Farming offshore in the Americas – How the United States’ loss continues to be its neighbour’s gain

Farming offshore in the Americas Feeding time at one of Pacifico Aquaculture’s cages

As a seafood market, the US is heavily dependent on imports, with an estimated 91% of the products consumed in the country now coming in from overseas producers, reports Jason Holland.

At the same time, there’s growing demand from Americans for locally-produced, sustainable food. With US wild-capture fisheries unable to provide much more than they currently do, this scenario would seem the perfect storm through which the country’s aquaculture economy could come to the fore, but as delegates heard at the recent Seafood Expo North America (SENA) 2018 in Boston, a lot still stands in the way of American fish farming.

Despite aquaculture being the world’s most efficient protein generator, in the main, the widespread farming of aquatic species in US waters has historically been hindered by public anxiety over potential environmental impacts arising from farming systems. This trepidation has made it extremely difficult for new ventures to obtain both licenses and investment – including those wanting to create open ocean aquaculture systems, which the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) regularly cites as one of the most important long-term growth sectors for protein production.

But while America is missing the boat, offshore aquaculture sectors in Mexico and Central America are progressing on a number of fronts. A growing number of open ocean innovations, systems, entrepreneurs and investment funds are emerging in these regions, producing species such as cobia, snapper, kampachi and totoaba. And many of them have US roots.

Baja-based Pacifico Aquaculture, for example, is the world’s first producer of ocean-raised striped bass. Its farm, located on Islas de Todos Santos, west of Ensenada, was converted into an aquaculture concession in 2009 and its first bass were stocked in 2010. Co-CEOs Omar Alfi and partner Daniel Farag, both former Wall Street executives, purchased a majority stake in the company in 2013. Two years later, its hatchery was completed and the first commercial spawning took place.

“It’s an exciting point for our business in that our first commercial stocking and harvest is now in the market,” says Alfi. US buyers include Whole Foods Market and LoveTheWild.

In October 2017, Pacifico received investment from LA-based private equity fund Butterfly Equity, and Alfi says that with the financial future now secure, it would be possible to build a world-class aquaculture company.

Neil Anthony Sims, Chief Scientific Officer of Kampachi Worldwide Holdings and Founding President of the Ocean Stewards Institute, confirms that Baja has become a hotbed for open ocean aquaculture.

This is not just because of the availability of sites for expansion, its good water quality or its close proximity to the US market; the fact that the government is very much behind the sector plays a crucial role, he says. “What’s been key for those of us working in Mexico, is that there is a motivated government partner. They really want to see this grow.”

To facilitate this expansion, potential commercial operations can conduct trial projects – typically over two to five years – through which the ​viability from financial, biological and environmental standpoints can be evaluated. After which, farmers can then apply to have the permits transferred into full concessions over much longer time-frames.

Alfi says the scheme promotes development and investment in the industry, adding that without that stability, it becomes very difficult to invest long-term private capital in this type of company.

“As we all know, to develop a successful aquaculture business, it doesn’t take a couple of years; it takes, five, seven, ten years or even longer,” he says.

Robert Orr, CEO of Cuna del Mar, a private equity fund that invests in aquaculture companies, says the ability to get licenses to test its offshore technology has been a driver of its investment in Mexico and Panama.

“We are focusing substantial amounts of capital in trying to get fully functioning, automated farms that can become turnkey solutions of the future,” he says.

While it’s still very early days, Washington’s awareness of the potential opportunities being passed up is growing, which could bode well for companies looking to move offshore, says Margaret Henderson, Manager for newly-launched policy campaign Stronger America Through Seafood.

Henderson, a fish lobbyist for 13 years, says she has been encouraged by “a very definite change” in attitude among federal policymakers on the issue of aquaculture, telling SENA delegates there seems to be a “window of willingness” to address some of the regulatory challenges.

“I think this has been generated by a generation of consumers that’s more interested in local, sustainable foods, as well as all the technological advancements [taking place] and an evolving seafood industry that is merging and seeking additional opportunities outside of traditional wild catch fisheries,” she says.

“With more data and research coming out, those that have been concerned in the past with some of the environmental impacts now understand intuitively that aquaculture is in effect the best thing that we can do for our environment.”

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