Oceans are Changing

Pollution is an uncontested fact. How you regard your role is critical to your career.

Whether fish are wild, or if they live in an open-net pen farm in the ocean, they swim in water that contains mercury, PCBs, plastic fibers and microbeads. This bouillabaisse of toxins is present in all of our oceans and creates health risks for sea life and humans. FISH raised in open-net fish farms in the ocean contain the same contaminants as wild fish, and in some cases even more because of the higher fat content in farmed salmon and sablefish. Poisons bind at higher rates in fat, so the more fat, the more potential for higher concentration. Children and women of child bearing age need to be aware.

Plastic fibers and microbeads also impact seafood and our health, we just don’t yet know exactly how, or to what degree – kind of like smoking in the 60s.

WCA fish raised in land-based RAS IMTA ecosystems swim in near pristine water, which means that “theoretically” anyone can safely eat health-appropriate amounts of seafood – kids too, even toddlers that test negative for allergies of course, and your cat. It still needs to be proven in practice, but at this stage it’s a huge selling feature and UP VOTE for socially responsible land-based fish farming.

Tall Tails

When it works for consumers it works for investors.

Contemporary demographic groups, largely millennials, support  B Corps, and regard seafood differently than all other age groups. Like many people, millennials are also frugal, but seafood for some of them is an event! Younger demographics with low to moderate incomes will save for premium quality seafood, and make conscious decisions to eat less. Health and social responsibility are high on their lists.

Regarding the taste in your mouth, land-based RAS fish don’t suffer from jelly-flesh, a parasite that occurs in open-net pen farmed salmon. Also, land-based fish, when raised using the very progressive WCA – Wild Caught Aquaculture method, are healthy, and can be similar to the texture and taste of wild fish straight from the ocean. At this point, the taste and tactile sensation hasn’t been fully documented, but it’s only a matter of time and refinement.

More chefs need to express WCA interest.

Open-net pens in the ocean are often overcrowded – like feed lots for cattle. When nature doesn’t cooperate in these enclosed environments, algae blooms in the ocean can grow quickly and choke all the oxygen out of the water. It causes overcrowded fish in open-net pens to die rapidly – recently in one case in numbers as great as 8 million within one week. Fish kills that large are catastrophic for not only the fish obviously, but also for our oceans and the environment. When 8 million salmon die it equates to 40,000 rotting metric tonne of wasted carbon. Wild fish simply swim away from the algae bloom, but open-net farmed fish are trapped and suffocate. It’s not humane by any standards, and if we killed off a similar ratio of cuddly-looking polar bears, well the global outcry would go viral in a nanosecond.

Theoretically, all lives matter, practically, hmm … a subject for another article.

Technically, WCA RAS IMTA land-based pools can also be high-density, but overcrowding contravenes a self-imposed requirement of the model. Even at volume, an enhanced CRAFT presence is obligatory to create certain “notes”. WCA RAS IMTA aquaponics has a very unique wild caught provenance infused within its ecosystem that imparts self-leveling methods and practices. Just like in fine-wine, certain protocols must be met to achieve taste, texture, and certification. It’s hard to fool your nose, and impossible to trick your tongue–mush is mush.

Although provenance is critically important to a small select group of seafood lovers, for most consumers at the counter price is still the deciding factor. Consequently, the marketing and investment question will always be; How much will discriminating seafood lovers pay for exemplary fish, whether wild, farmed, or wild-caught farmed?

Premium is a niche market, but it doesn’t necessarily support high margins, especially on start up.

Other significant advantages however are that land-based ecosystems can be more easily and accurately monitored, plus the levels of quarantine available make it cost effective to prevent disease from spreading. Land-based WCA RAS IMTA fish swim in a relatively stress-free ecosystem that balances water quality and feeding schedules, causing fish to grow at optimum rates in a relatively natural way. It’s not the ocean, but it’s close enough, and it’s stress free. The fish are healthy and content.

Those with RAS IMTA experience have no pretense about how challenging it is to imitate an ocean environment, and they share it through their social media channels and other new media. OPEN SOURCE is as much part of the front end user experience as is the backend code, which means transparency is an important component on all levels. It’s a dynamic that reflects today’s cluster culture.

Almost the entire fish farm industry in North America and the western world focuses exclusively on farming salmon, and mostly Atlantic salmon from hatcheries–rarely wild. A Norwegian, publicly-traded company ASA-ME, Atlantic Sapphire, is building the largest land-based RAS salmon farming operation in the world in Miami. They call their fish farms “bluehouses” a play on the traditional greenhouse, and refer to blue as the new green. Sapphire opened their first bluehouse in Denmark in 2011 and have a long lead on the rest of the world in this space. Land-based fish farming has been around for a while, but not to this technological and biological depth.  

