SeaWorld Wants to Build the World’s Biggest Fish Farm
Will the fish on your dinner plate come from SeaWorld one day? It could soon.
Hubbs-SeaWorld, the nonprofit research center affiliated with the marine mammal theme park, has teamed up with a private equity firm to construct a 300,000-square-foot aquaculture facility—the world’s largest—4.5 miles off the San Diego coast. If built, Rose Canyon Fisheries Project would be able to raise 5,000 tons of California yellowtail a year.
“We’re the third-largest consumer of seafood in the world, but we’re only producing about 9 percent of it domestically,” said Don Kent, president of the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute.
Instead, the United States relies on other countries, such as China, to produce its seafood, almost half of which is farmed. Meanwhile, stocks of wild fish are declining rapidly because of overfishing.
“This can breathe new life into our local seafood industry,” said Kent. “It can create an alternative source of protein and a new paradigm in the seafood business.”
So why is a nonprofit research institute getting involved with a for-profit venture like fish farming, an often controversial business given disputes over pollution and its impact on wild species. The organization is associated with SeaWorld, which has become a target of animal rights activists over its treatment of captive killer whales and other marine mammals.
Kent said that Rose Canyon could serve as a model for environmentally sustainable offshore aquaculture. He noted that whatever profits the fish farm generates would fund research at Hubbs-SeaWorld.
“I’m a trained biologist, not a businessperson,” said Kent.
The project has been long on the drawing board, its location, size, and product changing many times over the past decade. The latest iteration has the facility planned outside state-controlled waters but within U.S. territory.
The farm will start by raising about 1,000 tons of California yellowtail, a local amberjack sold as hamachi sushi on the market. Once at full capacity, more than 5,000 tons (or around 10 million fish) could be raised annually.
But Kent and his business partners at Cuna del Mar still have a long way to go.
Both the distance from shore and the fish species selected for the Rose Canyon project are important, said Michael Rubino, director of aquaculture at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“One of the reasons we don’t have offshore aquaculture in place in our coastal waters now is because we have a lot of people living on the coast, and they would prefer their seafood come from a supermarket and not from pens they see in their backyard,” Rubino said.
Kent initially had planned an aquaculture facility about half a mile off the coast of San Diego but ran into opposition to building a fish farm so close to the beach. He is now headed farther out to sea, where there are fewer restrictions on aquaculture.
Why yellowtail? For one thing, NOAA does not require a permit to farm the fish.
Still, Kent and Cuna del Mar—which has constructed offshore pens in Baja, Mexico, and Panama’s Atlantic Coast—have their work cut out for them to get the project afloat.
Rose Canyon must secure permits from the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Coast Guard, the California Coastal Commission, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Kent expects that alone will take about 12 to 18 months.
Next comes two years of design, construction, and startup operations before the first harvest.
“We want a program that has the greatest respect for environmental concerns and is still economically viable,” Kent said. “We can provide more seafood products to more people at a lower cost that doesn’t strip natural resources to do that. That’s our game plan.”
Existing aquaculture operations have come under fire for depleting stocks of wild fish to feed farmed fish, such as salmon, and for polluting the surrounding ocean. But those views are shifting as operators look for alternative ways to raise farmed fish.
“There’s an emerging scientific consensus that aquaculture is one of the more resource-efficient ways to produce protein—especially compared to beef and pork,” Rubino said. “From an efficiency perspective and a view here at NOAA, aquaculture could be a way to feed the world.”
Still, Rose Canyon is sure to come under scrutiny from environmental groups.
“We’re concerned about the negative effects the industry has had—and could continue to have—on the environment and society,” said Merrielle Macleod, senior program officer for the World Wildlife Fund’s Food Goal. “We know that when done responsibly, aquaculture’s impact on wild fish populations, marine habitats, water quality, and society can be significantly and measurably reduced.”
Kent said Rose Canyon is talking with local fish processing plants in San Diego about using leftover fish bits as feed—no need to import Peruvian anchovies or other wild species to fill yellowtail bellies.
Aquaculture’s concentration of fish excrement and other waste can create algal blooms, as levels of nitrogen and phosphorous have risen. Those blooms can kill fish and other marine life and pose a threat to human health.
Kent said that because Rose Canyon’s location is so far offshore, any pollution will dilute quickly.
He also noted that fish pens will be designed to withstand hurricane-force winds and 30-foot sea swells to minimize the chance of the yellowtail escaping and coming in contact with their wild cousins.
“We’ve got about 12 percent of the nation’s population between the coastal regions of San Diego and Santa Barbara counties, and we think we can help fulfill the seafood demand here by growing it locally, instead of it coming in from the rest of the world,” explained Kent.