With the U.S. importing as much as 80 percent of its seafood, a successful aquaculture could spawn an entire domestic fishing industry, said Drawbridge.
“We are looking to launch the … project to demonstrate the commercial and environmental adequacy of the offshore [fish] farming,” Drawbridge said. “We’ve been doing research for about 30 years. The situation right now is that capture fisheries can’t keep up with the demand [for seafood].”
Hubbs-SeaWorld researchers envision 24 net pens secured to the sandy ocean bottom about five miles off the Mission Beach coastline. Producing 3,000 metric tons of fish a year could contribute an estimated $25 million or more annually to the U.S. fishing industry, Drawbridge said.
The institute wants to farm striped bass, white bass, California halibut and California yellowtail, Drawbridge said.
Local fishing industry representatives have reportedly come on board with the project.
Hubbs-SeaWorld operates a white sea bass hatchery in Carlsbad, which helps the local fishing industry, according to Catherine Miller, a representative of the San Diego Sportfishing Council. The institute grows and releases “fingerlings” into the ocean and electronically tracks the fish movement.
Bob Fletcher, president of the Sportfishing Association of California, said the institute has addressed the local fishing industry’s concerns over location.
Fletcher said Hubbs-SeaWorld researchers did not propose building the pens in popular ocean fishing grounds frequented by local private fishermen.
“As a result of that cooperation with the industry, the fishermen are in support of the Hubbs-SeaWorld program,” Fletcher said.
Steve Foltz, vice president of Chesapeake Fishing Company, a seafood distributor based at the San Diego Bay, agreed. He said the project is a good thing all around because it would help meet consumer demand.
Environmentalists remain skeptical but are open to the project, said Bill Hickman, executive director of the Surfrider Foundation in San Diego.
Concerns include pollution from fish feed and waste, the attraction of predators such as seals and sharks, and escaping fish. Hubbs-SeaWorld researchers say the fish, native to the California coast, do not represent a threat to the ocean environment, however.
Currents would carry fish waste away and nets around the fish farm would keep predators at bay, according to Hubbs-SeaWorld officials.
“I don’t know if we would support it but we wouldn’t be opposed to it,” Hickman said. “If it moves forward we want to make sure it’s done properly.”
Hubbs-SeaWorld must acquire permits from the California Coastal Commission before it can begin construction within a few years, officials said.