Free Range Fish: The Environmental Promise of Open Ocean Fish Farms

fish farms

When Neil Sims was working as a marine biologist in the Cook Islands—an idyllic scattering of white sand and blue lagoon islands halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii—he couldn’t help but notice something about the islanders’ traditional fishing, in this case, diving for pearl shells. It was hard work, and not particularly lucrative for the struggling locals who depended on it. “Most of these fisheries would get heavily hammered,” says Sims, who now resides in Hawaii but has kept his Aussie accent. “The more I looked at this, the more I realized managing the wild stock fishery is only one piece. The real solution to make this scalable and make this a stable source of income was to figure out how to grow these.”

But despite the hardship of making a living selling wild-caught pearls, and despite the success of pearl farmers in nearby Tahiti, Cook Islanders were wary of giving up their traditional ways. They were fishers, not farmers. “There ensued five years of really fractured family-spitting, island-sundering, wrenching public policy debate in the small community of 300-400 people,” Sims says. “Because there was such a rigid desire to hang onto what people had always done.”

Sims’ experience is a microcosm of the larger resistance to aquaculture that has stagnated fish farming in the United States. Between poor public perception of farmed fish, an absent regulatory process for farming in open waters and a reliance on the traditional methods of fishing, farming the oceans has made little traction in the U.S., with the exception of a small but robust shellfish industry.

But innovative submersible fish pens and new developments in fish food are changing the conversation. Sustainable aquaculture is possible—and open ocean fish farms may be the solution to a whole range of environmental problems. Not the crowded, close-to-shore pens where fish are trapped like caged chickens, requiring doses of antibiotics which leak, along with the concentrated wastes, into surrounding water. But submersible net pens, more than 150 feet apart, where ocean currents disperse waste, and fish swim and live in the closest possible approximation to their natural habitat. Free-range fish.

“My vision is that we would reach in seafood production the same sort of position we are with land animal production,” says Sims, “where most of mankind’s nutritional needs are met by the more efficient less impactful production system—by culturing. Wild fisheries would still exist but we’d eat wild fish in the same way we eat bison or deer or wild duck or other wild game birds. It’s something that’s a special treat, a special culinary experience that connects us with the natural world.”


The world’s population will grow to 9 billion people by 2050, with an appetite to match. And in terms of protein sources, fish and other seafood have a lot to recommend them. Meat production—which is increasingly done in massive concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs—is awash in environmental ills. Cows raised for beef produce more harmful global warming gases like methane than cars and trucks do; livestock in close quarters require increasing amounts of antibiotics which taint our water supplies and contribute to cancer risk and to antibiotic-resistant “superbugs”; phosphorus- and nitrogen-containing runoff from factory farms contributes to coastal dead zones, oxygen-starved areas in the Gulf and elsewhere where no fish or corals can live; feeding livestock requires clearcutting forests around the world and devoting land that could be used to feed people to animal feed; and livestock are a huge drain on the world’s freshwater resources.

One important indicator of the environmental strengths and weaknesses of various protein sources is the feed conversion ratio. In other words, how much food an animal eats that is converted into edible body mass. It takes 8.7 pounds of feed to produce one pound of beef; 5.9 pounds of feed to produce one pound of pork, 1.9 pounds of feed to produce one pound of chicken and 1.2 pounds of feed to produce one pound of salmon. And trials are currently underway to reduce the amount of fish in fish feed using soy and algae that could turn farmed fish into net protein producers.

“Seafood is by far the most efficient protein to grow but you’ve got to be able to do that in a way that honors the rest of the environment,” says Robert Orr, the managing director and CEO of Cuna del Mar, a private equity firm supported by one family fortune that invests solely in technologies and operations that advance a sustainable aquaculture industry.


Large-scale farming operations come with serious environmental concerns, whether on land or at sea. And to feed the world’s growing population will require a lot of fish. Even just to maintain today’s level of fish consumption will require another 23 million tons of farmed fish by 2020, according to the Worldwatch Institute. By 2030, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says we’ll need an additional 40 million tons. In 2011, a record 154 million tons of fish were raised and caught—by 2020, 60% of the world’s fish is expected to come from aquaculture.

“Doctors and nutritionists are asking us to eat more seafood,” says Michael Rubino, director of the Aquaculture Office at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “And where’s that going to come from? We’re either going to import more from aquaculture or grow more of it here in our own backyard, benefitting our coastal communities.”

People in the U.S. like to eat seafood, but the country produces very little of it. Ninety percent of seafood eaten in the U.S. is imported, Rubino says, and about half is farm-raised. Shellfish make up 80% of what fish farming there is in the U.S. The other big industry is salmon farming with operations in Maine and Washington State, although aquaculture in some form can be found in all 50 states, including catfish farms in Mississippi and trout farms in Idaho. The setups vary. There are earthen ponds holding freshwater species; submerged cages stretched along a coastline or in a protected inlet, with nets hanging below floating pipes; and land-based recirculating systems where fish, shellfish or marine plants are grown in a facility where water and waste are continuously filtered and recycled.

