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Going Green: Offshore opportunity

Ambitious shellfish aquaculture project lines up support, aims for positive impact

A proposal in California could be a case study for U.S. aquaculture prospects.  - Photo courtesy of KZO Shellfish
By James Wright
August 01, 2012

If Peter Drucker was right about fish farming, Phil Cruver wants to offer proof. Drucker, the late Nobel laureate and economist, in 1999 predicted, “Aquaculture, not the Internet, represents the most promising investment opportunity of the 21st Century.” With finite fisheries resources, a growing global population and increasing demand for seafood, the conditions appear ripe for industry growth. 

However, despite the auspicious Marine Aquaculture Policy released last year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a thriving U.S. offshore aquaculture industry is not much closer to reality than it was before. The agency is often at loggerheads with state regulators over siting and environmental-impact issues. And in the time it takes to iron out differences, investors may choose to look elsewhere. 

Cruver says this can’t happen. The social entrepreneur and his colleagues are undeterred by the odds they and other aquaculture hopefuls face; they’re seeking $3 million in venture capital to get KZO Sea Farms operational off the coast of Long Beach, Calif., while slogging through the regulatory process. How they fare could indicate whether the tide is turning in aquaculture’s favor. 

Cruver, president of KZO, received a provisional permit last month from the Army Corps of Engineers to establish a 100-acre bivalve shellfish farm 4.5 miles offshore in the Southern California Bight. It would be the first offshore shellfish farm in federal waters since the policy was adopted — and, if extensive monitoring can prove no negative environmental impacts, Cruver hopes to expand to 1,000 acres. 

Of the many obstacles that must be cleared before a single mussel rope is placed in the water, the California Coastal Commission, which plans and regulates land and water use in the state’s coastal zone but has no jurisdiction over federal waters, has proven to be the most significant. 

Cruver concedes that the commission has been cooperative and that its leave-no-stone-unturned approach is obligatory. At press time, however, plans were being held up to complete a federal consistency certification, which Cruver expects will last into the fall. 

“There’s a bit of a turf fight between the Army Corps and the Coastal Commission,” he says. “I’ve responded to all the [commission’s] concerns — pollution, marine debris, ship strikes. They throw everything against the wall.” 

What Cruver is telling the commission, and what experts are telling him, is that the proposed shellfish farm has virtually no environmental impacts, positive or negative. Dr. Sandra Shumway, a professor in the University of Connecticut’s Department of Marine Sciences, favors shellfish aquaculture overall, but adds she’d be “very surprised if anyone could measure the impact of shellfish aquaculture in the open ocean” and its fast-moving currents. 

Key infrastructural challenges have been met, however. Cruver’s team is highly experienced and has more degrees than a thermometer. “The big barrier to entry is the hatchery science; getting the seed,” he says. “And we have that pretty much nailed down.” 

What KZO does not yet have is the green light to get started: If the commission blocks the ambitious proposal Cruver will appeal directly to the secretary of commerce. 

But does the Commerce Department, which oversees NOAA, truly support offshore aquaculture? Has anything really changed since NOAA adopted its aquaculture policy? 

“They say they’re behind it; very sympathetic for political purposes,” says Cruver with some hesitation. “But to start a new industry? Let me just say we’d welcome more support.” 

Cruver argues shellfish farming is good for jobs, the economy, the ocean ecosystem and the United States’ dependence on imported seafood. He points to farms in Prince Edward Island (PEI), Canada, that supply the bulk of the U.S. mussel supply, yet have to ship product nearly 4,000 miles to Los Angeles. 

The United States has a “$10 billion seafood trade deficit — and it’s only going to grow,” he says. “[The solution] has to be aquaculture; there’s no way it can be done with wild fisheries. We have to do this. We just have to.” 

While the cold waters of PEI, Maine or Washington state may seem better suited to bivalve shellfish farming, Cruver contends the warm waters in Southern California are more conducive to explosive growth. Other experts agree. 

“The Southern California Bight … has favorable oceanographic conditions, infrequent major storms and ideal upwelling characteristics,” wrote James McVey, Ph.D, and VP of Indigo Seafood, in a letter of support for KZO to the Los Angeles office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Eleven supportive letters were sent from industry experts and academia both in the United States and abroad. 

Shellfish are cold-blooded and grow fast, Cruver says, adding that a crop could take 8 to 10 months from seed to harvest; he expects such a rate to be attractive to investors. Other areas with similar upwelling and farming potential include Nigeria and Yemen, says Cruver, who’s exploring opportunities there as well.

“We look at this as an R&D thing for the state and the country,” Cruver adds. “No one is going to do shellfish aquaculture here if we give up on this.”

Email Senior Editor James Wright at jwright@divcom.com 

August 2012 - SeaFood Business 

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