Op-ed: Central American tour reveals how offshore aquaculture can be successful in the US
Emily De Sousa is a fisheries scientist and CEO of the digital educational platform Seaside with Emily. De Sousa promotes sustainable seafood, healthy oceans, travel, culinary exploration, and the rise of pescatourism through her website, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok social media platforms.
What could the future of offshore aquaculture in the U.S. look like?
This question was top of mind for the team from the Coalition for Sustainable Aquaculture that traveled to Central America this week to see how positive examples of offshore aquaculture in this region could be replicated in the U.S.
The trip, organized by feed manufacturer BioMar, brought together a team of experts and sustainable seafood advocates including Barton Seaver and Steve Phelps. Barton Seaver is a chef, speaker, author, and long-time sustainable seafood champion. Steve Phelps is the chef and owner of Indigenous Restaurant and soon-to-open PigFish, both establishments in the U.S. state of Florida with a strong menu focus on sustainable aquaculture. Both chefs are also members of the Coalition for Sustainable Aquaculture, a partnership of environmental advocates, industry leaders, and award-winning chefs dedicated to growing sustainable and equitable aquaculture right in the U.S. waters.
The culinary duo was also joined by myself and Tim Deckner and Thomas Stampe Petersen, divers and underwater photographers from Denmark.
“Seeing is believing” was the simple response from BioMar Global Marketing Director Katherine Bryar, the organizer of the tour, when asked why she decided to bring this group together for an offshore aquaculture tour.
“By bringing these leading chefs to the region, they can experience the technology firsthand and see how the fish live below the water,” she said. “It will take chefs bringing these alternative species onto their menu to really grow consumer demand and only then can we hope to create a profitable and successful offshore mariculture farming in the U.S. Gulf.”
To capture the scope of the offshore aquaculture industry, the team made visits to Panama and Costa Rica to visit three offshore farms: Open Blue cobia farm, Forever Oceans kanpachi farm, and AquaFoods (previously MarTec) rose snapper farm. The sites were chosen because of their farming practices and species, as they resemble the types of operations that we could one day see in the United States.
The team started at Open Blue, where they got a true taste of the open ocean. A Cuna del Mar project, Open Blue is a 4-star Best Aquaculture Practices- and Aquaculture Stewardship council-certified operation, which is the first of its kind in the world. For Phelps, cobia is a bestseller on his menu, so the visit to Open Blue was something extra special.
“My restaurant, Indigenous, opened in 2001, and shortly after the initial success many people came to my back door pushing product. Cobia from Open Blue was one I was most impressed with. It has been one of the bestselling items at the restaurant since we featured it on the plate back then. I have used almost every technique possible to cook it and not one ever disappoints.”
Reflecting on the experience of being up close and personal with the offshore farms.
“Seeing these fish and the operation seriously teared me up,” he said. “From the moment we pulled away from the dock, I was glad I had my sunglasses were on so nobody could see me cry. As a chef, few things make us feel complete. Visiting a farmer/fisher/producer can really take you by surprise. And when you see that all the information you have been passing on to your staff and customers is real. It is a deep emotion that confirms you have been doing the right thing all along.”
After Open Blue, the team traveled to the north of Panama to learn more about Forever Oceans kanpachi farm. Forever Oceans is a newer operation, producing delicious and buttery kanpachi, and the company claims it has a 20 percent lower carbon footprint than farmed salmon.
With more sheltered conditions than Open Blue, the chefs were able to get into the water and snorkel the pens amongst 80,000 spirited kanpachi fish, before ending the evening at a beachside cookout where the team had the opportunity to prepare kanpachi in a variety of methods.
The final stop of the tour was to AquaFoods rose snapper pens. Founded in 1982 in Quepos, Costa Rica, AquaFoods is one of the largest marine fish processing and mariculture companies in Central America. Its aquaculture portfolio consists of rose snapper and tilapia. The company is aiming to change consumer perceptions of seafood, especially tilapia, where they say their product resembles more a premium seafood than what consumers are used to when they think of tilapia. They attribute the difference in taste and quality to their responsible farming methods.
This trip was especially timely, given the ongoing conversations surrounding offshore aquaculture expansion in the United States. At the time of writing, the AQUAA Act has been reintroduced and the SEAfood Act is working its way through Congress. Both bills are seeking to lay the groundwork for offshore aquaculture in the U.S. by establishing permitting regulations and encouraging federal support for research and data collection.
The chef team is coming back to the U.S. equipped with knowledge and real-life experiences with sustainable offshore aquaculture that they hope they can use to support America’s expansion into the space.
“Among the best things that I witnessed on this trip was the role that these companies are playing in crafting policy and regulation within their countries that direct their own efforts, but also any new entrants to sustainability.” Seaver said. “As much as this is happening in Panama, Costa Rica, and beyond, I feel that chefs have a responsibility to advocate for the same and support the products of development of aquaculture in the United States. Though I support sustainable aquaculture anywhere it's practiced, the U.S. has a particularly important role to play as a global leader and example of continued advancement of responsibly produced seafood.”
There is no doubt that aquaculture remains a contentious topic, especially in the U.S. But tides are changing, especially as the urgency to increase domestic food production mounts. For Phelps, supporting sustainable aquaculture is a no-brainer.
“I'm so surprised that so many chefs are still hesitant about using farm-raised fish from overseas. I live next to the ocean and daily, I have to watch it deteriorate and diminish. Red tides, pollution, light catches, fuel, the list goes on. We have proven if we farm it right, it can be a chef’s best friend. High-quality, premium fish that can be consistently delivered to you with not much fluctuation in pricing. This is the menu "dream" we all want. We also have amazing farms in the U.S. growing top-notch fish, but the scale is still small and can be limited supply.”
For Seaver, this trip marked an opportunity to reflect on his changed perceptions of aquaculture over his long journey in the culinary world.
“As a chef coming up in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, I was quite proudly anti-aquaculture, with some exceptions, such as farm-raised bivalves. But looking back on both what I was hearing and what I was saying, the criticisms lacked the context of what aquaculture promised as a benefit to the larger food system inclusive of land animal proteins and wild seafood. While I don't regret the passions that led to my advocacy at the time, I do fully admit that I lacked context, as well as a full scope of information. In the years since, I have benefitted from firsthand experience with some of the products and production methods that I once thought [were] ‘farmed and dangerous.’”
Photo courtesy of Emily de Sousa/Twitter