Ichthus Unlimited building closed-cycle bluefin tuna operation in California and Mexico
A former university lecturer and Fulbright Scholar is aiming to build on pioneering efforts by Japanese scientists and remove bottleneck issues for closed-cycle bluefin tuna farming in North America.
Alejandro Buentello, president of Ichthus Unlimited (IU) LLC, told SeafoodSource the five-year project will demand cutting-edge science and may cost as much as USD 50 million (EUR 44.4 million).
Despite the possible challenges, Buentello told SeafoodSource he believes IU has the potential to revolutionize the highly competitive – and lucrative – market for bluefin tuna, a species with an estimated annual trading value of around USD 2 billion (EUR 1.8 billion).
“Not even caviar pays as well as top-quality bluefin tuna pays, but natural populations are extremely imperiled,” he said. “The Pacific bluefin tuna (Thunnus orientalis) is subjected to extreme fishing pressure and recent assessments indicate that the stock now stands at around 4 percent of historical levels. Other bluefin tuna species are also classified as vulnerable or critically endangered by international management agencies.”
Buentello is a fish nutritionist and physiologist and his background includes time spent as a lecturer at Texas A&M University, as director of Archer Daniels Midland’s Animal Nutrition Research Division, and as senior scientist at a joint Canadian, U.K. and Japanese tuna ranching venture in Baja, Mexico. He also served as co-editor of “Advances in Tuna Aquaculture,” which provides a detailed overview on the current status of tuna fisheries, fattening, and farming practices, as well as advances in closed-cycle tuna aquaculture.
His company, Ichthus Unlimited is based in West Des Moines, Iowa, and its feed plant and planned hatchery locations are in San Diego, California. Buentello founded IU initially to produce high-performance aquafeed for high-value species, including tuna, yellowtail, cobia, salmon, flounder, and shrimp. Mastering a feed formula for bluefin tuna, which are very picky eaters, has been the biggest key in unlocking the possibility of sustainable tuna farming, he said.
“Feed is so important – it’s a primary bottleneck. Right now, you the industry uses baitfish, which alone is largely unsustainable and has the potential to really collapse sardine and mackerel fisheries. Not to mention, feeding farmed tuna only sardine doesn’t work, because baitfish doesn’t have some of the micronutrients the fish needs, and it has a very white fat, so when it deposits in the muscle tissue of tuna, it makes it look pink – not the right hue for tuna,” he said. “If we are successful with our feed, as we have demonstrated we can be in the last two years – that we can feed these animals long-term on formulated diets, we can reduce pressure on wild forage fish and massively raise the ceiling on how much bluefin we can be grown in farms, in a sustainable manner.”
Buentello said IU’s proprietary feed formula, developed through 20 years of experimentation, gives his project a major advantage.
“We started working on bluefin tuna feed at the tuna ranch in Baja. We several feeds, but we kept experiencing significant issues with fish not eating, going 20 days without feeding, then going ballistic when baitfish swam by their pens and literally killing themselves ramming into the walls of the pen. Even for the ones that survived, if the fish was scratched, the Japanese market wouldn’t pay for it,” he said.
IU’s technical team finally figured out a formula Buentello said the tuna fish loved, but then there were secondary issues of working to perfect the color of the tuna flesh – which ideally should be a deep cherry red. That took additional time and then, through optimized formulation, Buentello was able to increase the shelf-life of the tuna by an additional 24 to 48 hours by limiting toxin formation in the harvested tuna.
“Through nutritional intervention strategies, we have significantly delayed the deterioration of the flesh quality. In other words, we created a formula that improved color and shelf-life,” he said. “This is very important because sushi- and sashimi-grade fish only has a lifespan of two to three days, after which it is no longer safe to consume raw. When you analyze the value chain of tuna for sushi, which is never frozen, by extending that shelf-life by one or two days, you’re creating significant value and savings.”
The other serious obstacle to closed-cycle bluefin farming, Buentello said, is running a successful hatchery production of viable bluefin eggs. The IU team has several hatchery specialists on staff, including some with experience working at Japan’s Kinki University (now Kindai University), which was one of the pioneers in developing closed-cycle bluefin, and others that served as part of a team that helped close the life-cycle of Atlantic bluefin tuna at the Spanish Institute of Oceanography.
To support IU in its work, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, a nonprofit organization founded by backing from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to assist in supporting innovation addressing modern-day food and agriculture challenges, recently awarded a USD 945,000 (EUR 840,000) grant to Ichthus Unlimited. The Illinois Soybean Association (ILSOY), which has supported nutritional work in tuna diets, has also backed the hatchery project. Their grants will be used to establish a hatchery in the San Diego area for the cultivation of Pacific bluefin tuna eggs.
“Bluefin tuna aquaculture represents a new high-value market for U.S. farmers, but there is much science to be done to produce the fish entirely under farmed conditions,” FFAR Executive Director Sally Rockey said in a press release. “This research has the potential to not only stabilize the wild population, but also create economic opportunities in farming the delicacy.”
