The US is a hard place to advance aquaculture research, as Neil Anthony Sims knows.
His company, Kampachi Farms, is looking to move production from the research-led site in Kona, Hawaii, to La Paz, Mexico, for precisely that reason.
“The aim in moving to Mexico is to try and find a regulatory environment where the government actually supports the growth of aquaculture,” said Sims.
As opposed to the US which, in his opinion, is not overly helpful in stimulating aquaculture.
“In the US the regulatory framework is highly restrictive to the point of being dysfunctional,” he said.
“You cannot get an aquaculture permit for commercial aquaculture in US federal waters, they do not yet have the regulatory framework for this, and they've been working on it for four years!”
In contrast, he said, the Mexican government is strongly supportive of the responsible growth of aquaculture to provide sustainably grown seafood.
“It's a wonderful goal, I would encourage governments around the world to look to Mexico as a model they might emulate,” he said.
This is not the only issue Sims has had with the US government. Another factor contributing to the move to Mexico is the way his previous company, Kona Blue Water Farms, ended.
That kampachi-farming operation, founded in 2001, was eventually scuppered by what Sims refers to as “anti-aquaculture activists”, after 10 successful years.
“In 2008, which was our best year there, we did over a million pounds of sashimi-grade Kona kampachi,” he said.
“We grossed over $6 million, and there had been no measurable environment impact for that operation.”
“We were trying to expand that operation so we could reach better economies of scale, and lord knows the world needs more responsibly grown sashimi-grade seafood, so we were trying to meet the demand that's out there.”
But when some members of the community objected “just on principle”, the government moved the permitting process into a “quasi-judicial contested case hearing”, and at that point the KBWF board decided to pull out and try elsewhere – Kampachi Farms, and the Mexico site.
The lack of government support is clearly an issue for Sims, as is the anti-aquaculture movement, which he describes as “mind-boggling".
He points to the Blue Frontiers report by Conservation International, which said of all the animal protein production systems on the planet, aquaculture is the one with the least environmental impact.
“Unless you're wanting to insist that the entire planet turns vegetarian, how do you oppose aquaculture and yet eat farmed eggs and farmed chicken and farmed pork and beef? There is no rational basis any more for anti-aquaculture activism.”
A biologist before a businessman
Sims has been an avid advocate of aquaculture since almost the beginning of his career.
He grew up close to the water in Australia, and studied marine biology and zoology at James Cook University, before ending up in the South Pacific as a volunteer teacher for a few years.
One day he walked into the fisheries office of the Cook Islands ministry of marine resources looking for a job.
“I said, 'I've got a marine biology degree, I speak the local language and I'll work for food!' And they said 'great, you can be the fisheries research division'," he said.
“So I said, 'that sounds great, what am I supposed to do?' And they said 'we don't know. But we know we've always needed a fisheries research division and you're it. Go away and write yourself a job description'.”
Unsurprisingly his job was fluid, and took him from fisheries management to aquaculture as the need for sustainable farming of certain species became greater.
When he came to be running his own company, first Kona Blue Water Farms and now Kampachi Farms, Sims was determined to push aquaculture research as well as run a successful business.
“The golden rule that we try to apply is that the research has to be on the critical commercial part,” he says. “This is not an academic exercise here, the research that we do has to inform the commercial development.”
“We want our research to have an impact - on the business, on the supply of seafood. The phrase that I like to use is we want to soften our footprint on the seas.”
The inspiration for his business model was taken from one Sims found while working for the ministry of marine resources. He compared the pearl diving industry in the Cooks, which was poorly managed and inefficient, with that in the Tuamotus, also in the South Pacific.
Here, rather than diving down, ripping the oyster shell open and killing it in the process, the marine creatures were being farmed and nurtured, producing a hundred-dollar pearl and keeping the oyster alive.
"The less reliance we have on Peruvian anchovies for feed, the more we can scale responsible fish production without doing it on their backs"
“How they were doing it clearly made overwhelming sense from both an economic perspective and an ecological perspective,” he said.
“That was the archetype that I tried to use in shaping my career going forward. This is why we must move towards more cultured sources of seafood, because it makes economic sense and it makes environmental sense. We've tried to bring that same vision to marine fish culture.”
Sims admits that sometimes the research can be a little more aspirational than his golden rule dictates.
As an example, he points to the Velella Project, an un-anchored, drifting pen of kampachi off the coast of Hawaii's Big Island. The resulting kampachi, which are called almaco jacks in the wild and have flesh similar to tuna, apparently achieved outstanding results in health and growth.
“The research showed that it's probably five to ten years away from being something that would be commercially viable, maybe 15 years,” Sims said. “There's still a lot of technological and other advances that need to happen to render this viable.”
“But we're going to keep working on it, it's not a critical commercial part but it is, I think, an important, significant step forward for aquaculture.”
He plans to continue the tests as an ongoing project, and evidently he is not alone in his belief in the project - Time magazine recently recognised the Velella Project as one of the best inventions of the year.
The La Paz site is planned to complement the research and development in Hawaii by acting as a commercial production farm, and the company plans to look further afield as well.
“Our production will come out of the La Paz project. We're also exploring opportunities in the Middle East that have potential to supply the EU market, and the Asian markets,” said Sims.
Looking ahead, and with production moving away from Hawaii to Mexico and the Middle East, the Kona site will become home to some more cutting-edge research, he revealed.
There are plans to look into sustainable feed, in conjunction with the US soybean industry; Sims hopes to “find ways to use soy protein and oil as a replacement for fish meal and oil".
“This is a way to soften our footprint on the seas- the less reliance we have on Peruvian anchovies, the more we can scale responsible fish production without doing it on their backs,” he said.
Kampachi Farms has already run some impressive tests on this.
Work with new species is also on the cards. As well as the giant grouper, Sims wants to work with a very high value, herbivorous reef fish, which is not well known outside of the Pacific islands, he said.
“This is a species that can be hopefully raised on a very low protein diet and just use the carbohydrate from macro-algae. So the goal is to produce high-quality marine fish on a tilapia diet.”
He also suggests the company could look into yellowfin tuna research, though, aspirational as ever, he said this would be longer-term, but that Kona was the right place for it.
Kampachi Farms also plans to continue its work with giant grouper, a fish which is rated 'vulnerable' on the IUCN red list.
A brood of the fish has been at the farm for 12 years, and Sims and his team continue to do research on the breeding and rearing of the species, aiming to enhance the stocks of what is, he says, a fish rare even in its home waters.
“They're a beautiful fish, get up to a thousand pounds in size, fairly fearless in the ocean, and so vulnerable to spear fishermen,” he said. “You can swim up to these fish and hit them on the head with a rock. You don't need a speargun, they're that fearless.”
Sims is open about the fact that the purpose of working with the grouper has changed.
“The original goal was for a commercial culture, but now it's more of a conservation goal, and it's more of a measure of our soft-heartedness rather than a hard-headed business approach,” he said.
"But what can I say, we're biologists. We love the fish that we work with.”