Seven months after huge, interlocking cement “anchors” were installed along Harbor Island’s shoreline, new marine wildlife has returned to the shallow coastal waters lapping San Diego Bay.
The Israeli company behind the innovative new system, ECOncrete Tech, is part of the Port of San Diego’s now five-year-old Blue Economy Incubator.
ECOncrete’s pilot project, one of nine so-called “Blue Tech” projects at the Port, aims to bolster shoreline resilience while helping to create new bio-habitats and restore the Bay’s delicate ecology.
Since the Port established its Blue Economy Incubator, America’s Finest City has become one of the hubs of the burgeoning Blue Tech universe.
Rafael Castellanos, a real estate lawyer and Port of San Diego commissioner since 2013, believes leading the Blue Economy is the “smart, right” move for San Diego. “I’ve been a major advocate of this space since I first read a report about the Blue Economy in 2012,” he said.
“Blue Tech really captures your imagination,” Castellanos added. “For San Diego, the Blue Economy represents a whole new world of possibilities – both from an innovation and technological standpoint.”
During his eight years on the Port Commission, Castellanos has championed Blue Tech and was one of the most vocal supporters of the Port’s Incubator program.
“The Incubator has already had significant economic and environmental impacts for our area,” Castellanos said. “We’re leveraging the Port’s resources to create multiple private and public benefits. And we’re creating all of these promising new startups while cleaning up the bay.”
Castellanos said that more than 170 companies have expressed interest in launching their own pilot projects via the Port Incubator.
“I’d like to see San Diego Bay turn into a testing ground for Blue Tech,” Castellanos added, citing as a positive example a San Diego startup and Port Incubator project called Zephyr Debris Removal, which extracted 15 tons of debris from the bay during its demonstration period in 2018 and 2019.
In 2020, Port officials entered into a contract with the startup to continue its debris removal services for an additional year.
Traditional Blue Economy industries include fisheries, aquaculture, maritime transport and tourism. But some of the more emergent Blue Tech businesses today emphasize sustainability and focus on niches that include renewable energy, seabed mining, bioprospecting and remediation.
In San Diego County, Blue Tech companies already generate an estimated $14 billion in annual revenues while employing about 46,000 across 1,400 local companies.
Nathan Fletcher, chair of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, calls the Blue Economy “dynamic.” Fletcher, like many others, believes the Blue Economy will play “an integral part” in San Diego County’s economic future. The Port’s Incubator and other Blue Economy enterprises have already established San Diego as “a significant, globally recognized Blue Tech center,” the supervisor said.
Later this year, San Diego will hold its 13th annual BlueTech week. The event, which takes place from Nov.15-19, allows Blue Techies from around the globe to come together – virtually – to share ideas and show off their latest projects. This year’s theme: “Aqua Optimism.”
So far, the Port of San Diego’s incubator program has launched nine projects ranging from ECOncrete’s shoreline armoring system to a shellfish nursery, seaweed aquaculture operation and “drive-in” boat wash.
One pilot project, known as FLUPSY, short for floating upweller system, is a “fancy barge designed to grow oysters,” according to Castellanos, who likes to monitor FLUPSY’s progress. “Some [of the pilot projects] are easier to kick the tires than others,” he admits.
Used to grow and protect shellfish in open water until they’re large enough to survive in a sanctuary, FLUPSY’s test run in San Diego Bay has been quite successful, according to Castellanos. “Turns out the warmer waters of the bay and its rich nutrient life are ideal for growing oysters,” the commissioner explained.
UCSD also has embraced the Blue Economy, recently rolling out its own accelerator program called startBlue. Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Rady School of Management are sponsoring the program.
This fall, UCSD students enrolled in startBlue are getting out of the classroom and touring Blue Tech companies and labs – and meeting local players helping to build the area’s Blue Economy.
“Just like Santa Clara has become known as the Silicon Valley, I think San Diego is well on the way to being known as the Blue Tech Bay,” Castellanos said. “This is some very innovative stuff.”
Port of San Diego
CEO: Joe Stuyvesant
HEADQUARTERS: Located in former San Diego Police Department headquarters
BUSINESS: Administering 34 miles of San Diego Bay waterfront
ECONOMIC IMPACT: $9.4 billion in 2017
NOTABLE: San Diego is fourth largest of California’s 11 ports
CONTACT: (619) 686-6200