Down on the Fish Farm

Some like it fat (toro)
  • Some like it fat (toro)

There's been a lot of talk, and legislation, surrounding saltwater fish farming lately. A bill working its way through Congress would create a permit process for farming fish from 3 to 250 miles off the coast of the United States. And last year, the State of California adopted the Sustainable Oceans Act, which mandates that a permit process be established for anyone wishing to have a fish-farming (or aquaculture) operation within California's coastal zone — defined as the shore lands and the ocean out to three miles.

Not that aquaculture was illegal before. It's just that nobody was quite sure whom to ask for permission to do it. "Imagine trying to get something like your driver's license, and you know the state gives it out, but you don't know where to go to get it or what the process is," says Donald Kent, president of the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute. Kent, who is also a researcher at the institute, quips, "It's hard enough getting the damn driving license, but at least there's a process that is written out."

The Sustainable Oceans Act, Kent says, "will lay down the process by which somebody who wanted to do aquaculture in the coastal zone, whether it's on land or offshore, would apply for permits. And it also requires the completion of what's called a programmatic environmental impact report. That is basically a template saying, 'Here's the impact our project might have, here's what we'll do to mitigate that impact, here's how we'll prevent environmental problems from arising.' "

Why farm fish in California? Because we Californians eat a lot of fish. And much of that is farmed-raised, or at least farm-fattened, fish. "We're importing 80 percent of our seafood," Kent says, "and half of that is coming from aquaculture in other countries."

Kent adds, "If California is importing millions and millions of dollars' worth of seafood, why wouldn't we want those millions of dollars and jobs and taxes to stay here in California, instead of letting all the money we're paying for the fish go out of the state?"

What would fish farms in our offshore waters look like? One need only drive about 60 miles south to find out. At Punta Salsipuedes, the toll road from Playas de Tijuana to Ensenada makes a sweeping left turn. To the right, some 600 feet below, lies the north end of Ensenada Bay. There you'll see a few dozen floating rings, each 130 feet in diameter. The nearest is maybe 500 yards offshore. Though you can't see them from the road, hanging 60 feet underwater below each ring is a net. And each net, at this time of year, houses a school of North Pacific bluefin tuna.

"This is a new way to produce food in the world," says Dr. Jerónimo Ramos Sáinz, director of Maricultura del Norte, one of ten companies operating tuna farms near Ensenada. "This is a way in which we are doing maricultura," Spanish for aquaculture.

Ramos, a soft-spoken man in his mid-50s with salt-and-pepper hair and mustache, stands by a map of the Northern Baja California coastline that hangs on the wall of a modest boardroom at Maricultura del Norte's Ensenada office. The practice of catching bluefin tuna and hauling them inshore to be fattened in a pen "was developed during the '90s," he explains. "It started in Japan, and then it moved to Australia and then into the Mediterranean countries. In the Mediterranean cultures, they farm the Atlantic bluefin tuna."

Ramos continues, "The bluefin tuna has been fished here for many, many years. Before, instead of taking the fish and bringing it to the farm and feeding it, we used to catch it, load it on the boat, and take it to the cannery. But since 1997, we tow the live fish in the net in a very smooth way, bring them close to the shoreline, and then keep them there for a month, or up to four or five months. During that time, we feed the fish sardines. We don't use any artificial feed. We feed them sardines that are caught in local waters close by the shoreline. In the case of our company, we use fresh sardines. We catch the sardines today, give them to the tuna today, or tomorrow, or the day after."

Every day, Ramos says, divers swim among the tuna in the pens, checking the nets and the condition of the fish and making sure not too much of the food is falling out the bottom of the net. These fish aren't destined for the can. Most are headed to Japan, where they will become sushi. When an order comes from Japan, Ramos explains, "The divers take the fish from the pen one by one, then we sacrifice them on the boat one by one using a Japanese technique...that guarantees that the flesh is not damaged. We bring them from the farm to the port here in Ensenada, from the port to the plant. At the plant, we clean it, pack it, and put it in a box. From the plant, it is trucked to Los Angeles, and from Los Angeles to Japan by air. In Japan, it is auctioned on the Japanese market. And from the time you kill the fish until the time it is in the auction market and to the consumer, it takes about 72 hours."

