Photos by Danny Jensen.
Nestled between the shores of Long Beach and Catalina Island, about six miles out into the ocean, sits a massive, 100-acre underwater ranch that is at the forefront of sustainable aquaculture. It’s called the Catalina Sea Ranch (CSR) and, after pulling in their first harvest last July, have become the nation’s first aquaculture facility in federal waters after successfully farming mussels.
And we’re talking millions of mussels—as in 8.9M to be exact, after seeding the lines in May of last year. This past December, they threw out over 300 lines that is expected to harvest some 24M mussels because, since the farm sits on one the mainland’s broadest continental shelfs and is therefore protected from pollution-filled storm runoff while growing strong thanks to a constant current, its location is prime for what CSR is trying to achieve: plump, clean mussels that are sold wholesale to restaurant groups throughout the Southland while cutting off up to four months of the growing process compared to the maturation span of wild-caught mussels.
Healthier and a larger quantity of mussels in less time, but it’s far more than a sustainable farming organization.
CSR’s CEO, Phil Cruver, is unabashed about the company’s potential profit, calling it “obvious” given the United States’ $14B seafood deficit—and when it comes to mussels, we import hundreds of millions of them from “air-polluting miles away, like the tiny Prince Edward Island.”
“There’s a $22M locavore market here in SoCal alone,” Cruver noted.
Mussels, often dubbed the “weeds of the sea” are doubly beneficial. For one, without requiring external feed since mussels feed on the phytoplankton birthed in the ocean—other fish’s “sustainability” levels are usually determined by the Feed Conversion Ratio, the poundage of feed per pound of weight gain in the fish—they keep costs down. On top of that, mussels hold the acute ability to clean water quite efficiently, benefitting our ocean’s hygiene.
Though the money is key to garnering support on a wider level, CSR has hopes in farming beyond mussels, including the eventual farming of oysters and scallops, expanding its ranch size by ten times, and particularly focusing on farming kelp thanks to a $500K contract awarded to CSR last year by the Department of Energy.
And Culver’s reasoning is more interesting than one would initially think: giant kelp absorbs greenhouse emissions like carbon dioxide far more efficiently than terrestrial vegetation—key to keeping the ocean’s acidity levels at a low as humans continue to pollute the waters daily—and grows very rapidly. We’re talking about two feet a day.
For Culver, it isn’t just about maintaining a healthier ocean; kelp can offset methane emissions from the cattle business on land. Cows emit methane as their digestive systems break down the grasses or other foods they consume—and when you add up the millions of bovine across the globe, you have a significant contributor to global warming since methane is more efficient in trapping heat in our atmosphere. The result? Pound for pound, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, methane is 84 times more potent of a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.
Culver wants to start feeding cows kelp or “beano for bovine,” he says. Feeding cattle kelp reduces their methane emissions without harming the bacteria in the cows’ digestive tracts. In other words, a win-win.
Though Culver admits it would be difficult for kelp to be competitive as a biofuel, he does “see an immediate market for addressing methane emissions with livestock.”
By Culver’s estimates, if our state developed a seaweed industry on the level of other mass producing seaweed markets, like Indonesia, California could remove 234K tons of carbon, 23K tons of nitrogen, and 2.5K tons of phosphorous in a single year.
“On top of this, we’d be creating thousands of new jobs,” Culver said. “Oh, and this doesn’t include the potential mitigation of enteric methane emissions from livestock by using kelp as a supplement in their feed.”
The Department of Energy agreed with Culver, visiting CSR last October in order to negotiate the contract while also bringing in a partnership via a $1.8M contract awarded to UC Irvine to conduct macroalgae research and modeling ocean conditions at CSR’s aquaculture facility for three years.
“This is the future,” Culver said.