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Sunday, Sep 25, 2022

Aquafarming Could Slow the Flood of Imported Seafood

One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish farm fish?

Carlsbad aquafarmers, who use science to breed commercial seafood supplies, are fighting to grow their industry at home.

They’re doing so despite competition from importers who are used to gorging on U.S. dollars and opposition from animal welfare activists.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 70 percent of seafood consumed domestically each year is imported.

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About half of all imports are “aquafarmed,” said Donald Kent, president and chief executive officer of the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute.

The value to importers is $11 billion. In comparison, the United States’ aquaculture industry generates about $1 billion in sales, Kent said, so the gap is enormous.

The Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute is an independent, not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) public benefit corporation. SeaWorld is among its funding sources.

The institute operates a 20,000-square-foot white sea bass hatchery in Carlsbad that plans to release as many as 350,000 farm-grown bass back into the Pacific Ocean this year.

The operation, which employs 20 and costs $1.3 million a year to run, is designed to replenish oceanic supplies depleted by human encroachment. The program has been under way for 12 years.

Kent said that while the United States imports $11 billion in seafood each year, the nation exports just $3 billion, creating an “unacceptable” $8 billion trade deficit.

“We import so much but most of it is aquacultured, which means we’re paying someone else to grow it for us when we know we could be growing it ourselves,” Kent said.

Kent’s group regularly drops its “crop” into the ocean from 14 staggered sites from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

Kent, who says aquaculture is about “farming the sea instead of harvesting it,” said it used to cost $5 per released fish but refinements to the process with trial and error have brought that down to $2.

He said if the institute could operate as a for-profit business that amount could probably be further reduced.

For-Profit Farming

While Kent’s group releases fish for other for-profit fishermen to catch, nearby business Carlsbad Aquafarm Inc. profits.

Family-run since 1990, Carlsbad Aquafarm annually produces 1 million oysters, 300,000 to 400,000 pounds of mussels, 50,000 pounds of seaweed and 12,000 seahorses. The mussels and oysters are sold for human consumption, while the seaweed and seahorses are sold to home aquarium owners.

“The bread and butter of what we do are the mussels and the oysters that we grow here,” said Andrew Davis, vice president of the business that employs about 20 on a 10-acre site. Davis did not disclose revenues or profits.

“It’ll be difficult with the price of labor,” Davis said. “We’re not millionaires by any stretch. I mean, we are farmers but we make a living at it.”

‘Diving’ Deeper

In addition to sea bass in Carlsbad, the institute’s aquaculture program, which is funded by grants, has a staff of 10 that work out of the group’s Mission Bay offices to identify native species appropriate for farming.

Both Davis and Kent, who started with the institute in 1977 as a graduate student, welcome industry regulation to help boost its credibility, though both say they are already monitored by the state Department of Fish and Game.

“Aquaculture is the future and should be promoted locally,” Davis said. “I think all seafood that you and I will eat in the next 10 years will be aquacultured.”

Ironically, regulations imposed decades ago to protect dolphins helped decimate San Diego’s tuna fishing industry. Senior Research Biologist Mark Drawbridge, who heads up the institute’s aquaculture program, believes that tuna fishing could be revived with farming techniques.

“There’s a thriving tuna (farm) industry right across the border,” Drawbridge said. “We’re just looking at that thing thinking, ‘jeez, there’s just no reason that can’t be moved up to Southern California.’ “

Editor’s Note: The original version of this story misstated the relationship between the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute and SeaWorld. It has been corrected in this version.


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