Startup’s High Tech Oceansphere Poised to Increase Sustainability in Commercial Fish Farming
April 3, 2013 | Missy Smith
The world’s over-fished oceans have reached maximum sustainable yield at about 90 million metric tons per year, and many fish species like tuna are facing extinction. Not only is seafood over-fished, but it is oftentimes imported and obtained through unsustainable fishing and economic practices.
Bill Spencer, president and CEO of Hawaii Oceanic Technology, Inc., recognized this problem and a number of others with the commercial fishing industry. “The United States imports 85 percent of the seafood is consumes, half of which is farmed, resulting in a $12 billion trade deficit, the second largest natural resource trade deficit behind foreign oil,” he relays. “The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has declared that we need to double farmed-seafood output within 30 years to meet demand.”
As a response to these statistics, Spencer and oceanographer Paul Troy set out to make the commercial fishing industry more sustainable, forming Hawaii Oceanic Technology in 2006. The Honolulu-based company is currently conducting research and development with its patent-pending Oceansphere, which Spencer describes as an “automated positioning submersible open ocean platform.” The Oceansphere is a 55-meter diameter free-floating geostationary platform (much like a modern oil rig) designed to be situated deep under water to reduce surface wind and wave impacts. With a fixed orbit in respect to Earth, the Oceansphere does not have to be tethered to the ocean floor, making it easy to move if need be. Spencer projects that each Oceansphere will have the capacity to produce 2,000 tons of seafood, which he feels at scale will help the commercial fishing industry sustainably meet future demands for seafood.
The Oceansphere has a three-dimensional shape, allowing fishermen to catch more fish in less space than in terrestrial two-dimensional food production, Spencer explains. “Also, unlike terrestrial animals, fish do not need fresh water and its food conversion ratio is much more efficient than wild caught fish,” says Spencer. “The effective food conversion ratio of a wild tuna is 100:1, whereas, a farmed tuna that eats algae-eating fish like sardines can have a food conversion ration closer to 4:1. This is incredibly efficient compared to wild caught fish and even terrestrial animals such as cattle (7:1) and pigs (5:1), which also require land area and fresh water.”
“We believe that it is imperative that fish farming take place in the open ocean, as there simply is not enough land or fresh water to meet anticipated demand,” Spencer explains. “This was something predicted by Jacques Cousteau in the 1980s when he declared, ‘We must learn to farm the ocean as we farm the land.’ Our primary mission is to demonstrate to the world a new economically and environmentally sustainable way to farm seafood in the ocean.”
Shortly after starting the privately funded company, Spencer began to obtain the required permits to deploy and demonstrate the Oceansphere concept in Hawaii, which is the only U.S. state that allows a company to obtain an ocean lease for mariculture.
At a 250-acre lease site off of the North Kohala Coast, Hawaii Oceanic Technology currently has 12 permits for Oceanspheres, which will all use remote control, remote monitoring, automated feeding and other technologies to keep labor costs low. Spencer estimates that these Oceanspheres will produce 6,000 tons of seafood per year. “It would take 21,000 acres of land to produce a comparable amount of beef protein,” says Spencer.
In terms of the company’s business model and future viability, Spencer says, “we expect to make money from the license and sale of the Oceansphere technology, from joint ventures with fish farm operators throughout the world and from the sales of seafood from our demonstration farm in Hawaii.”
Using the Oceanspheres, fish farmers will be able to produce large amounts of seafood within a small footprint, which Spencer says will help achieve better economies of scale compared to other fish farming methods. The Oceanspheres can also be deployed into ocean water, further from shore and outside of bays and estuaries. Large quantities of ocean water will help mineralize waste matter, which in turn, keeps fish healthy and creates a natural environment for development.
Hawaii Oceanic Technology plans to market its Oceansphere to the commercial fishing industry, Spencer says, explaining that the industry is neither sustainable nor poised for growth and also subject to rising labor and fuel costs. “The carbon footprint of the commercial fishing industry is very large,” he explains. “Positioning a tender ship 100 miles out into the ocean, manned by experienced fisherman and surrounded by a couple of hundred Oceanspheres would be a much more economical, cost efficient, low footprint way to produce seafood.”
Once Hawaii Oceanic Technology has demonstrated its Oceansphere technology—which is patented in the United States and Philippines, and is patent pending in Canada, Australia, the EU and Japan—it plans to enter into license and joint venture agreements in countries throughout the world. “We are still in research and development mode, awaiting our final permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” Spencer says. “It has taken us more than six years to get the multiple permits required to operate our business.”
According to Spencer, Hawaii Oceanic Technology’s main challenge at present is that not enough people in the fishing industry are aware of the hazards associated with current unsustainable fishing practices. “Commercial fishing companies have not reached the tipping point of realization that their business model is neither economically viable nor environmentally friendly,” he explains. “When that happens, we will be in the right place at the right time.”