Is this the future of fish farming?

Submerged aquapod

The huge, 7000 cubic metre cage - or 'aquapod' - in which Brian O'Hanlon farms cobia Photo: Open Blue Sea Farms

Inside vast, 360-sided, 7000 cubic metre underwater cages off the coast of Panama, marine biologist Brian O'Hanlon is trying to solve some of the problems with large-scale aquaculture

Eight miles from the Caribbean coast of Panama, bobbing on several hundred feet of pristine ocean, 29-year-old Brian O'Hanlon surveys the grand expanse of his opportunity. 'This is the future,' he says with the confidence and, in this heavy swell, the enviable sea-legs of a man with two generations of New York's Fulton Street fishmongering business in his blood.

O'Hanlon, a marine biologist by training, is preparing to embark on a project that promises a revolution in the troubled fish farming business and, with it, the chance to begin to curb the critical over-exploitation of the world's ocean fisheries.

Reconciling the dual instincts of the fish trader and the ecologist is not simple. As a fish-trader, O'Hanlon has watched the collapse of stocks of salmon, snapper, cod, grouper, halibut, skate and Chilean sea bass; as an ecologist, he's watching as species like tuna and swordfish are pushed close to extinction, and industrial fleets fish ever farther down the trophic scale toward jellyfish and plankton in the search for protein.

As global demand for fish increases and wild stocks decline, an estimated production shortfall conservatively estimated at 35 million tons a year over the coming decades will have to be met - if it can - from aquaculture and mariculture.

But fin-fish farming is itself highly problematic and, like industrial fishing itself, intricately linked to wildlife destruction. Densely stocked farm fish populations, highly prone to disease, can decimate wild stocks with contagion, interbreeding and parasites.

But O'Hanlon is a man with vision, a vision that was publicly recognised earlier this year when his company, Open Blue Sea Farms, was nominated as a finalist at the Earth Awards in New York.

What lies beneath

His plan, simply put, is to place vast sea cages in deep water and fill them with cobia, a pelagic, fast-growing, semi-vegetarian fish common to the Caribbean, akin in taste and consistency to halibut.

In this water, and with careful control of the life-cycle from broodstock to maturity, O'Hanlon hopes to pioneer a new era in aquaculture. 'The fishing industry cannot grow at its current pace without exploring new frontiers - and the open ocean is a vast, untapped resource,' O'Hanlon says. 'There's nothing but opportunity in this water. It's the perfect location with the perfect combination of depth and current.

'We think we're farming fish in a more natural way by moving farms into an environment that is better for the fish, with cleaner water and more natural exchange, and in an environment that can handle that operation without wider impact.'

The 'aquapod' raised to the surface for maintenance. By siting the cages in deep water, local pollution is reduced Photo: Open Blue Sea Farms

But it's a highly controversial plan. Environmental groups are implicitly opposed to fish farming, often arguing that intensive farming is intrinsically damaging to natural fish stocks.

Trials raising snapper off the coast of Puerto Rico over the last seven years suggest deep water farming can work. But a combination of US Government regulations, hurricanes, the relative slow growth of that species and market price persuaded O'Hanlon that commercial viability can only be achieved with a different species, farmed on a larger scale and in less highly-regulated waters. Panama, with its long coastline, infrastucture and international transport, seems an ideal

Compared to salmon, which take three years to reach market size or halibut (which take five), cobia take around 15 months to reach 14 lbs. While not perfect (cobia's bone structure lowers the yield on the filet), the firm hopes a new market will emerge. The effort has already begun in earnest, with Jamie Oliver recently presenting a recipe for Cobia a la Tony Blair on US TV. 'There's very little work being done in tropical marine fish species and we need a product that's considered a premium quality fish,' says O'Hanlon. 'Cobia is a good place to start.'

Problems at depth

But the outcome of the program is by no means certain. While deep sea farming may help to minimize the spread of disease within caged fish populations and has been shown to benefit sea life downstream from the site, environmental groups consider fish-farming a net drain on the world’s seafood supply.

Reduction fisheries catch millions of tons of sardines and whiting to produce fishmeal - a situation exacerbated by western consumer preference for pelagic, predatory fish like salmon and cod. In the Far East, where vegetarian fish like catfish and tilapia are popular and extensively farmed, there is concern that land-produced fishmeal represents a growing nutrient imbalance between the land and sea.