The hatchery is just part of the project. Another part includes deploying net-pens 15 miles south of San Diego, in Mexico, where bluefin brood stock will be used to obtain fertilized eggs and early juveniles from the hatchery will undergo a nursery phase before being sold to Mexican bluefin farms, a process that takes six months to a year. Buentello’s plan initially calls for importing fertilized eggs, and perfecting the hatchery’s processes over a few years, then eventually moving to using eggs from IU’s own farm in larval rearing processes.
“It’s a five-year plan,” he said. “We think by the end of that time, we’ll have the farm up and going, nursery cages, and a fully functional hatchery.”
While the FFAR and ILSOY grants may seem significant, and will help the project get started, IU’s grand vision will require a significant investment to come to fruition.
“The grant may seem like a sizeable amount of money, and it is, but it is not sufficient for the size of the project. We’re going to have to go after investment capital,” he said. “Fortunately, we have a very experienced executive vice president and chief commercialization officer who have done several deals with venture capital. Because the proof of concept has already been demonstrated, that makes it easier. And it’s a project that has all the right messages – not only is it an excellent business opportunity, but it’s also environmentally responsible. The project has a specific gravity to Southern California because it involves a very recognizable species, and because tuna is so familiar and loved here, it grabs peoples’ imagination. I’m very confident we’ll be able to raise the amount needed for the project.”
On the consumer side, IU’s marketing strategy is centered on the U.S. market, where Buentello said he thinks the allure of sustainably-farmed, North American-grown bluefin tuna could not only fetch a premium, but also lead sushi-crazed diners to eat it more often.
“Sushi is perceived as very healthy food, and it’s especially popular in California, which is our home market. In L.A. and New York, there are lots of people who consume sushi once a week. If we can get them to eat it twice per week, we’re already doubling the business of some of the restaurants we hope to sell to,” he said. “But there are obvious concerns about sustainability, and besides that, many consumers are also concerned about the levels of mercury that accumulates in tuna. It’s a legitimate concern, and it’s one we have the ability to address – the mercury levels in our fish are significantly lower because we control their diet.”
Buentello said he’s not worried about playing catch-up to the handful of Japanese companies that have already brought closed-cycle farmed bluefin tuna to market, such as Maruha Nichiro and Kyokuyo.
“About 80 to 85 percent of sashimi-grade bluefin tuna, whether it’s Pacific, Atlantic, or Southern, still goes to Japan,” Buentello acknowledged. “However, the global sushi market does not seem to be slowing down yet. Our product may have an advantage in competing for the American market in that we are right here.”
While the U.S. represents the core of the future market for IU, Buentello said the company’s vision is global.
“We want to replicate the model we’ve created,” he said. “That means more farms in the U.S., once legislation is passed that allows that. We’d like to replicate what we’re doing in California in the Gulf of Mexico for Atlantic bluefin tuna, and in Hawaii for yellowfin or bigeye tuna. It also means more hatcheries, and selling our feed – we’ve had interest from places like Spain, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, and Australia.”
Buentello said he’s not concerned about IU’s business straddling both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border, even with tensions between the two countries running high and U.S. President Donald Trump issuing threats to shut down or limit border traffic.
“After China, Mexico is the U.S.’s second-largest customer for agricultural goods, so no, I don’t believe border will be closed,” he said. “There may be some border security issues that the government needs to address. Our task, however, is to demonstrate that IU can create jobs and economic benefits in California and create trade benefits for both countries. It may be a win-win situation, in that we’ll be consuming raw materials in the U.S. and adding value, then selling compound feeds south of the border. In return, Mexico will send back to the U.S. a great seafood product. It may become a very positive cycle, in my opinion.”
Buentello said he is passionate about making the project work, if for no other reason than the numerous environmental benefits his project will create.
“The range of the Pacific bluefin tuna encompasses several nations through two continents and the largest and deepest ocean on Earth. The fisheries quotas are based on sound science, but to implement restrictions is nearly impossible because so many nations have a stake. Despite all efforts to help the species, it is still in peril,” he said. “Right now, bluefin tuna farming production relies on catching wild juvenile tuna and raising them to market size before distributing the fish to seafood outlets. This adds to the already massive fishing pressure on wild bluefin tuna populations. Hatchery-reared tuna will not only make it possible to stock cages without fishing, but it can also be used as a stock enhancement strategy to empower wild tuna populations to rebound more rapidly. It is a proactive rather than reactive strategy.”
Bringing a viable tuna industry back to San Diego would be a dream come true, Buentello said.
“Pacific bluefin tuna was a staple of the economy in San Diego, and at one time, one of the most important resources for Southern California. Now, due to overfishing, the industry is gone. How cool would it be to be able revive an industry around bluefin tuna in the same location that was partly responsible for the demise of the species?”
Photo courtesy of the Illinois Soybean Association