“All of these technologies have pros and cons in terms of sustainability, resource efficiency and environmental impact,” says Rubino, adding that: “They all can be done well despite what you’ve heard.”

Fish farming—particularly operations on shorelines where fish and their waste are confined—have drawn concern from environmental groups for concentrating pollution in coastal waters. Pollution also comes in the form of excess fish food and antibiotics, and if farmed fish escape they are an invasive species that can quickly upset the ecological balance. That’s happened with tilapia—an easy fish to grow and a favorite for American families. The blue tilapia, native to Africa and the Middle East, is now a major threat to freshwater species in the southern Gulf states, has led to mussel declines in two Texas reservoirs, and wipes out vegetation and all other fish in streams where it becomes established. Farmed salmon have for years escaped their pens in British Columbia and Washington state, finding their way to Alaska in recent years and presenting a concern that they’ll begin to push out the native Pacific salmon.

Rubino says U.S. fish farms all meet stringent environmental standards but there’s a problem of scalability. “It would be nice if we could grow everything in tanks on land where the permitting is easier—there are a lot of abandoned warehouses,” he says. “But the cost of recirculating systems is pretty high. So it works for a few species going to white-glove restaurants. We have limited fresh water so it’s hard to increase pond production in the U.S. We’re all trying to figure out—how do we farm the oceans?”


The answer may lie in a submersible fish pen called the Aquapod by Ocean Farm Technologies. It’s a spherical cage comprised of triangular net panels that are made of 80% recycled polyethylene coated with galvanized steel designed to keep fish in and predators out. They range in size from about 26 feet to over 65 feet in diameter. These pens can be lowered into deep water hundreds of feet from shore, below the wave action, allowing fish to live in their natural habitat and providing a means for fish waste to disperse naturally. Fish are fed by a barge boat that pumps a mixture of food and water from hoses into the cages. The technology is continually evolving to make these pens more automated. Already, they can be pulled to the surface and rotated for cleaning or servicing with minimal manpower, thanks in part to a mooring system that can be filled with air to float a cage to the surface. They can also be pulled by a cable and boat. Divers haven’t been eliminated from the process, says Ocean Farm’s Senior Engineer, Stephen Ruell, but they’re working on it.

“This is a completely different operating environment,” says Orr, whose Cuna del Mar firm supports Ocean Farm Technologies as well as OceanSpar, makers of the SeaStation diamond-shaped submersible pen. “You have to change the way that you stock fish; you have to change the way that you harvest fish; the way you do mortality collection; the way you feed fish; how you clean the cages. All that is new. We’ve started to move these companies into developing full-farm solutions.”

In Hawaii, Sims ran a company that was putting the Aquapods to use growing kampachi—sashimi-grade yellowtail. After a trial-and-error period with various species he found that farming kampachi in the Aquapod is as straightforward as sheep farming. The fish thrive in the enclosures and take readily to food pellets that are being increasingly developed with minimal fish meal.

His former Kona, Hawaii, offshore farm—which was known as Kona Blue Water Farms before it sold in 2011—is located within a humpback whale sanctuary and is just offshore from a coral reef that’s a popular diving spot thanks to its abundance of manta rays. The area is heavily monitored by the sanctuary and the state’s Division of Aquatic Resources which runs a coral reef monitoring station. So far, says Sims, they have seen no impact from the commercial operations—which in 2008 produced one million pounds of fish—on surrounding waters. “If you were going to see an impact from a farm, you’d see it on that coral reef,” he says. In fact, the submerged cages have become little marine sanctuaries. “We have coral growing on the submerged buoys that are around the sites,” says Sims. “Something magical happens when you move into really deep water further offshore. It’s not like these fish don’t have bodily wastes or nitrogenous wastes, they do. But it’s very rapidly assimilated by the natural ecosystem. In the deep-water systems in the tropics its nutrient poor, so there’s a very rapid uptake of those nutrients into the ocean ecosystem.” After the fish farm sold, Sims went on to found Kampachi Farms, a company dedicated to aquaculture technology research.


The hope for Cuna del Mar and other sustainable aquaculture advocates is that these submersible pens will present a new vision of 21st century farming—raising fish in a way that leaves minimal impact or even enhances the natural marine environment while allowing wild fish stocks to recover and providing an avenue for feeding people who must, for health and environmental concerns, increasingly move away from meat.

There have been several one-off projects, but larger versions of fish farms using Aquapods are still in the beginning stages. Open Blue is one such farm growing cobia—a high-end white fish that can be eaten raw as sushi or sashimi or be served grilled, broiled or pan-seared. Launched in 2010, Open Blue, located in Panama, has become the largest supplier of cobia to the U.S. and next year will have 20 pens with over one million fish. Each pen is more than 200 feet below the surface and more than a football field apart. So far, Orr says, the experiment has been a resounding environmental success story.

