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Huge Fish Farm Planned Near San Diego Aims To Fix Seafood Imbalance

Sep 1, 2015
Originally published on September 11, 2015 4:13 pm

The largest fish farm in America could be built 4 miles off San Diego's coast.

Rose Canyon Fisheries could have a footprint on the ocean floor of 1.3 square miles, about the same size as New York's Central Park. The goal is to produce 11 million pounds of yellowtail and sea bass each year.

The Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, the nonprofit research arm of SeaWorld, is partnering with a private investment firm to create the aquaculture project. Don Kent, the president and CEO of Hubbs-SeaWorld, says he wants to help correct what he calls a "seafood imbalance."

He's referring to the fact that 91 percent of America's seafood is imported, and countries like China that export a lot of fish are now keeping more for themselves.

"The price of seafood is going up higher and higher for people like us who have to import it," he says. "So the big advantage we have over those other supplies is from the fact that we can grow it locally."

Rose Canyon Fisheries is still applying for permits, so no farming has started yet. But Kent is already breeding yellowtail in his lab.

But the project's size and location are problems for Matt O'Malley, with the environmental group San Diego Coastkeeper.

"We're talking about putting a floating factory farm right off the coast of San Diego," he says.

To show that 4 miles is closer than it sounds, O'Malley takes me on a small boat to the spot where Rose Canyon Fisheries would be located. From there, I can clearly see houses on the shore.

"I mean, you just know that some of these people are going to be out here looking at this," O'Malley says.

But O'Malley says the problems don't end with beach homes' views. Marine mammals could get caught in the farm's nets and ropes and caged fish could become inbred and spread disease to the wild population, he says. Plus, he worries seals and sea lions would be attracted to all of those caged fish and get entangled in the nets and ropes.

Other critics say building the project is an awful lot of work when the U.S. already does produce some seafood, and doesn't eat it. Americans don't always like the fish native to our coasts, so we import from other countries, according to food journalist Paul Greenberg, author of American Catch.

"We tend to export stronger tasting things like mackerel, black cod, a lot of squid, and then we import things like shrimp, tilapia, neutral-tasting things that you can kind of deep fry and use in the American-palate-friendly sandwich," he says.

Aquaculture can help correct this imbalance. But "rather than trying to start up new and complicated ventures, first off let's try to eat the fish we've already got," Greenberg says.

As Kent with Hubbs-SeaWorld sees it, though, aquaculture solves more global problems than Americans not liking fishy fish.

"There's 7 billion people on Earth now and there's going to be 9 billion people in your lifetime, very soon," he says. "How are we going to feed those extra 2 billion people?"

One way to do that is through aquaculture, he says.

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The largest fish farm in America could be built four miles off San Diego's coast. It would be the same size as New York's Central Park and produce 11 million pounds of yellowtail and sea bass each year. The nonprofit research arm of SeaWorld is planning the project to correct what it calls this country's seafood imbalance. But Claire Trageser from member station KPBS reports that some people equate the project to a factory farm.

CLAIRE TRAGESER, BYLINE: Don Kent is peering into a water tank about the size of a backyard swimming pool. He's waiting for his fish.

DON KENT: There are some big guys in there. Here they come.

TRAGESER: A school of 10 yellowtail swim by, each about four feet long.

KENT: That's a big fish, right there.

TRAGESER: Kent heads the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute. He's leading us through the lab where his scientists are breeding fish.

Do you have names for them?

KENT: No. I try not to name things I intend to eat, so it's - I don't want to personalize it too much.

TRAGESER: While Kent won't be eating these fish, he hopes we'll all be chowing down on their offspring in a few years. Hubbs-SeaWorld is partnering with a private investment firm to create the Rose Canyon Fisheries' Aquaculture Project. There are already fish farms in the United States, but none on this scale. Kent is betting the U.S. needs his project because 91 percent of its seafood is imported. And countries like China that produce a lot of fish are now keeping more for themselves.

KENT: The price of seafood's going up higher and higher for people like us that have to import it. So the big advantage we have over those other supplies is from the fact that we can grow it locally.

O'MALLEY: We're talking about putting a floating factory farm right off the coast in San Diego.

TRAGESER: The project's size and location are problems for Matt O'Malley with the environmental group San Diego Coastkeeper. To show that four miles is closer than it sounds, O'Malley takes me on a small boat to the spot where Rose Canyon Fisheries would be located. I could clearly see houses on the shore.

O'MALLEY: I just - I mean, you know that some of these people are going to be out here looking at this.

TRAGESER: But O'Malley's problems don't end with beach homes' views. He says marine mammals could get caught in the farm's nets and ropes and worries caged fish could become inbred and spread disease to the wild population. Other critics say this an awful lot of work when the U.S. already does produce some seafood and doesn't eat it. Americans don't always like the fish native to our coast, so we import from other countries, so says food journalist Paul Greenberg, whose book "American Catch" describes a seafood swap.

PAUL GREENBERG: We tend to export stronger-tasting things like mackerel, black cod, a lot of squid. And then we import sort of neutral-tasting things like shrimp, also tilapia. And these are both very, very neutral-tasting things that you can kind of deep fry and use in the American palate-friendly (laughter), you know, sandwich.

TRAGESER: Greenberg says aquaculture can help correct this imbalance, but...

GREENBERG: Rather than trying to kind of start up in a new and complicated ventures, it'd be - first off, let's try and eat the fish that we've already got.

TRAGESER: But aquaculture solves more global problems than Americans not liking fishy fish, according to Don Kent with Hubbs-SeaWorld.

KENT: There are 7 billion people on Earth now, and there's going to be 9 billion people before - in your lifetime. How are we going to feed those extra 2 billion people?

TRAGESER: Kent says one way to do that is through aquaculture. For NPR News, I'm Claire Trageser in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.