TransparentSea - In conversation with Steve Sutton

I met Steve Sutton in Seashell park, by the side of the Long Beach aquarium and across the street from the Bubba Gump Shrimp Restaurant. The location was poignant: We cherish our native marine populations in all their splendor, but we still eat seafood in vast quantities that have exceeded the production of our own coasts. The location was important for another reason: It was only a few blocks down from where Mr. Sutton is starting a 14,000 square foot indoor sustsinable shrimp aquaculture operation.

For many in the sustainable fisheries world, aquaculture (or fish farming) is somewhat of a dirty word. I was curious then, why my connections in the fisheries conservation field had told me to check out what Steve was up to. I wanted to hear it from his perspective. What role does aquaculture play in the ocean of the future?

When I asked Steve what he saw for the ocean, he paused; "I think of two different oceans: the ocean that we all wish we could drive into and snorkel around, and the ocean we see today and in the news as 'the future ocean.'" Though he loves to be on the water and enjoy the picturesque waters of Southern California, "Right now, the ocean means concern"

I got the sense that it was his personality that made Steve see it this way. There's plenty of people that can look out onto the ocean and see only that; the same old timeless surf and sunset, but there's no denying that's not the whole picture. This is the very thing Steve saw as the most serious issue facing the ocean: "people not seeing the severity of this concern for the ocean going forward."

There are ways in which average people have become tuned in to concern for the ocean. Most notably: plastic pollution. Through social media and aggressive campaigns from municipalities and NGOs alike, the battle on platics has become a legitimate movement, something which most people by the ocean are at least marginally aware of. But this same public attention has yet to encompass sustainable seafood, even though overfishing and habitat destruction pose as much of a threat to marine life as plastics. Just like plastics, concern has to translate to personal action: "Overall, it's a question of what choices we're making as consumers; is this a re-usable container? Am I buying seafood from a company that is dumping its waste directly into the local river? Even if that's in India, it doesn't matter, it's all the same ocean."

Clearly, Steve had internalized this concern and paired it with a drive that I could sense just by talking with him. He had grown up in Upstate New York, gone to Columbia, and was interning on Wall Street on his way to becoming a "jock stockbroker" when he had a wake up call. He asked himself what he wanted to do, "Cause making money doesn't do much for me."

So Steve went into fisheries, to reconnect with his passion and "protect us from oursleves," first by picking clams off a conveyor belt at $10/hr for his uncle's company, but soon working his way into a lab position and onto a NOAA research vessel. He could have stayed there, but "I was 22, full of piss and vinegar and thought I needed to be the instrument of change-- tip of the spear type."

So he went into aquaculture, an industry that is growing around the world, but that often gets shunned; "But it's going to go on whether we want to talk positively about it or not. So why don't we get some people who want to make it better?" He went to grad school for aquaculture at the University of Miami, worked in ten countries doing aquaculture, and now he's here with an idea he hatched five years ago.

His idea hinged on a simple question: "How can we make a sustainable model? --And by sustainable I don't mean that general term-- How can we make a model that if you saw the business, and you said I wanna build that anywhere... you could?" He didn't have to look far for a counterpoint. Look at Bubba Gump Shrimp: right on the water, and not a single shrimp comes from California. Instead, they're shipped 8,000 miles from Asia where they're largely farmed in former mangroves. That can't be right.

Instead, Steve thought, grow them here, in Long Beach, with available technology, to provide people local, fresh, safe, and sustainable shrimp that they can feel good about buying, and know it, hence the name of his venture: TransparentSea.

The location is a former fish distribution warehouse, The system itself involves 9 tanks, 5-6 ft deep (to maximize space efficiency), called a recirculating aquaculture system. Mechanical filtration removes biosolids, in addition to some biological filtration, and almost all of the water is recycled.

The technology is proven, but Steve is innovating in at least two ways: First, in the tank depth. He's not using stacked shallow trays because white shrimp naturally distribute themselves throughout water columb. Second is seaweed. California has a lot of delcious, native seaweed. So, they will have a side loop with a slightly lower temperature that utilizes dissolved nutrients from shrimp farming process to grow edible, clean seaweed. This also acts as a filter for trace metals that can accumulate in the water.

