By Sara Hessenflow Harper
What if you could create the perfect habitat for salmon anywhere?
Salmon is one of the best animal proteins for our health and longevity. It contains excellent forms of essential nutrients such as EPA, DHA and vitamins A, B12 and D. Unfortunately, the diet, environment and freshness of the fish are extremely critical for these health benefits to become part of our diet.
Scarcity is a growing issue. Access to fresh, nutrient-rich fish is not what it once was, even in coastal regions. In inland regions further from salmon’s natural habitat, the decrease in freshness combines with the environmental costs of transportation. What is needed? More sites where salmon can be harvested closer to all large markets.
According to Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, “today, 90% of the world’s fisheries are either fully exploited or over-exploited – or have collapsed completely.” Farming fish like salmon on land could provide a significant solution to this problem as well as provide a very healthy and resource efficient source of protein to a population increasingly seeking these benefits. But can such a system be sustainable – good for both the environment on land as well as helping ocean populations recover?
The answer, of course is – it depends. But if Atlantic Sapphire has its way, the answer will be a resounding yes. And that’s not just according to them. This month, Food & Drink International featured them on their website touting their positive attributes.
What makes their system unique? How about a giant, indoor, constantly-swirling, re-circulating tank that goes out of its way to re-create the best of what fish experience in the wild while removing some of the health problems fish farmed in open net pens often face. Their system is called Oceanus, a reference to what the ancient Greeks and Romans saw as the “divine personification of the world ocean.” It is one of only a few on-land systems that the Monterey Bay Aquarium has given its highest sustainability rating of “best choice.”
You can learn more about Monterey Bay Aquarium’s standards for a sustainable fishery here. The organization evaluates across four key categories: impact on the species under assessment, impact on other capture species, management effectiveness and impacts on the habitat or ecosystem.
I had the opportunity to interview Damien Claire, VP of Sales and Marketing for the group to learn more.
Q: When people hear the term “farmed fish” or “farmed salmon,” they might not think it is environmentally sustainable or healthy for the fish. Your model seems to be trying to turn that impression on its head. Can you share a bit about your system for raising the fish and why it is a sustainable and healthful option for the fish, and for consumers?
The idea is taking out the effects that the wild has on the fish and that fish have on the environment. We create a system that mimics the wild through the lifecycle – it starts out with fresh water first, then sea water. It is like a greenhouse for fish – re-creating the natural conditions – including the current, purified water, temperature and all other conditions they would find in the wild.
First, we make sure our fish are happy – then we take out all the negative interaction of farming. Since the fish are never affected by disease and parasites, they never need antibiotics or pesticides.
Our Oceanus system – which features a constantly swirling, circular tank, means that the fish are swimming the way they would in the wild – for their whole life. This creates a leaner fish and is closer to the natural process than most farmed fishing set-ups.
Q: This sounds really expensive. Is it?
No. This is a misconception. The initial capital investment might seem more expensive than just putting a net in the ocean, but if you consider the licensing system you have to pay to farm salmon in open net pens, we don’t have that expense. Even if the expense initially is more expensive, our goal is to produce in the end market – so producing within the country where the market is will enable us to significantly reduce transportation costs and environmental impacts. These can be considerable when you factor in that much of the fish – particularly sustainable, wild-caught fish, are flown in from great distances currently.
Q: Can people buy your fish now? Where?
We are currently not selling at retail level yet– but we are selling to chefs. The best way to try it is to go on Amazon. We are currently selling our fish in select U.S. restaurants as well. On our twitter account, @atlsapphire, we will start sharing with our followers the names of restaurants that are featuring our fish.
We are in the process of building what will be the largest system of this kind in Florida and look forward to being able to supply more sustainably farmed salmon to even more markets in the near future.
Q: What about the sustainability of the feed used for your fish? What do you feed them?
Salmon are the best converters of feed to animal protein – far more so than beef, chicken, etc. So, we start out with an animal that is way more sustainable as a source for creating protein.
We feed a feed that mimics what they get in the wild. We don’t waste any feed lost in the cages. Our feed is made of a mix of different protein. Fish mill and fish byproducts that are non-suitable for human consumption. We choose to avoid feeds that contain ingredients suitable for human consumption to be even more sustainable.
The feed mix we have is accredited by the IFFO. It is cleaned from PCBs and heavy metals and we don’t use synthetic pigment – the color in the fish comes from a natural yeast. It is not organic feed, but we are working on developing an organic certification. Currently, the USDA does not have a certification for organic Salmon.
Q: It sounds like you have a lot of requirements for your feed. Is it hard to source?
Every feed producer would be able to produce it to our specs, but it costs a little more money. We are working with all the main feed producers. The industry as a whole is moving toward a more sustainable farmed fish system.
Q: In previous interviews I’ve done with the craft beer sector, I have seen the power of engaging with consumers – creating fans vs customers. What has been your experience so far with this?
We believe in that 100%. Engagement with the public has been great. People love what we do and that we are really bringing sustainability to this space. We have great ways to connect with people on Twitter and Instagram.
We are never in the business of judging what other people are doing – we are just focused on making the best product we can and we leave the judgments to the experts.
Q: What do you see as the biggest resource concerns for the farmed seafood industry? How is your company planning to manage these risks?
The biggest resource concern is disease control and how the environment affects the fish at this point, and then of course, how any system affects the environment. Conventional farmed fish are more at risk for disease. They are in the middle of the ocean with a big net – they can be affected by climate change, sea lice, algae, etc.
On the wild-caught side, the biggest resource concern is overfishing.
Farmed fish is part of a solution as long as the feed is produced sustainably – using less and less of the wild-catch fish as feed.
Q: What about the social side of sustainability? Do you work with the local communities you are in? Do you provide opportunities for employee engagement and advancement? Are you working with any non-governmental organizations – or do you have future plans for this topic area?
Right now, the U.S. imports 90% of their seafood. Florida is a protein deficit state. What we plan on doing here is not only producing protein – we are also going to create an industry that doesn’t exist there now – creating jobs, working closely with local universities, working with fresh water institutes – all in the process of creating a healthy, sustainable food product.
We don’t see others as competitors, but as family—we want them all to do well to change the course of the industry.
There is no bad fish – we want to be a good example for all the seafood industry to follow us if they want to.
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