Is it frozen?

"Never, our fish is always fresh. But it's kept at 2 degrees Celsius [35.6 degrees Fahrenheit]."

In Japan, almost no price is too high for sushi-grade tuna. A record $160,000 was paid in 2003 for a 410-pound bluefin at a fish auction in Japan. That fish was not from a tuna farm. But Ramos says catch-and-feed operations do produce high-grade tuna "because we can monitor how much and how many times a day we feed them, and we can watch carefully how the fish are growing, whether they're getting round. The roundness indicates the fat content of the fish, which is important for the Japanese market. They want high fat content, especially in the belly part of the fish that they call the toro, which is the most expensive part of the tuna."

With so many tuna held in pens close together and close to shore, one would think waste would concentrate and pollute the water. But Ramos says this is not the case "because of the currents and upwellings we have here."

He says the locations of the pens are chosen for their cleansing currents, both to protect the local environment and because the tuna need clean water to thrive. "And," he says, "we analyze the fish, we analyze water quality at different levels of the column of water, we analyze phytoplankton, we analyze the seafloor, nitrogen levels, phosphorous levels, oxygen levels. Also we analyze sediment and organic material and metals -- copper, lead, and iron. And all the farms participate."

Kent says that a properly placed fish farm shouldn't adversely affect its surrounding environment. "It's like the restaurant trade...location, location, location. If you're in a back part of a bay where the water doesn't really mix -- there's no current -- then whatever comes out of the cage is going to sit on the bottom. But if you site it in a location that has good current and tidal flushing, and you're deep enough, what will happen is the nutrients that come off will leave the cage area and get distributed and absorbed by the environment as if a school of fish were swimming by. People say that it's like having a sewage outfall, but that's not true. In sewage there are viruses and bacteria from humans that could come back and contaminate humans. But fish don't put out human viruses and bacteria. When nitrogen and phosphorous come out in the form of detrital material, they get absorbed by algae five miles away."

Ramos thinks that the ten tuna-farming companies operating near Ensenada have created "about 4000 jobs both directly and indirectly. And we estimate that now this industry represents around $80 million to $90 million per season."

Is that money staying in Ensenada?

"In our case, we pay salaries to 250 to 300 local people, and we buy nets, motors, spare parts, and a lot of things like that locally. Most of the guys who own the company are Mexican, and they live here in Baja or in San Diego. The rest of the companies are owned by people in Australia or Japan."

Kent believes similar farms could be operated off California's coast. And, with a good deal of entrepreneurial investment, he believes someone could go one better and not only catch and feed bluefin tuna but breed the fish from a captive brood stock, something that hasn't been done commercially anywhere in the world yet, though it has been done with species such as salmon and yellowtail. The Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute has successful -- though noncommercial -- captive breeding programs for white sea bass and yellowtail. "Everybody who's doing aquaculture wants control over the culture protocol," Kent says. "The aquaculture in Baja is an example of making an industry out of something that still depends on the wild population. But all the other people who are doing commercial aquaculture in other species are doing it using brood fish that they keep and breed from. But the problem is...our white-sea-bass tanks are 20 feet across. Imagine a tuna tank with brood stock in it that's 100 feet across and 30 feet deep. You're talking about some fairly big infrastructure commitments."

Why couldn't it be done offshore?

"Because how would you harvest the eggs?" Kent answers. "See, with our shore-based operation, the water flows through the tank, the eggs come out, and we catch them in a fine net. You couldn't do that in a big net offshore."

Kent doesn't expect to see aquaculture operations popping up in California anytime soon. Just getting the permits, he believes, would take "18 months to two years." Still, he thinks aquaculture, whether it's offshore catch-and-feed or onshore captive breeding, makes sense for California. "So do I see it happening here? Yes, if someone has the will to do it off of California. And one of the great things about doing it off of California is that I know we'll do it right."

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