The choice of White Shrimp was also intentional. Shrimp is the most popular seafood in America (4.5 lbs annually per capita), while tuna and salmon are second and third at roughly 2.5. White Shrimp also have a feed conversion ratio of between 1.1 to 1.3, which though not as good as Talapia, is still very efficient. Lastly, these shrimp can grow to a marketable size in 3.5 to 4 months (compared to a farmed salmon which is often 18-24 months).

Looking at the project objectively, the thing that keeps it from being close to prefect is energy use: There is a good deal of energy being used to circulated and filter the water, so while they might be using more than your typical pond aquaculture farm, it's still nowhere near the energy use of shipping shrimp across the Pacific.

In all honesty, hearing Steve talk about his system was simultaneous inspiring and frightening. I kept thinking, 'this sounds amazing, but what's the catch? Who am I not hearing from here? I think Steve sensed by doubts, and he was able to explain aquaculture from both sides of the fence, as an active aquaculturalist and a marine conservationist. Throughout this, his nuanced argument became clearer.

Aquaculture has grown 6 to 10% worldwide since the 80's, but not in the US, "which would be fine" Steve said, "if we weren't buying our seafood from other countries." It's true that the US does one of the best jobs in the world of fisheries management, which is great and we should be proud of the fact, "but if our fisheries management isn't protecting enough to feed us, then we still need to get our food from somewhere. It just is the reality."

In all likelyhood, we will continue to eat seafood at the same or greater rate as we have been, and to fill this demand we'll have find ways of providing more seafood. Both fisheries conservation and aquaculture aim to address this issue, albeit in different ways. There is a lot of headbutting between these industries, but solutions don't have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, there can be a lot of synergies between the two, the greatest example being farming a species to relive pressure while its wild counterpart recovers. "It's just numbers. There's not enough seafood productivity in the wild. Forget the challenges of pollution, and climate change, habitat destruction...." He went on: "I'm not anti-fishing, but fishing has a limit to what it can produce, and we as a species have decided to push our carrying capacity. Every time we push that capacity, we've got to come up with some innovation."

However, aquaculture as it exists today isn't perfect, and there is a lot of variation within the industry. There are certainly horror stories, (like PCBs in farmed salmon feed, among others). One contentious issue is the use of fish meal (ground up fish) for aquaculture feed. Feed companies know this is a problem and some are starting to use black soldier fly larvae as a sustainable insect-based feed.

Lastly, Steve emphasized how important it was for marine biologists to stay on top of the aquaculture industry to make sure it continues to improve: "Aquaculture has come along way, but there's still bad players out there; people I'm not willing to trust as a consumer."

If anything, Steve's venture has the capability to be an example for the industry and change people's minds about farmed seafood. He wants people to be able to say  "I'm going to buy this brand because I can be confident that what my dollar just went to is promoting a good business."

I wondered how such a product, even if its helping to fill the fresh local seafood void, could alleviate food insecurity. Steve agknowledged there isn't equal access to fresh, affordable, and nutritious food in Long Beach and the greater Southern California region, and that a goal of his venture is to provide fresh local seafoos to everyone on the socio-economic scale, but it's not possible to address it on day one. The main issue is that global commodity prices are held down by extremely cheap production. That being said, as minds change about seafood and consumer decisions influence the industry (in addition to regularion and oversight) paired with continued issues for wild fisheries, Steve firmly believes aquaculture can play a role in adressing food security, though it will be an uphill battle: "I want to make change now, whether it makes me 5 or 50 years, I just feel I can do it in aquaculture."

So next time you get Jambalaya, consider, did this shrimp grow in a former mangrove? Did it travel across the ocean to get here? Was it caught from a struggling population locally? Was it grown in a warehouse down the street? Do I care? It's a curious relationship we have with the creatures we eat, and we can ignore its intricacies if we wish, but I've found, those kinds of relationships never end well.

Check out what Steve is up to, and decide for yourself.