Growing mussels and giant kelp in San Pedro at the first offshore shellfish ranch in federal waters

Once home to the nation’s busiest tuna canneries and a Japanese American fishing village, Terminal Island is decades away from the thriving seafood industry of its past. But thanks to Catalina Sea Ranch, a pioneering research and business venture, that stretch of land between San Pedro and Long Beach is now at the forefront of sustainable aquaculture in the U.S. While the company’s offices and research facilities are housed in a sprawling historic warehouse — part of the Port of L.A.’s new AltaSea marine research campus — the real action is taking place roughly six miles off shore. There, just below the ocean’s surface, is a 100-acre shellfish “ranch” — the first offshore aquaculture facility in federal waters. And while Catalina Sea Ranch is currently farming mussels, they are researching how also growing giant kelp could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a significant way.

The ranch is currently growing an initial pilot crop of around 30,000 lbs of mussels that will soon be harvested from dozens of specially designed ropes. Catalina Sea Ranch is also developing and utilizing innovative marine technologies — including remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) with underwater cameras and a network of sensors — to monitor the crop and collect environmental data to ensure a minimal to zero impact on the local ecosystem. The Mediterranean mussels grown by Catalina Sea Ranch are ranked as a “best choice” for sustainable seafood options by organizations such as the Seafood Watch Program, as the filter-feeding mollusks require no supplemental feed since upwelling from the deep ocean provide a steady supply of nutrients. The company is also researching how best to grow other low-impact — and highly profitable — shellfish such as scallops and possibly oysters. And while the company aims to expand the ranch to 1000 acres and 20 million lbs annually — helping to offset the high percentage of seafood that is imported to the U.S. — Catalina Sea Ranch also has its sights set on expanding its research and design efforts to growing giant kelp, which can help offset greenhouse gas emissions in a variety of ways.

“As a veteran entrepreneur with five start-ups, it was obvious that offshore aquaculture had huge potential for profitability,” explains Catalina Sea Ranch CEO Phil Cruver. “Our nation carries a $14 billion seafood deficit; imports over $100 million in mussels annually; and, over $30 million of live mussels from puny Prince Edward Island 3,500 air-polluting miles away. The $22 million market of Southern California locavores would pay a premium for “growing our own”. Economics (mussels don’t require external feed) and environmental concerns (mussels can clean about 30 gallons of water a day) dictated that the cash crop be mussels which are “weeds of the sea” and also not susceptible to disease. Giant kelp are also ecosystem engineers serving as sponges for organic pollutants and combatting ocean acidification.”

Giant kelp can absorb vast amounts of carbon dioxide and other emissions at a much faster rate than terrestrial plants and help reduce ocean acidity levels, all while growing at a rapid rate of roughly two feet per day.  “As a cattle feed ingredient, kelp acts as a “beano” for mitigating methane emissions,” adds Cruver. Research has indicated that by adding giant kelp and other types of macroalgae to cows feed can help reduce cattle methane emissions — one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions — by as much as 50-70% and possibly more. Catalina Sea Ranch is now exploring the potential for growing 100 acres of giant kelp alongside mussels and is applying for the necessary permits to do so. The company is also submitting a proposal to the Department of Energy for a $25 million R&D contract to see about the possibility for that giant kelp to be used as a biofuel, but Cruver sees more immediate potential with greenhouse gas mitigation.

“For giant kelp, or macroalgae in general, to be competitive as a biofuel may never happen, Cruver admits. “But I see an immediate market for addressing methane emissions with livestock. We’re getting in first when no one else is even thinking about this stuff. I know because I already contacted the California Air Resources Board, and they said, ‘You’re too quick for us.” Cruver adds, “If California developed a seaweed industry matching that of Indonesia (6.5 million tons in 2012) it would have the following positive environment impact: 234,000 tons of carbon removed, proportional to 90,602 homes’ energy use in a year; remove 23,400 tons of nitrogen and 2,340 tons of phosphorus; creating thousands of new jobs. This does not include the potential mitigation of enteric methane emissions from livestock.”

Just this past fall, as timing would have it for the company, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law ambitious legislation that aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. In turn, California Sea Ranch is now partnering with methane mitigation research teams, including Dr. Rob Kinley who has studied the issue in Australia, to see how they can become a key pioneering player in the efforts to cut emissions and address climate change.

“I want to be there really quick, have the research done and say here’s what we can really do with macrocystis [giant kelp] out there and already be growing it. It’s not a trivial matter — we have the anchors, the ropes, the floats, and we’ve teamed with the Ocean Forest of the Faroe Islands, and a researcher down in Chile. He has the data, we just need to apply it here. We have mussels, so we’ll have a harvest to show, and now I can say, ‘Look at what we’re doing here, it’s so much bigger than mussel farming.”

