More potentially bad news for the Alaska commercial salmon fishing industry was Monday emanating from, of all places, South Florida.
On the site of an old tomato farm near a community called Homestead, the Miami Herald reported, a Norwegian firm is making steady progress on construction of a massive, $130 million, environmentally friendly, land-based salmon farm.
“For all three phases, estimated to come online by 2027, Atlantic Sapphire is predicting an annual output of about 90,000 metric tons, about 10 percent of the U.S. market,” wrote Nancy Dahlberg. “Put another way: That’s about 360 million meals produced every year.”
“Atlantic Sapphire salmon is raised in a revolutionary Bluehouse, the equivalent of a greenhouse where fish are given ideal conditions to thrive,” the company raves on its websites.
“Inside the Bluehouse, the water is continuously purified to remain crystal clear by a state of the art filtration system. Furthermore, the fish are free to swim against strong currents, as they do in the wild.
“Atlantic Sapphire salmon will never have contact with sea lice or be exposed to wild fish diseases. This allows them to grow strong and healthy in a humane way.
“The waste generated in our Bluehouse is used as fertilizer and creation of renewable energy in the form of biogas.”
Sapphires Bluehouse technology was pioneered in Denmark early this decade, but the South Florida operation signals a radical upsizing and a move to the U.S. to compete as “locally raised” salmon.
“Up to now, what has been holding up salmon from growing and feeding the world is that it has been stuck at the ends of the Earth and has to be flown around,” José Prado, chief financial officer for Sapphire told the Herald. “We’re changing that. We call it world-class local.”
End of Earth
From the end of the earth, Alaska wild salmon has been fighting a losing battle with farmed fish for a long time now. The state’s biggest weapon has always been that wild is better – more environmentally friendly and less likely to be contaminated by nearshore pollution or farmed-fish food.
“Salmon farming has been criticized for years for over-using antibiotics, harboring diseases, and allowing fish to escape and contaminate or crossbreed with wild stocks,” Public Radio International reported from Cordova last fall.
Land-based facilities solve these problems. Fish can’t escape. The filtered water eliminates pollutants. The steady current washes away sea lice, a problem in some net-pen operations. Antibiotics aren’t needed because the farmed fish aren’t exposed to pathogens floating around in the ocean.
While construction is still just beginning in Florida, the Herald reported, Sapphire plans to put eggs in its freshwater hatchery in November with an eye to having the rearing tanks with recirculating saltwater ready when the eggs hatch.
The salmon are to be grown to about 10 pounds, “a process that takes about 22 months from the egg stage, and the company said no hormones, antibiotics or pesticides will be used,” Dahlberg wrote.
A 10-pound, farmed-raised Atlantic competes directly with Alaska sockeye salmon that come in at about the same size. The farmed fish years ago became the dominate market force. They have been dictating salmon prices ever since.
The value of the Bristol Bay sockeye fishery – the biggest in Alaska – peaked at more than $400 million in 1979, and the fishery has been struggling to get back to that level ever since.
A 2017 catch of almost 38 million sockeye last year – 165 percent above the 10-year average and the second largest harvest in the past two decades – was estimated to be worth about $250 million in an analysis prepared for the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.
“While future market developments can never be predicted with total certainty and several factors could negatively affect sockeye value over the next 18 months, the value outlook is relatively stable,” the report said. “The recent spike in harvest value is not expected to be followed by a sharp decline as happened in 2014-2015 (barring a significant reduction in future harvest volume).
“Wholesale sockeye prices are much higher than recent years and demand remains relatively strong, and although competing farmed prices have declined this year most farmed salmon analysts predict prices will remain relatively steady for at least the next year.”
The problem fishermen face – and along with them a state where seafood processing in a major industry – is that Alaska salmon production is fixed whereas the potential for farmed salmon production is an unknown still somewhere over the horizon.
“Salmon aquaculture is the fastest growing food production system in the world, accounting for 70 percent of the market,” according to the World Wildlife Fund.
The aquaculture market share is only expected to keep growing. The farmers are doing to salmon what they did to chicken. It went from being a barnyard animal to a mass-produced commodity.
So why do this in Florida, other than its near a major airport that makes it easy to ship fresh salmon to markets all over the lower 48?
Geology, Sapphire says. In south Florida, the company claims, it found an aquifer with ample freshwater near a quality supply of salt water and a safe site for injecting treated wastewater more than a half mile underground for disposal.
“This was the last place I looked at because I was thinking South Florida, like the tropics, for a cold-water fish? It is pretty crazy,” Sapphire founder Johan Andreassen, a leader in the farmed fish industry told the Herald. He also appears to be a guy who knows how to push the right marketing buttons.
“What Atlantic Sapphire represents is the next level of sustainability,” he told Dahlberg. “We have zero impact on fish, zero impact on the ocean; we are cutting the carbon footprints, and the end result is that the consumer can buy a product that is very healthy for the consumer and appealing because it doesn’t harm the environment.
“This will put an end to flying salmon around the world.”
Florida has embraced idea. Sapphire praised the state’s cooperation. The South Dade News Leader reported the first phase of the Bluehouse is projected to create 2,700 jobs in the Miami-Dade County area.
