Institute proposing fish farm in federal waters
Project off San Diego still must clear hurdles
By Mike Lee
San Diego Union-Tribune Staff Writer
2:00 a.m. February 2, 2009
Five miles west of Mission Beach, scientists hope to build a floating ranch for millions of fish that would eventually land on dinner plates across the country.
Aquaculture specialists at the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute in San Diego could pioneer an era of marine food production in the United States, which relies heavily on imports to meet a growing appetite for seafood. Their project would be the first of its kind in federal waters – widely seen as a prime zone for expanding aquaculture.
But if the respected Hubbs organization is unable to get through the daunting permit process, the setback is likely to discourage others from launching similar ventures.
The $17 million operation could start by early 2011 if all goes well.
Hubbs officials have repeatedly emphasized the project's potential benefits, including reducing pressure on depleted ocean fisheries, to regional and state leaders in recent months.
They also are touting the idea at the international Seafood Summit in San Diego, where commercial fishing groups, conservationists, policymakers and marine scientists are discussing sustainable fishing. The conference will run through Wednesday.
“Somebody has to lead the way. Somebody has to take the technologies and apply them,” Hubbs President Donald Kent said. “We think it's a great opportunity for San Diego to lead the nation.”
The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce recently endorsed Hubbs'proposal, and one of California's top marine regulators gave it a positive initial review.
Hubbs' leaders “see the time as being right, and I think they are probably right,” said Peter Douglas, executive director of the California Coastal Commission. The commission would have to approve the project along with agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Douglas met with Hubbs officials in December and came away impressed.
“They really did their homework. They have addressed virtually every issue that we have raised,” he said.
Hubbs' operation would cover about 30 football fields' worth of the ocean's surface in water that's approximately 300 feet deep.
At first, the institute would deploy eight circular nets – each large enough to hold about 125,000 fish. The nets would be anchored to the sea floor and stocked with striped bass, a fish that was introduced to California more than 100 years ago. The captive bass would grow for about two years until they top 2 pounds each, at which point they would be collected in batches and sold to seafood wholesalers.
The species was chosen for several reasons, including the availability of juveniles for rearing and what Hubbs researchers said were slim chances that any escaped fish would disrupt the native food chain.
Over five years, Hubbs would install 24 pens and produce 3,000 metric tons of fish annually – about three times the current commercial fish harvest brought ashore in San Diego County.
That would provide a dramatic boost to the state's aquaculture industry, which generates about $100 million in revenue each year for seafood producers. At full capacity, Hubbs officials said, they could raise about 3 million fish per year worth $21 million.
To succeed, fish-farm owners have to minimize navigation hazards for passing vessels, calm fishermen's fears about competition, allay concerns about pollution from fish waste and limit the number of fish that escape or spread disease.
Environmentalists have sought stronger controls on fish farms in California and elsewhere to limit their effect on the marine environment. But some of them said a top-rate operation would provide a good example for future aquaculture projects.
“We are going in with the awareness that a lot of the existing aquaculture can be a dirty practice and it's not done sustainably,” said Scott Harrison, chairman of the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, a coastal watchdog group.
Last week, Harrison was among a handful of environmental leaders who listened to Kent's pitch.
“We have a measure of skepticism,” Harrison said, “(but) we are remaining open” to the proposal.
Kent also has invited anglers to weigh in. Although a new aquaculture operation would probably hire fishermen to tend nets and do other tasks, some worry about downsides such as the facility's potential to attract sea lions, endanger boaters and prevent fishermen from harvesting in the area.
“I am critical of the location, and I want to ensure that no legitimate fisherman is pushed out,” said John Law, a longtime commercial fisherman who plies the area being eyed for the project.
Aquaculture operations stretch from Hawaii to Maine in freshwater and near-shore areas, including bays. Some marine experts see open-ocean fish farming – the kind planned by Hubbs – as the future of the industry.
Compared with near-shore aquaculture projects, those in federal waters – three to 200 miles from the coastline – would face less competition for space from residents, recreationalists and other interest groups.
Hubbs chose the spot off Mission Beach for factors such as consistently mild water temperature, water purity and the appropriate ocean depth. Its leaders hope to prevent run-ins with boaters by setting their pens five miles from the shoreline, where leisure traffic is limited.
Currents at the site are expected to disperse fish feces so they won't collect on the ocean floor below the farm.
Kent is convinced the aquaculture project would succeed partly because of Hubbs' experience in raising white seabass at a hatchery in Carlsbad since 1995. Those fish are released at several locations along Southern California's coast to augment populations in the wild.
Hubbs also has experimented with aquaculture nets on a small scale in the waters off Baja California, where the Mexican government grants permits in a matter of weeks instead of years. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which helps regulate marine fisheries, funded that project.
Fred Conte, an aquaculture specialist at the University of California Davis, said Hubbs-SeaWorld is the right group to advance the industry.
“They are a research institution which would be closely monitored by the state and feds,” Conte said. “They aren't looking to make a profit right off the bat.”
Kent said he wants to refine the fish-farming process and set industry standards for environmental protection. Then, the nonprofit Hubbs would transfer day-to-day operations to a for-profit corporation. The two sides would share revenue through a licensing agreement.
Hubbs plans to keep control of the fish farm's permits so it can ensure the scientific integrity of the project. Kent envisions that some local fishermen would work at the facility while others would eventually strike out on their own with similar operations.
The institute's blueprint hinges on government approval.
Several fishery experts said the federal regulatory process, which involves multiple agencies, poses a major barrier to offshore aquaculture. But they also said the Hubbs proposal could blaze a trail through the bureaucracy.
Michael Rubino, aquaculture chief for the U.S. oceanic administration, said his agency will help with the federal review of Hubbs'permits in the coming months.
“We really have a choice as a country,” Rubino said. “If we are going to eat more seafood, we are either going to import more of it – and most of that is from aquaculture – or we can choose to grow more of it at home.”