Neil Sims: Growing more seafood for more people

An unanchored fish pen tethered to a drifting boat that allows sashimi-grade Kampachi to be farmed in their natural environment miles offshore of Hawaii.

Marine biologist Neil Anthony Sims, Co-CEO of Kampachi Farms, is working to produce sustainable seafood for a growing planet. Sims and his team used an Aquapod – an unanchored fish pen tethered to a drifting boat that allows sashimi-grade Kampachi to be farmed in their natural environment up to 75 miles offshore of Hawaii. The fish growth was phenomenal in this open ocean location, and far from the coast, the free-floating fish pens had no measurable impact on Hawaii’s sensitive marine life. This interview is part of a special EarthSky series, Feeding the Future, produced in partnership with Fast Company and sponsored by Dow.

Image Credit: Rick Decker

Medical research has shown that it’s smart to eat seafood. It’s good for your heart – and it might help keep your brain younger, longer. But wild fisheries are becoming depleted. Some of today’s fish farms have come under fire for crowded conditions that aren’t healthy for the environment, or the fish. But marine biologist Neil Anthony Sims, Co-CEO of Kampachi Farms says there is a way to grow more fish without negative environmental impacts. Sims told EarthSky:

Open ocean aquaculture is the culture of fish and bivalves and algae, that great seafood that’s so good for us. But it’s culturing these animals and these plants in more exposed open water. What we like to say is, deeper water further off shore.

Sims and his team deployed the Velella project, where an Aquapod – an unanchored fish pen – was tethered to a drifting boat.  In recently completed tests, the Aquapod drifted off the west coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, from three to 75 miles offshore in deep waters up to about two miles deep. The unanchored fish pens let fish be farmed in their natural environment, according to Sims. He said:

Neil Sims. Image Credit: Rick Decker

The most important aspect of the Valella Project has been that it has been testing the drifter cage concept, which is something that people have spoken of for the last couple of decades. People have been dreaming of the idea of having a net pen for culturing fish that actually wasn’t anchored to the bottom.

We’ve had the Valella Project launched since May of 2011 and we have just completed the harvest of the first fish from the Valella Project. The fish that we cultured in there were the Kampachi, which is an Amberjack or a Yellowtail. It’s closely related to the Japanese Hamachi. So it’s a real sashimi-grade fish, very high value fish. It’s native to the waters of Hawaii.

We’re able to produce them in the hatchery in a land based hatchery system and then move them out into the Valella pen. This first experimental project here with the Valella was just to test a research scale pen of 130 cubic meters. So that’s about 22 feet in diameter. And we stock this with around 2,000 fingerlings at about a-half pound size was when we initially stocked them back in July of last year of 2011. The fish growth was phenomenal in this open ocean location. The fish health and the feed conversion ratio also were very good. The survival was really good. So we think that there’s some tremendous advantages that we didn’t expect here, that we’re seeing from physiological response from the fish to being grown in these conditions here.

The fish in the Aquapod were fed a diet with a significant proportion of soybean meal and soy oil through a hose from the connecting tender vessel. Past monitoring around moored pens offshore in Kona showed a small
environmental footprint. Sims said:

Let me tell you what we have found with the moored pen system that has been operating here in Kona since 2004. And it’s only half a mile out off shore from a pristine coral reef. It’s in water about 200 feet deep and it’s over a sand bottom. But we’ve had extensive environmental monitoring of that operation from 2004 onwards. And the overwhelming conclusion is that there’s no measurable impact from that operation once you get away from the immediate net pen area. And this is for a farm site that had produced over a million pounds of fish back in 2008. There’s no measurable impact.

You can’t even tell that the net pens are there once you move away from the net pen area. So this is tremendous validation that even a moored net pen system, if you locate it in deeper water, further off shore, over something like a sand bottom, we can scale this industry.

Image Credit: Rick Decker

Our primary concerns here with the Valella Project were, was there any interaction with marine mammals? … And the short answer for this is that, no. There’s no impact. There are a lot of other marine animals out there,
but they’re all busy doing their own thing. We had bottlenose dolphins, we had spinner dolphins. We had pilot whales, we had false killer whales.

And there were even humpback whales that came in around the Valella array at one time or another. They’d hang around for a while, perhaps sometimes the dolphins would hang around for a day. But then they’d move off, they had other places to go. So we’re not really having any impact on the behavior of these animals.

If done right, farmed fish could help wild fish stocks recover. Sim’s continued:

With the increasing demands for seafood that’s looming with more global population, growing global population and with greater affluence and greater health consciousness and awareness of the health benefits of seafood, there’s going to be increasing demand for seafood. Already around 50 percent of the seafood that’s consumed on the planet comes from aquaculture. And that is only going to grow as we increase the amount of seafood that we consume, as we should, as doctors are telling us. As we increase the amount of seafood it’s going to have to come from farmed sources. That’s because we don’t want to put increasing pressure on the wild stock fisheries. We need to reduce the pressure on those so that those stocks can recover. An increasing reliance on aquaculture really is the ecologically responsible thing to be doing for healthy oceans.