Fish farm in the works

San Diego-based Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute has plans to make a big splash in the ocean just a few miles off La Jolla.

The institute currently is pursuing government permits to build the largest offshore commercial fish farm in U.S. federal waters.

“We are currently importing over 80 percent of our seafood,” said Don Kent, the institute’s president and a marine biologist. “There’s no reason why the U.S. shouldn’t be employing our own people to make our own food.”

The project is intended to spur growth of the U.S. aquaculture industry, which has lagged far behind other countries in the production of commercial seafood.

Venture capitalists in the U.S. have been reluctant to invest in ocean aquaculture (also called mariculture) because of the high cost and complex process to obtain initial permits and the uncertainty that, once constructed, it will be profitable, Kent said.

“If we want an industry that can jump up and grow responsibly, we have to show them how to do it,” he said.

When completed, the sea ranch off San Diego would include a network of 24 fish-rearing pens or “gravity cages” approximately five miles offshore of Mission Beach in water 100 to 300 feet deep.

The project will be installed in phases, beginning with eight floating pens measuring about 11,700 cubic yards, each large enough to hold about 125,000 fish.

When built out over five years, the floating ranch will cover approximately 30 surface acres of water. Initially, the pens will be used to feed or “grow out” hatchery produced striped bass fingerlings. Eventually, the species will be expanded to include Pacific halibut, California yellowtail and white sea bass. The goal is to produce as much as 6 million pounds of fish annually, three times the amount of seafood currently brought to the docks by commercial fishermen in San Diego County.

The offshore fish farm would employ local commercial fishermen, who would monitor the partially automated facility and transport the fattened fish back to shore. Hubbs scientists intend to monitor the operation to ensure waste from the fish doesn’t pollute the ocean floor or cause other problems.

Environmentalists studying the proposal have remained skeptical. They are concerned about a lack of safeguards. Some view the project as premature because Congress has yet to adopt federal regulations governing large-scale marine fish farming.

“We are not against offshore aquaculture in and of itself,” said Timothy McHugh, spokesman for The Ocean Conservancy. “What we are against is moving ahead with offshore aquaculture without any national standards for national waters. We view that as a nonstarter.”

Ed Parnell, a prominent marine ecologist with UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said he has mixed feelings about the concept of mass producing fish in massive open-ocean ranches.

“The pilot project probably won’t be harmful,” said Parnell. “But scaling up might be. " He said he also has misgivings about the aesthetic impact of “industrializing” offshore waters that are now clear blue marine “wilderness.”

Devin M. Bartley, state aquaculture coordinator for the state Department of Fish and Game in Sacramento, believes the project will advance both science and the state’s coastal economy.

“There is a lot of controversy over offshore aquaculture, but not much real data,” Bartley said. “This project will provide real data to help answer questions on the environmental impact of offshore farming.”

Russell Moll, director of California Sea Grant based at UCSD in La Jolla, considers the project to be an important pilot project.

“I am very much in favor of having this experiment move forward for the primary reason that the instillation is experimental and will be conducted with full research rigor,” Moll said. “The intent is to engage top-quality, impartial researchers to carry out studies to ascertain what impacts, if any, the facility might have.”

Kent, Hubbs’ president, said it will take about two years to obtain the necessary state and federal permits. Once the arduous permitting process is completed, Hubbs will be looking for private investment partners to pay for construction of the first phase, which will cost about $15 million.

“We’re breaking new ground, not only in the application of this technology for our nation, but in educating the resource agencies in permitting the technologies,” said Kent. “This will be a first in federal waters, so it’s a completely new idea to (federal regulators).