merits of other approaches.  I’m going to do my best in this post to distill the essence of the participants’ positions, but I STRONGLY RECOMMEND that you at least skim the discussion thread, as some of the participants have included valuable links in support of their cases.

(I’m attempting to give a thumbnail summary here — if I inadvertently misrepresent anyone’s arguments, please let me know)

Here goes:

The original article sites Michael Schwartz, Ph.D., of Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Va., who argues that “Offshore marine environments offer tremendous potential for seafood production…partly because of limits on land-based or near-shore systems….  However, developing offshore aquaculture presents more than its share of challenges….  Technology for offshore aquaculture is advancing but still in its infancy and there are considerable cost concerns to contend with.”

“We’re not talking about a quick turnaround” for investors, Schwartz says.

Among the challenges to offshore aquaculture, the article sites:

  • Developing feed formulations that require less natural resources (40 nutrients are necessary to raise healthy fish, according to NOAA science coordinator Mike Rust);
  • A “complicated regulatory presence” including local, state and federal layers of government.

Dr. Michael Rubino, director of NOAA Fisheries’ aquaculture program, said that a “complicated regulatory presence” including local, state and federal layers of government, is another major constraint for aquaculture producers operating in U.S. waters, second only to the cost of feed.

“It’s a complicated and uncertain process for businesses to go through,” said Rubino. “Many businesses are simply going to other countries rather than growing seafood at home.”

“OK, so the problem is recognized,” posts Aquaculture Means Business group member Clifford Goudey. “Now what is NOAA going to do about it. The industry has been explaining what is needed for more than 30 years, yet we are still talking about it. Now, more than ever, one would think that jobs might trump bureaucratic inertia.”

Clifford, an engineer with over 30 years of experience in developing technologies for working on and under the ocean aimed at “the introduction of innovative ways of tapping the productivity of the ocean in more sustainable ways”, believes  ” the technology is already available to successfully pursue offshore aquaculture from both an environmental and an economic perspective using submerged containment,” as demonstrated by private enterprise’s involvement in the practice, outside the U.S.

“They have to do it in other countries, remote from the market, where there is a permitting mechanism to facilitate it,” Clifford argues. “In my view we are beyond the need for government funding support. Just get the permitting process in place and they will come.”

AMB group member Gary Myers agrees that government inattention to improving the regulatory environment for offshore aquaculture is the fundamental problem. But Gary, a consultant who specializes in aquaculture Business development and facility design, argues that investing in offshore methods while lobbying and hoping for regulatory change may not be the best use of operators’ energy and resources.

“Can we expect the US government to make any serious improvements opening the opportunity for ocean based aquaculture in the US?” Gary asks. “The history is not good and the future remains a big question; are we wasting the US research dollars on this technology? NOAA has some responsibility for proposing regulatory changes but we have seen very little improvement yet NOAA and others continue to spend research dollars on ocean technology and the research workshops as cited above continue to believe the future is ocean based aquaculture….

“Maybe it is time to focus more on land based aquaculture and solve the associated problems. We may be able to solve these problems in a few years, whereas in 30 years we have not solved the regulatory problem let alone a few remaining technology problems associated with open ocean production…”

Dave Conley, senior consultant and founding Partner at Aquaculture Communications Group and executive director of Aquaculture Without Frontiers, calls attention to the Velella drifter cage project currently being conducted by Kona Blue Water Farms.

“In my mind,” Dave writes, “this bold initiative by Neil Sims and colleagues is reminiscent of the early years of the space program in the 1960s and may lead to numerous advances in other disciplines as a result. Consequently, this project needs and deserves our support as a forward thinking industry.”

Dave’s post about the Velella project generates positive responses from some members, while Gary Myers seems skeptical that offshore aquaculture can overcome cost pressures associated with transportation costs for feed and product. Clifford Myers and John Holmyard, owner of  Offshore Shellfish Ltd., argue that these challenges can be overcome, initially at least, by focusing on high-end products that can command a market premium.

Perhaps the most “outside-the-box” approach is being advocated by Bhaskar Mallimadugula, who asks:  “Has anyone thought of merely restoring fisheries in open ocean so that you can just go out and catch the fish and not have to grow them in cages or other enclosures?” Bhaskar’s  Kadambari Consultants Pvt. Ltd. promotes  fertilizing oceans to cause phytoplankton blooms, “so that carbon is sequestered when phytoplankton die and sink to ocean depths.”  I cannot pretend to understand the technology Bhaskar advocates, let alone its potential implications for ocean health and food supply, but the fact that far more knowledgeable AMB group members than me are not simply dismissing his approach out of hand.  In the discussion of Bhaskar’s proposed approach, members provide links to help readers draw conclusions.

Again, I STRONGLY ENCOURAGE interested readers invest the time to read this discussion thread. What I have written here only scratches the surface of the topmost layer of the iceberg.  The people I’ve cited — and the other group members I’ve not mentioned who are part of this fascinating discussion — have a lot more knowledge to share.

What most impresses me most about the discussions on this group is respectful, constructive tone in which knowledgeable people, often with very different — even opposing — points of view discuss aquaculture topics that matter from a business perspective.  These are the kinds of conversations that need to be encouraged and appreciated if the industry is to grow profitably and sustainably.


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