Sandwiched between port operations and a federal prison, the Southern California Marine Institute on Terminal Island is poised to become the first commercial shellfish producer in federal waters off the West Coast, farming 100 acres of open ocean for Mediterranean mussels and scallops.
On Thursday, Philip Cruver — the man who floated the innovative business concept — showed off his impressive collection of partnerships with technological and environmental companies. After a final round of government approvals, he hopes to begin farming 6 miles offshore within a few months,
“It’s been a lot of luck and serendipity,” Cruver said. “Within 60 days, we’ll be constructing the ranch, and it will only take two to three weeks to put in the lines and seed them.”
The land-based institute will be the base of the operations, where an aquatic nursery will pump out baby mussels and scallops fed a specially prepared brine of brownish algae that is grown by the hundreds of liters inside an “industrial plankton bioreactor.”
After a few weeks of eating that concoction, when the microscopic mussels have grown into pepper-size animals, they settle on thin ropes the researchers provide them and will then be placed in the ocean 150 feet below the surface in the Catalina Sea Ranch.
There, they will eat naturally occurring phytoplankton and, within a month or two, will be ready to be stripped from the rope and placed in a long, cylindrical mesh until they are about 8 months old and ready to eat. At full operation, the farm hopes to produce 2.5 million pounds of sustainably grown mussels.
“Then we package them in mesh 5- or 10-pound bags and sell them to restaurants or grocery chains,” said Catalina Sea Ranch’s hatchery manager, Kelly Stromberg. “They can last 14 days out of water in the proper conditions.”
Once harvested, the institute can flash-freeze the animals for export.
A commercial fishing operation like this one could bring back some of the area’s historic industrial seafood operations. Terminal Island was once an active Japanese fishing community and also once housed 16 canneries, including Chicken of the Sea.
Now, the United States produces only 5 percent of its own seafood supply, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s FishWatch program.
“There’s so many moving pieces going into this,” said Diane Windham, regional aquaculture coordinator for NOAA Fisheries.
“We’re currently importing 90 percent of our seafood nationwide, and half of that comes from unregulated aquaculture. We’re looking to see an expansion of sustainable marine aquaculture in the U.S. We have the technology and ability to conduct aquaculture projects and to do them well, in ways that are sustainable and environmentally friendly.”
While bunches of shiny, black, hairy mussels are the stars of the show, the supporting cast includes a variety of cutting-edge technologies that will remotely monitor the farm and its 2.5 million pounds of shellfish and facilitate extensive environmental research. Also, Cruvier intends to try to successfully farm purple-hinged scallops, a notoriously tough shellfish to grow because they attach to rocks.
“They taste more buttery than sea scallops,” Stromberg said. “But no one in the shellfish industry has been able to grow them.”
The scallops can sell for $15 a pound, compared with $1.50 a pound for the mussels, she said.
To accomplish this, Catalina Sea Ranch is working with researchers at 12 universities. And they don’t just want to grow any shellfish, they want to grow the genetically superior ones. So the institute has a mussel-breeding program as well. Once they have the best genetics, they can cryogenically freeze the mussel and scallop larvae to use it when needed.
Another innovative, sustainable piece of the project involves gelatinous sea cucumbers that will be grown and placed at the bottom of the shellfish ropes in the ocean to eat waste and debris left by the mollusks. Sea cucumbers like this diet, Stromberg said, and the animals are also in high demand because they are a delicacy in some countries.
The ranch itself will be monitored with SeaBotix remote-controlled underwater cameras, a SpotterRF radar surveillance system that will detect and video approaching boats, and a buoy that monitors ocean temperature, currents and nearby marine mammals. NOAA officials will oversee operations from a research vessel provided by the sea ranch.
“The monitoring requirements are substantial to ensure the activities they undertake aren’t doing any harm, partially because this is seen as something new that hasn’t been done before,” Windham said.
“Hopefully, by being able to demonstrate how well this project can operate, it will be a good test case to make it easier for future projects to move forward.”