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August 26, 2013

Fishing on land: Saltwater fish could tap high-value market

New fish-farm planned for Franklin would grow black sea bass, California yellowtail

by Laurie Schreiber

Black sea bass at 25 grams in February 2012.
Black sea bass at 25 grams in February 2012. COURTESY RAS CORP.

FRANKLIN — The first black sea bass and California yellowtail to come from a trial land-based culture method have earned excellent reviews from chefs and consumers.

That's the word from Ed Robinson, co-owner and director of Harpswell-based RAS Corporation. Now plans are in the works to expand RAS's limited trial run of 1,000 each of the two marine species.

RAS was founded early in 2011 by Christopher Heinig and Tap Pryor, marine biologists with long histories in aquaculture-related businesses. The company won two rounds of funding from the Brunswick-based Maine Technology Institute, in September 2011 and June 2012, to grow one tank of black sea bass combined with a prototype system to remove the solid waste from the discharge water.

In December 2012, MTI awarded RAS a third round of financing, this time $125,000. The funds were matched by a loan and equity from Coastal Enterprises, Inc., in Wiscasset.

The financing will allow RAS to buy 10,000 to 12,000 California yellowtail juveniles and grow them in 18 larger tanks over the coming year, with the goal of getting into commercial-scale production in the 2015-2016 timeframe. To be economically viable, initial commercial production would be in the range of hundreds of thousands of fish per year.

RAS has been conducting its initial studies over the past two years at the Franklin-based Center for Cooperative Aquaculture, considered one of the most sophisticated aquaculture development facilities in the U.S.

At the same time, RAS has plans and cost estimates in the works to set up its own facility. Most recently, the company has been looking at a site suitably near the ocean in the coastal village of Corea, part of the town of Gouldsboro.

Robinson was brought on board a few months after Heinig, the CEO, and Pryor, the chief scientist, started the company, and was designated the spokesperson.

"They met by chance and the more they talked and bounced ideas around, the more interesting it got," Robinson said.

Robinson has a background in biotech and pharmaceuticals in Maine and Europe. Heinig is president of the MER Assessment Corporation, a marine environmental and resource-consulting company in Brunswick; he has over 33 years experience in applied marine research and resource management.

Pryor, a founding commissioner in the 1960s of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has had a career in marine biology, engineering and government, mostly based in Hawaii and the Cook Islands. Most recently, he has been a partner in an award-winning tropical multi-species aquaculture operation that co-farms fish with shellfish and micro-algae, on Rarotonga, one of the Cook islands.

This past spring, the partners grew their first test batches of black sea bass and California yellowtail to maturity. Those samples went to restaurants and distributors in Maine and beyond, as far as California, for input on taste, freshness and appearance.

"There are a lot of people already growing freshwater fish in indoor, land-based systems, and it can work very well for species of that sort," said Robinson. "We are attracted to marine species because there's less competition, by far. And those species are very highly valued, higher-priced and require more significant technical capabilities to grow them, so they present barriers to competition."

California yellowtail is highly valued for sushi and sashimi.

"It's an excellent fish that can be cooked in all kinds of ways. Some chefs we're  talking with are very keen to explore its use," he said. "In this part of the country, they're rarely getting fresh yellowtail; it's mostly frozen, from Japan and Hawaii."

Black sea bass, an Atlantic Ocean native, is "very highly sought after," Robinson said. "I've heard chefs say it's an ideal plate-sized fish. Because of overfishing and changes in the ocean, supply is both seasonal and limited. There's just not enough natural supply from the ocean to meet the demand. So we're very keen to see if we can grow that. Initial reactions to the fish we've sold have been very positive. Customers like the idea of these fish being grown in a controlled environment for very high quality."

Unlike Atlantic salmon, which is commonly grown in net pens in the Gulf of Maine’s colder water, California yellowtail, a species found in warmer waters, is not suitable for ocean grow-out off the Maine coast, Robinson said. And to his knowledge, no one has tried to grow black sea bass in net pens.

Thus the initiative to cultivate the fish in land-based tanks, using recirculated sea water warmed to appropriate temperatures and managed for pH, oxygen and waste levels and formulating feed.

The partners are developing techniques to mitigate or eliminate excreted waste and return clean water to the ocean. Although Robinson declined for proprietary reasons to describe the waste-recycling plans, the technique can be seen in CCAR projects that use marine worms and seaweed to filter farmed fish waste.

In June, RAS received a National Science Foundation Small Technology Transfer Research Phase I grant of $225,000 to formulate six alternate feeds, utilizing microalgae, invertebrates and insect-derived meal. Suitability will be measured by growth and survival rates.

Overall, said Robinson, the primary focus is on growing fish and selling them to the market. If waste treatment and alternative feed protocols are successful on a commercial scale, the company will also look at licensing opportunities.

"There's a lot of interest in growing fish on land, as opposed to in the ocean," he said. "While that represents particular challenges, it also represents opportunity.”





click to enlargeA California yellowtail harvested last March.
A California yellowtail harvested last March. COURTESY RAS CORP.

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