A critical component of the offshore aquaculture and research programs at Catalina Sea Ranch is the revolutionary marine technology that the team is using to monitor and manage their efforts, while also offering opportunities for collaboration with other scientists. The company utilizes a modified Navy Oceanographic Meteorological Automatic Device (NOMAD) buoy, provided by NOAA and anchored at the ranch, to gather and transmit data in real-time from the ranch to a team of scientists and researchers. The NOMAD buoy can gather information about ocean temperatures, salinity, currents pH, density of phytoplankton on which the mussels feed, as well as security information from perimeter buoys — information that might have taken months to gather in the past. They’re also adding an underwater camera to the buoy to capture time-lapse footage of the mussels.

Catalina Sea Ranch also uses ROVs, equipped with sensors and HD cameras, to inspect the mussels and infrastructure remotely, as well as enabling researchers to collect data. The team is also collaborating with Blue Robotics, a Torrance-based startup that builds low-cost, high-performance components for marine robotics, to create a customized mini-ROV outfitted with underwater cameras and multiple thrusters to help it remain stable while transmitting HD footage. While similar devices from competing manufacturers might have cost anywhere from $10,000 – $50,000, the Blue Robotics mini-ROV goes for about $4,000. By utilizing innovative and low-cost technology in this way, Catalina Sea Ranch is able to accelerate their research efforts dramatically without the financial barriers of the past.

“It’s the low cost revolution of technology,” explains Tony White, a marine mechanical engineer currently consulting with Catalina Sea Ranch. “Cell phones have made motion sensors so cheap, and now drones have come along and everyone’s built their quadcopters, so now the same opensource autopilot — both hardware and software — that’s used to fly quads, can be used to power the ROV. All the interface for planning a mission, seeing the map, and seeing the telemetry data you’re getting back from it, it’s all free and opensource. And if it’s not quite what you need you can take the time to turn it into what you need, instead previous high barrier entry where you’d have to build everything from the ground up.”  White also points out that they can work with research teams on the other side of the country or even the world, by allowing them to navigate the mini-ROV and gather data remotely.

Cruver adds, “Catalina Sea Ranch has a robust R&D program having been awarded over $600,000 by our federal government. These competitive research contracts are booked to our balance sheet; improve our aquaculture husbandry efficiencies; and, build barriers to entry for future competition.”

One component of the company’s R&D program involves exploring the possibilities of genetics-based selective breeding. The company was recently awarded a $95,000 research grant from the USDA to investigate the potential of using a cryogenic freezing process to preserve mussel larvae to increase the number of spawnings throughout the year beyond two per year. Other recent grants are enabling the company to partner with USC and other institutions to find ways to use selective breeding to improve yields and increase crop uniformity. “Our genomic R&D program has the potential to be transformative and disruptive to the aquaculture industry,” says Cruver.

Dr. James West, Chief Science Officer for Catalina Sea Ranch, explains the research efforts in the context of historical farming practices, “Every plant and animal species we’ve domesticated has undergone tremendous increases in performance — often tripling or quadrupling the amount of food you get for a given input of resources. None of this has been done in any aquaculture species. All of our macroalgae and mollusks are pretty much just wild strains. What that is telling you is that we can get tremendous increases in performance through selective breeding. However, old style selective breeding takes centuries — and even 20th century methods take decades. We can speed that up tremendously using genomic selection — we find exactly what alleles are linked to the traits we want, and we test for the presence of those specific alleles in breeding. This means that what used to take decades or centuries, we can do in only a few years. I want to stress that there’s no genetic engineering involved here — we’re just using a detailed knowledge of genetics to do extremely selective breeding, in a way that wouldn’t be possible if you didn’t know which genes drove which traits.”

Beyond the research that Catalina Sea Ranch is conducting in the lab for possible future projects, the company has already begun to notice a positive impact in the waters around the ranch. “In recent years, much of the kelp forest along Catalina Island where a lot of people used to come to dive, it’s all dying out due to warmer water temperatures in recent summers,” explains White. “So with the kind of macroalgae project like ours, we’re doing it for profit, but at the same time, we’re also recreating this ecosystem. And already around the mussels, you can see more fish hanging around. It’s another reason we want to monitor what’s going out there, to make sure nothing is getting tangled in the ropes. But it’s great to think that we could have a profitable business and help foster and regrow ecosystems.”

Danny Johnson, KCET, 24 February 2017. Article.

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