The truly bad news in this for Alaska, which bans fish farming?
Sapphire is “projecting that its flavorful salmon will cost considerably less to produce than conventional salmon farming by 2026,” Dahlberg wrote.
“‘It’s not going to be a product for the rich,” Andreassen said. “We want to feed the world.”
Down and out in Dillingham
The best Alaska could hope for is that the project fails because if it doesn’t, if it pioneers newer and better ways to produce salmon on land, the market-influence of farmed fish will only keep growing and growing and growing, and Alaska wild will increasingly become a niche product.
“Closed containment aquaculture is a solution scientists, conservationists, and citizens that want to keep wild salmon around have been asking for, for a really long time,” says the website FarmedandDangerous.com. “Closed systems separate farmed fish from wild fish to avoid the problems with waste, sea lice, disease and escapes that have been plaguing the net-pen industry and threatening wild salmon for so many years.”
Farmed and Dangerous was set up in 2011 by the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform in British Columbia, Canada, to battle fish farms. The Coastal Alliance is an organization of fishermen, conservationists and Canadian Natives.
The Canadians started experimenting with land-based salmon farms several years ago. Kuterra, a Canadian Native corporation, has one running BC.
In October, it announced the operation is now making a “modest profit,” and the company is “in discussions with potential investors for its land-based Atlantic salmon farm on northern Vancouver Island.”
“The land-based Atlantic salmon industry is accelerating globally,” Eric Hobson, the chairman of Kuterra said in that statement. “Until recently, the progress was in Canada and Europe. Now we’re seeing the US catch up, and this has the potential to erode BC’s first-mover advantage in the land-based industry, as well as the market for BC
Hobson noted the Sapphire project underway in Florida and warned that when completed it will grow as much Atlantic salmon as all BC farms – on land or in water – do now.
“We seek to ensure that BC remains in the game with land-based aquaculture, and to achieve the scale that we have determined is essential for success,” said Hobson.
Some in the fish business have been talking for decades about a “Blue Revolution” in aquaculture to rival the “Green Revolution” that transformed agriculture in the 1960s, and there is no doubt aquaculture has been growing steadily and significantly.
“Aquaculture has brought two crucial changes to the seafood industry: consistency of supply and lower prices,” The Economist noted in a “special report” way back in 2003.
Aquaculture has done nothing but expand its production since that report was written. Led by farms in Norway and Chile, production more than doubled from less than 1.1 million metric tons in 2003 to more than 2.2 million tons last year
But opposition – usually backed by traditional commercial fishing groups – in the U.S. and Canada has stymied production in North America.
Alaska banned fish farming in 1990 after a scientific review concluded it posed no real threat to the state’s wild salmon. The Alaska Legislature, however, decided farming posed a serious threat to Alaska commercial fishing businesses.
The state was at the time the dominate supplier of global salmon. The plan to protect that market share by banning farming in Alaska didn’t work. Farming is now big business and Alaska is a bit player in a market taken over by farmed fish from elsewhere.
Fears about net-pen farmed, however, rage along the Pacific Coast from Oregon north. Lack of protected waters has, so far, kept salmon farms out of Oregon. Washington state had five but has voted to phase them out after a net failure loosed a bunch of Atlantic salmon in Puget Sound.
“BC is About to Become Last Place on West Coast to Allow Open-Net Fish Farms,” DeSmog Canada, an energy and environment reporting website, noted last week. And the pressure is on in BC to move the operations on land.
A tech shift
That could be coming. It is happening elsewhere as evidenced in Florida and Maine and Wisconsin where Superior Fresh is already growing Atlantic salmon and hoping to start harvesting 2,500 pounds per week later this year, along with a leafy greens grown with re-circulated water.
The company pitches itself as a local, eco-friendly way to farm.
“Our goal is always to reuse as much water as we can, which we achieve with a 99.95% recirculation, but we do require some water,” the company’s website says. “Using our own two deep-water wells, we are able to extract the best and cleanest water for our fish and produce. Our water is free from heavy metals and other contaminants, so our fish and produce are free of them too.”
That these sorts of operations are likely to increase and grow seems probable for one simple reason: economics.
Feeding fish is more efficient than feeding cows or pigs or even chicken, which has now surpassed beef as the most eaten meet in the U.S. It takes on average about 8 pounds of feed to grow a pound of beef, 4 pounds of feed for a pound of pork, and just under 2 pounds for a pound of chicken, according to a study published in Environmental Research Letters last month.
It takes under a pound and a half to grow a pound of Atlantic salmon.
Salmon – it’s what for dinner.
The big problem for Alaska, which has long followed a policy of maximizing inefficiencies in its commercial fisheries to boost the number of commercial fishing jobs, will come when markets altered by farmed salmon steadily reduce the value of the fish.
The last time this happened was in the 1960s and 1970s when salmon runs crashed. Commercial fishermen then couldn’t catch enough fish to make a living. Going forward, it could be that they can’t make a living no matter how many they catch within the confines of state regulations.
The answer in the ’70s was the state’s limited entry law, which fixed the number of people allowed to commercial fish. What the answer will be for the 2020s is something Alaska should probably start thinking about.