The Southern California Bight - the eastward curvature of ocean region between Santa Barbara and Mexican border - has a coastal population of 17 million people. It is rich with untapped marine resources and increasingly under pressing policies from the encroachment of urbanization and commercial exploitation. The challenge is to protect the ecosystem and marine life of this massive 100,000 square mile bight while also accommodating societal and economic opportunities that would benefit its citizens. Californians should encourage policies producing projects and opportunities that would not compromise the health of this potentially productive resource. This would showcase best practices for commercialization that would be in the public interest. It would also provide science-based data for allocating this massive ocean space for important human economic and recreational needs that would not conflict with marine life and ocean ecology. KZO Sea Farms is developing a 100-acre shellfish farm approximately nine miles offshore Long Beach in the 130,000-acre San Pedro Basin. It is the first open ocean shellfish farm permitted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has sole jurisdiction in federal waters. This pilot farm will consist of 45 ropes about 600 feet in length anchored in depths of about 125 feet and spaced about 100 feet apart. The shellfish cultivation gear, suspended from the ropes, will be submerged 30 feet under the surface to prevent intrusion with commercial and recreational uses. After rigorously monitoring and documenting the environmental, economic and sociological impacts, the farm will be expanded based upon best practices supported by science-based data.
In contrast to shellfish typically harvested from intertidal bays and estuaries, this project presents a new paradigm for cultivation in pristine waters of the open ocean. Offshore shellfish farms are showing higher growth rates, better meat yields, and heavier production compared with inshore farms. This is attributed to lower stress from unpolluted water and the abundance of phytoplankton providing the shellfish with food for rapid growth. Oysters and mussels are filter-feeding bivalves that consume nutrients from the water column. The nearby offshore oil platforms legs are covered with mussels thriving on these single-celled algae that are the basis of the marine food chain. Beginning in March, prevailing westerly winds, combined with the effects of the earth's rotation, drive surface waters offshore along the Southern California Bight. These waters are replaced by deep, cold water flowing upwards over the continental shelf to the surface, carrying dissolved nutrients from the decay of organic material that had sunk to the ocean floor. This seasonal phenomenon of upwelling the cold nutrient rich water produces phytoplankton, the feedstock of shellfish supporting the food web of fisheries including sardines, anchovy and other pelagic fish species.
California is the world’s fifth largest supplier of food commodities. It has the potential to emulate this land-based agriculture success with offshore shellfish aquaculture for increasing economic and food security. With high unemployment, California could use the jobs. NOAA Fisheries data show more than one million jobs were created from the seafood industry in the United States during 2009. Studies show that in a small percentage of state and federal waters within the Southern California Bight could generate a multibillion-dollar offshore aquaculture industry. Consider: California could emulate New Zealand, which has the goal to triple the value of aquaculture production to $1 billion by 2025, and in a sustainable way that preserves its pristine environment. The National Aquaculture Act of 1980, which applies to all federal agencies, states that it is “in the national interest, and it is the national policy, to encourage the development of aquaculture in the United States”. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently proclaimed: “When properly sited, operated, and maintained, commercial shellfish aquaculture activities generally result in minimal adverse effects on the aquatic environment and in many cases provide environmental benefits by improving water quality and wildlife habitat, and providing nutrient cycling functions”. Quoting Dr. Michael Rubino, Manager of NOAA’s Aquaculture Program: “From the point of view of jobs and economic opportunity, the place we can expand right now is on the shellfish side. Shellfish farming has far less-intensive impacts on ecosystems in comparison to finfish, especially the controversial, carnivorous species like salmon that require significant wild fish resources for their feed. Filter-feeding bivalve shellfish like mussels, clams and oysters need no feed and typically have net ecological benefits in terms of improving water quality.”
The cultivation of shellfish currently makes up about two-thirds of United States marine aquaculture production. In 2010, National Marine Fisheries Service data show that commercial landings at approximately 28 million pounds (meat weight) with imports at about 34.6 million pounds for a total of 62.7 million pounds. The USDA Economic Research Service data for 2011 show 26.8 million pounds of imported fresh oysters and 63.8 million pounds of imported fresh mussels. About 85 percent of our nation's seafood comes from overseas - mostly from China – producing a seafood deficit amounting to a staggering $10 billion. China produces roughly two-thirds of the world’s seafood and is projected to soon shift from a net seafood exporter to a net seafood importer with the emergence of its middle-class. This shift promises to present significant supply and pricing challenges for the seafood industry. The recent National Academy of Sciences report Ecosystem Concepts for Sustainable Bivalve Mariculture “suggests that the United States could triple domestic production of shellfish to more than 300,000 metric tons per year (live weight) by 2025; in volume terms this could displace all current shellfish imports”. Americans have two choices: continue to import thereby increasing the deficit; or, “grow our own” which would create jobs by producing a local supply of healthy shellfish.
Shellfish are also one of the world’s most perfect foods that are extremely high in proteins, calcium and iron, and an excellent source of selenium and Vitamin 12. They are also a good source of zinc and folic acid, while low in fat and calories and contain huge amounts of omega-3s. Offshore shellfish cultivation in federal waters of the Southern California Bight would be in the public interest by increasing jobs and reducing America’s huge seafood trade deficit with no negative environmental impact. By showcasing science-based solutions for a sustainable shellfish industry, California would assume a leadership role in the fastest growing global food industry.