“The grid we have out there right now has become a kind of sanctuary,” Orr says. “We’ve got all sorts of fish swimming around our pens; you’ve got whale sharks swimming between them. It becomes a no-take zone.” In terms of impact, Orr says the researchers doing year-long studies on the operations in Panama have found no discernible negative impact. “We believe over time that our farms might be a net contributor—have a positive impact on the environment,” he says. “We don’t know that yet. But in the early work we’ve done we’ve gone as far as six miles down current from our pens and we can’t find any impact on the environment at all. As these farms get bigger this is an experiment in how do we honor the ocean? How do we honor the fish? And using technology so it becomes automated over time. We want next to no divers in the water because if we’re really going to change the paradigm, we want this to apply to salmon and other species.”


The majority of commercial fishermen today rely on trawling for their catches—dragging a massive net, up to a football field in length—along the sea floor or midway between the floor and surface. Not only do these nets sweep up pollock, cod, flounder and shrimp, but a significant amount of bycatch. There are not hard figures, but Greenpeace International reports that bycatch, which is discarded, could comprise anywhere from 8% to 25% of global catches. Whales, dolphins, sharks, porpoises and turtles are among the marine animals that die in the giant nets. Dredging involves dragging a net across the marine floor and has been compared to strip mining the oceans. These operations target scallops, clams and oysters. Greenpeace reports that “a single pass of a trawl removes up to 20% of the seafloor fauna and flora. The fisheries with the highest levels of bycatch are shrimp fisheries: over 80% of a catch may consist of marine species other than the shrimp being targeted.”

These destructive fishing operations, along with pollution, ocean acidification and global warming, have sent wild fish on a dangerous downward spiral, with no signs of recovery. Predator fish—including sharks, swordfish and cod—are already 90% gone. The U.N. reported in 2010 that 30% of the world’s fish stocks were similarly wiped out and sounded the alarm that by 2050, if current fishing rates continue, the world’s oceans could be fishless by 2050.

It’s been obvious for years that aquaculture would need to take a dominant role in the global fish trade. Catches leveled off about 15 years ago, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “Wild harvesting practices are capped,” says Orr, “and not environmentally sustainable.” But the U.S. is not poised to launch a new sustainable aquaculture industry using submersible net pens. Instead, those farms are taking shape in Panama and Mexico and with plans for expansion into the Middle East and Asia where the industry is being embraced and the permitting process is streamlined. “We’ve got regulatory framework in place for coastal waters, for state waters, but beyond three miles for federal waters we haven’t been able to solve the fishery management questions for aquaculture,” says Rubino. “And there have been 10 years worth of legislative proposals in Congress trying to do it under our fisheries law.”

That law is called the Magnuson-Stevens Act and it governs catch limits, requires the government to work with regional councils on upholding environmental standards and authorizes councils to establish zones to protect corals. A regulatory framework for deepwater fish farms will have to be incorporated into this act, and it’s something that the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is working on.

That council “has come up with an aquaculture management plan that NOAA took four years to review,” says Sims. “But they’ve finally come out with the regulations to support this plan. Those regulations have been approved by the council and are undergoing one further review by NOAA and then hopefully by this time next year we will have regulations that will govern responsible, sustainable aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico.” He adds: “it’s going to be a watershed.”

Rubino says NOAA supports one-stop permit shopping, where a state agency coordinates the permits, to get offshore aquaculture established in the U.S. and begin to supply American seafood from American companies.


No matter how clean the process of offshore farming, if it relies on fish food from Peruvian anchovies and other feeder fish, it’s not a sustainable model. Peruvian anchovies first underwent a major collapse in the 1970s—in part due to overfishing, and also to a warm Pacific current known as El Nino. “If we had to grow marine fish culture to feed a planet of 9 billion people that are increasingly affluent, increasingly health-conscious we can’t do it on the back of Peruvian anchovies,” says Sims. That’s why he, Orr and others are supporting researchers who are developing fish food from soy and microalgae.

In trials using kampachi, Sims says they were able to use soy protein to reduce fish meal to just 12% of the diet. “At that point,” he says, “we were a net protein producer.” Kampachi Farms will conduct trials later this year where they will remove the fish meal altogether in favor of microalgae. “This is that nexus of economic incentive and ecological imperative,” Sims says. “That’s where we like to focus.”

Cuna del Mar is much more interested in marine-based solutions and is looking to invest in research and development of microalgae feeds. As Orr says: “We’re going to need all the farmland we can get.” One of the major obstacles to microalgae development is cost, he says, but that’s beginning to drop with the rise in microalgae-based biofuels.

To really move into a new era of sustainable aquaculture will require these full-farm solutions, Orr says. And it’s not just the pens, the regulatory framework and the fish food. It will also need a cultural shift—a greater acceptance of farmed fish and the promises it offers for the country’s fishermen and for all ocean life.

As Rubino says, for many Americans “Food comes from a supermarket. So how do we get to the point of maintaining working water fronts and having food grown in our backyard as being cool again—community support for using this marine space?” He notes that on the east coast, that change in mindset is underway. “Fishermen have their backs up against the walls in terms of catch shares and quotas,” he says, “And they’re taking a new look at aquaculture.”