You’ve heard of the trade deficit. You know about the federal budget deficit. Now comes a California businessman with bold plans to tackle what he calls “the nation’s $10.4 billion seafood deficit” — meaning that we import much of the fish we eat, mostly from Asia.
Phil Cruver, who is president of a company called KZO Sea Farms, last month won permission from US Corps of Army Engineers to build what would be a pioneering shellfish farm about five miles off the coast of Huntington Beach, CA. The farm, where his company plans to grow mussels and oysters, would be the first commercial shellfish farm in federal waters.
Cruver, who is 67 and a lifelong entrepreneur, has to raise about $3 million to build and equip the farm. (The mussels would grow on long lines of rope, the oysters in pens.) He also needs permission to operate from California’s state coastal commission, which isn’t known to be industry-friendly. If he succeeds, Cruver says he’ll help jump-start an industry that will be good for the economy, good for the oceans and good for the health of shellfish eaters, while easing the US’s dependence on imported seafood.
“The potential here is just incredible,” Cruver told me, when we chatted recently via Skype.
He’s right about that, although I don’t think the “seafood deficit” — that fact that we import, rather than catch or grow our own fish — is cause for worry. (What’s next, the “coffee deficit” or the “chocolate deficit”? Trade is a good thing, folks.) More important is what we might think of as a potential protein deficit: the challenge of feeding a growing population that craves meat and seafood. Producing beef, chicken and pigs taxes the planet’s resources, and the supply of wild fish is limited.
Aquaculture is a potential solution, although fish farming, as now practiced, creates an array of environmental problems. [See my previous blogpost, Endless Shrimp? Alas, no...] Still, aquaculture is here to stay. In fact, it’s the fastest-growing segment of the food industry, according to Jose Villalon, who leads the aquaculture program at the World Wildlife Fund, so it’s important that we find ways to farm fish as sustainably as possible. That means, among other things, growing fish that don’t require lots of feed and doing so in ways that don’t perturb marine ecosystems.
Cruver (right) says his farm will be environmentally friendly. “We’re good stewards of the sea,” he says. “We’re affiliated with scientists all across the globe.” He’s got a board of scientific advisers and a partner, Bernard Friedman, who has been operating Santa Barbara Mariculture, a small shellfish farm off the coast of Santa Barbara, for about 10 years, with no ill effects. USC’s Wrigley Institute of Environmental Studies, which is based on Catalina Island, will monitor his operations.
Dennis Hedgecock, a USC professor of fisheries ecology, has described the KZO project as “a milestone in aquaculture — and about as green a way of producing protein for human consumption as one can imagine,” the LA Times reports.
Cruver says shellfish are “the only sustainable form of aquaculture that has no negative impact on the environment.” That’s largely because mussels and oysters, once placed in the ocean, don’t need to be fed; they draw nutrients from tiny organisms in the water. That’s not true of most farmed fish; they are typically fed fish meal, which is made from small, forage fish like anchovies or menhaden that captured from the sea, potentially disrupting marine ecosystems.
Not having to feed his mussels and oysters will also save Cruver saves money. On a typical fish farm, Cruver says that “about 60 percent of your operating costs is feeding those suckers. We don’t have that.” Better yet, he says, mussels and oysters actually clean the water, removing, for example, nitrogen pollution created from farm runoff.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s respected Seafood Watch program rates both farmed mussels and farmed oysters as a “best choice,” saying about mussels:
As with related species – scallops, oysters and clams – farming methods for mussels are environmentally sound. Mussels do not rely on fishmeal or fish oil as part of their diet. Diseases are rare, so antibiotics and chemicals aren’t necessary, and the farming operation often benefits the surrounding marine habitat.
Most of the mussels now consumed in the US come from Prince Edward Island. “Rather than fly them with high carbon air miles, we can grow them offshore,” Cruver says. Mussels and oysters are also farmed along the shores of northern California and in the state of Washington.
What about demand, I asked him? Neither mussels nor oysters are as popular with eaters as are shrimp, salmon and tuna. He shared with me a business proposal noting that oysters were a staple food in America in the 19th century, until overfishing and scarcity led to price hikes, making oyster’s a rich person’s delicacy. The annual consumption of oysters in the US is now less than a tenth of a pound per person, while the French eat four pounds per capita. So there’s plenty of upside potential.
Mussels, meanwhile, can be promoted as “an inexpensive, nutritious, tasty and versatile food source to a health-conscious, aging population,” the proposal says. Young people can be persuaded to eat more mussels, too, if the crowds flocking to a hip new restaurant called Mussel Bar in Bethesda, MD, (where I live) are any indication.
Cruver plans to start with a 100-acre farm, which will be expanded to 1,000 acres if all goes well. That would produce an annual harvest of about 5 million pounds of mussels and about 5 million oysters.
He won’t stop there, he says. He’s looking to develop or license shellfish farms in the Gulf of Guinea, off the coast of Nigeria, and in the Arabian Sea, off Yemen. Both regions, like the waters off southern California, can provide the abundance of phytoplankton needed to feed shellfish, he said.
“We’re hoping,” he tells me, “to get our shellfish into the water next year.” We’ll see.