As a semi-vegetarian species, cobia do not have the same requirements for fish-meal as carnivorous species, such as salmon Photo: Open Blue Sea Farms

'Even if you're farming in deep water there's still a problem with escapes, with pollution and with contamination,' says Willie Mackenzie at Greenpeace. 'And you're still taking fish out of the ocean to make into fish. At some point we run out of fish to feed the fish. We think fish farming for carnivorous species is part of the problem, not part of the solution.'

But the environmental impact of aquaculture is clearly farm- and species-dependent. A recent report from Kona Blue, a leading producer of amberjack, published in The Earth Times claimed that maricultured fish have some 60 percent less impact on fish stocks at the base of the food chain compared to the impact of wild-caught predatory fish like swordfish or tuna.

O'Hanlon, who grew up on Long Island and worked first in his father's seafood distribution business, recognises the problem. Cobia, he says, do well on diets that contain very little fish meal and more vegetable matter. Open Blue Water Farms proposes to source feed from well-managed fisheries while seeking sources of protein, including off-cuts and by-catch, that could ultimately drive the price of cobia and other farmed species down to widely affordable levels.

'If there's a good source of protein that's being wasted we need to put it to good use creating more protein,' he says. 'Protein is a limited resource in the world and the ultimate goal is to produce more.'

Of course, that is one side of an argument that speaks to the split in perception over how to manage oceans that are falling barren to over-fishing, acidification and climate change. To Mackenzie at Greenpeace, the goal is not to seek solutions to problems caused by over-fishing but to carefully manage wild stocks. 'The better thing to do would be to try to achieve some balance in the oceans and help fish stocks to recover,' he says.

Drowned out?

Like many producers, O'Hanlon sense that the voice of even environmentally conscientious farmed fishers is drowned out by the chorus of disapproval from the environmental lobby. In an effort to gain new environmental credibility, the business is rapidly moving toward a system of certification managed by a group of organisations including WWF.

Under that system, well-managed fisheries are a given seal of approval that's helping to create a business of branded products (Loch Duart for salmon and Kona Blue being two industry stars.) If the Panama site performs as anticipated, cobia will be delivered to market free of methylmercury (a common problem, especially in large wild fish like
tuna), antibiotics, steroids or colourants at approximately three dollars per pound.

Backed by a New York venture capital fund, Open Blue Sea Farms has attracted attention of governments looking to move toward sustainable fish-farming.

'We are on the periphery of a whole new economy where sustainable practices are the priority,' says HRH Tunku Naquiyddin of Malaysia who underwrote the Earth Awards in New York earlier this year. He says that finding ways for human beings to progress in in harmony with the planet is now 'an economic issue as much as an environmental one'.

O'Hanlon hopes to find a gourmet market for the fish, which he claims will contain considerably lower quantities of undesirable chemicals, such as antibiotics and methylmercury Photo: Open Blue Sea Farms

Lone voyager

With the exception of a deep water pilot scheme in Ireland, Open Blue Water Farms is a pioneer. US fish producers are keenly waiting for new guidelines from the Obama administration's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) appointee Jane Lubchenco.

Lubchenco, an expert in inshore mussel and bivalve production, may not be so kindly disposed to fin-fish farmers: wild salmon populations in her home state of Oregon have been afflicted by inter-breeding with escaped fish as well as sea lice flushed from farm populations.

But the fact remains that world is going to need more fish protein to support its population. If commercial fishing is no longer sustainable - 30 per cent of world fisheries have collapsed,  70 per cent are fully exploited or worse, and it is forecast that all world fisheries will collapse by 2048 - then the problems associated with fish farming will have to be solved.

O'Hanlon points out that aquaculture on a large scale has only been practised for a quarter of a century, and there is still much to learn. So far, the output from the big farming areas - the Far East for shrimp and tilapia; sea bream and sea bass in Turkey and Greece; salmon in Scotland and Norway - has done little to relieve the pressure on wild species.

Cobia, O'Hanlon believes, could substitute for snapper, grouper, halibut, cod and Chilean sea bass, otherwise known as the Patagonian toothfish and the fish that was heavily fished throughout the 90s before stocks abruptly crashed.

For O'Hanlon, who spent part of his adolescence trying to get snapper to breed in tanks in the basement of his parents' Long Island home, the challenge of ocean farming is compelling. 'We're doing what we think is right, practical and responsible,' he says.

Edward Helmore is a freelance journalist

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