At this stage of the land-based fish farm industry in Canada, salmon is also the apex player, and it will be for a very long time. A few aqua farmers focus on wild caught finfish like halibut, sablefish, rockfish, and lingcod, but they are rebel players in a niche market trying to grow-out, or on-grow as some call it, wild fish. It’s an overwhelming challenge, and in early 2020 still unproven at any appreciable volume. Even though there is a great need for alternative species beyond salmon–sablefish holds promising potential, it is still a very high risk bet for investors, or the government. However, if land-based RAS IMTA continues to grow at its current pace, the knowledge necessary to make species other than salmon a viable concept could be available in as little as five years, and maybe a bit less. It’s interesting to watch this space, but it’s still early in the game.

The biggest concern for this group, is that only a handful of small WCA craft companies around the world know what a wild fish will taste like when it’s caught in the ocean and then raised in a land-based saltwater RAS IMTA ecosystem. Taste is the deciding factor, especially when tied to premium prices, which is inherent in using this model.

Will it taste great … or just good?

The accepted and understood challenge is that at least initially and maybe even for the next decade, land-based farmed fish will be expensive–if you demand a premium price, the quality has to match.

Good, is not good enough when you pay premium  prices.

There is no doubt that a high quality consumer will pay for high quality fish. There was a market for Prius in 1997 when it launched, and also for Tesla when it launched in 2003, but twenty-three years later electric cars still haven’t gone mainstream, but we’re close.  The catch is that this type of consumer is incredibly discriminating. Regardless of what Richard Branson’s Galactic Space ticket costs ($250,000), at this stage it is highly unlikely fish farmers will find a premium market in the near future at any appreciable volume. Granted, a few around the world already have craft offerings, for example, sablefish is a premium species that a few BC fish farmers are developing because margins have potential to be incredibly high. The reality though is that these fish don’t hit their peak of taste until they mature. Sablefish, also known as Butterfish, don’t get exquisitely buttery until they are at least ten years old, and the older the better. Smaller fish still taste good, but if a consumer is going to pay a premium price that is considerably higher than the real wild sablefish, they will expect exemplary taste.

Taste isn’t the only consideration.

Purity is also a valued attribute for premium customers.

One of the biggest upsides beyond taste and texture, is that a land-based WCA RAS IMTA aquaponics farmed finfish will have less contaminants because it was raised in clean water. In the wild, sablefish live to be ninety years old and can grow to eighty pounds, absorbing cumulative levels of mercury, PCBs, and plastic fibers over very long periods. It’s best to leave them in the ocean for obvious health reasons, but also because larger sablefish are the most hardy and prolific breeders and will replenish the species faster than their younger and smaller counterparts.

In order to meet taste and purity benchmarks, land-based WCA RAS IMTA aquaponics fish farmers will need to feed their fish sustainable organic food on a regular schedule, which theoretically will quickly put on bulk and bring sablefish to that “buttery” flavour profile faster. At this point though in 2020, FCR, food conversion ratio and weight gain are still mostly theory and well guarded secrets of craft fish farmers, although if you research advances in Greenland and Norway, you can find real numbers.

Unlike fish in the ocean that are stressed and might not eat for several months at a time, a fish in a RAS pool will eat on a regular schedule and grow rapidly, but still in a relatively natural way. There is however, potential for abuse that has to be addressed so we don’t fall into a “foie gras” conundrum and think force feeding is acceptable because it is just a fish.

Overfeeding is not humane for any living creature.

At this point, craft fisheries still have more questions than answers.

Here’s one more conundrum; Using WCA, if you place smaller wild caught sablefish in a land-based RAS IMTA ecosystem it’s quite possible a fish farmer would have to grow them out for several years to bring out the buttery taste, which wouldn’t be cost effective. On the flip side, if you capture larger wild sablefish in the ocean, say over ten pounds and then place them in your ecosystem to grow out, they would have already lived so long in polluted oceans they would contain relatively high levels of contaminants, which defeats the attraction of a pure fish. Who would pay more for a fish that wouldn’t taste quite as good as the real thing, and that also has contaminants in its system?   

Even the best health organizations have trouble keeping everything straight; The FDA in a recent seafood health chart, lists Butterfish as a BEST CHOICE, and further down the same list they include Sablefish as a lesser GOOD CHOICE. Even more confusing … sablefish are also sometimes called black cod, and guess what, they aren’t even cod.

Envision for a moment that all these issues could be managed effectively, and that WCA fish farms could produce a healthy, relatively contaminant-free fish that isn’t prohibitively expensive … How would a fish farmer do it at large enough volume to satisfy the market?

It’s NOT a conundrum.

The one word answer … “Technology!”

Maurice Cardinal has been a fisheries marketing and communications advisor and writer in British Columbia for almost a decade and has worked with leading organisations, NGOs, and governments in Canada and abroad.