Open Blue Sea Farms
The drive from Panama City to Puerto Lindo was pleasant. It's a strange feeling to drive from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean in one afternoon. Richie Pretto, general manager of Open Blue Sea Farms, and Brian O'Hanlon, president of Open Blue Sea Farms, picked me up in the city and we took the highway north. The highway is less than a year old and has reduced a trip from Panama City to Colon from three to one hour.
During the ride I learned more about the backstory of Open Blue Sea Farms. Richie Pretto was one of the founders of Pristine Oceans, a company formed by Seattle, Washington-based Environmental Technologies Inc., which manufactures aquaculture feed systems, and Panamanian investors. But, according to Brian, ETI didn't have the experience to launch a fish farm and took Pristine Oceans in the wrong direction. So Pristine Oceans tanked at first. Panamanian investors pulled out. Employees were let go. Richie says it was the business plan, which was developed from scratch because very few people had seriously attempted to launch an offshore fish farm. "It's a new experience for everybody," Richie says. "There are only a handful of people who've done this: Brian, Kona (referring to a company in Hawaii) and some guy in South Korea who doesn't speak English or Spanish."
But Richie didn't give up. He bought out the other investors, ditched the U.S. company and approached Brian and Open Blue Sea Farms, which had been considering Panama for an offshore aquaculture site since 2005. Rather than duplicate efforts, Open Blue Sea Farms arranged to acquire Pristine Oceans. Open Blue officially took over operations in Puerto Lindo on August 1, but continues to finalize the acquisition.
Today, the company employs 30 people. Two months ago it had 10 employees, Richie says.
Starting a company attempting to do something that hasn't been done before is not an easy proposition. Its a startup, but one that has very high upfront capital costs followed by a lag in any cash flow until the fish can be farmed roughly a year later. As a result, the company has the feel of a startup, complete with the employees working long hours and going above and beyond to make the company a success, Richie says. "Everyone here is in endurance mode," Richie says.
While we were in the car crossing the isthmus that is Panama, Brian was checking his email on his iPhone. One email made him speak up from the backseat. It was from Mario Batale's business manager. Brian bumped into Batale the last time he was in New York. He didn't let the opportunity pass him by. He introduced himself, told Batale about Open Blue Sea Farms and the cobia they are farming. Last year, Batale competed against Jamie Oliver on the "Battle Cobia" episode of Iron Chef America. They didn't use Open Blue Sea Farms cobia and Brian wanted to make sure that didn't happen again. The email from the business manager was a followup asking Open Blue Sea Farms to contribute some cobia to a benefit event Batale is hosting. "We'd be delighted," Richie says from the driver's seat, smiling.
Cobia is a solitary fish, so it has never been extensively fished and is still relatively unknown to many consumers. But it is a good fit for aquaculture. It breeds well in captivity, it grows quickly and, though a carniverous fish, it doesn't require high amounts of fish meal and fish oil in its feed, according to Brian.
It was night by the time we reached the small fishing village of Puerto Lindo. I met a few of the employees in the office before Brian and I walked down the beach to a restaurant with white plastic tables and chairs set up outside on a patio. In the daytime, we would have seen several sailboats moored in the bay, along with three fish cages that Open Blue has set up in the bay, ready to tow to an offshore site. We ordered a few Balboas, a Panamanian cerveza, and began to chat about Brian's ironic dislike of eating fish. "I wish I'd eat more," he says. "I know it's health benefits. But I have this mental problem."
Brian comes from a longline of men in the seafood business. His grandfather and father were both seafood distributors in New York. "So I kind of grew up being force fed fish. So I have this mental block," he says. "I blame my grandmother."
Brian's interest in aquaculture was fostered by a deep love of the ocean and his family's personal experiences with fishing. His father invested in cod boats in the 1980s, which proved to be a bad business decision as cod landings suffered. "Fishery collapse has wreaked havoc on my family," he says. "So I developed an interest in aquaculture at a young age."
His attraction to the business was also driven by two pieces of advice from his father: He would never make money as a marine biologist and that he'd never meet a beautiful woman working on the water. (For the record, Brian's wife is a personal trainer.)
So he found himself hatching red snapper in his parents' basement at 17, launching an aquaculture company in Puerto Rico in his 20s and now, at 30, leading one of the most innovative aquaculture companies on the planet.
*Originally posted to The New Aquaculture on Tuesday, November 3, 2009.