The Economy of Scales: A Baltimore lab aims to take the science of growing clean, healthy salt-water fish to the global marketplace


(Photo by Van Smith)

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, July 24, 2013

The wood-grilled whole dorado, at $34, is the highest-priced dish on the current menu at Pazo, the casually elegant restaurant in Fells Point in Baltimore. Executive chef Mario Cano Catalan gushes about the restaurant’s specimens of the high-value Mediterranean fish, whose market name is gilthead sea bream, a sparkling silver species with a band of yellowish gleam at its head.

The ones Catalan prepares weigh a pound or a little over, he says, and after scaling and gutting them, he seasons them with crushed oregano and sea salt.

But here’s the catch: Pazo’s sea bream are not caught, nor are they from the Mediterranean. They come from a scientific laboratory in the basement of the Columbus Center downtown.

The operation, called the Aquaculture Research Center (ARC), is overseen by Yonathan Zohar, professor and chair of the Department of Marine Biotechnology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET). Since about 1998, Zohar has been working to perfect land-based technologies called recirculating aquaculture systems for the clean, green production of marine fish on a commercial scale. Every time his lab completes an experimental batch of tank-grown fish, he needs to move them out to make room for the next round. Thus, for several years now, super-fresh lab-grown sea bream, sea bass, and rockfish have been showing up in some of Baltimore’s finer restaurants.

“Look,” Zohar explains, “we are scientists, we are not in the business of sending 100 fish here, 100 fish there. We have 4,000 fish, which is 2 tons of fish, that we need to get rid of, OK?” Zohar says the lab is “trying very hard to work through some of the seafood distributors,” but “we are having difficulties,” so instead ARC sells them to area restaurants and caterers at wholesale prices-for sea bream, he says that amounts to $5 or $6 per pound. “Pazo, Cinghiale, Woodberry Kitchen, McCormick and Schmick’s use them on and off,” he says. “And, yeah, they love them.”

Thus, according to Tony Foreman, who co-owns five Baltimore-area restaurants, including Pazo and Cinghiale, ARC periodically delivers a “cooler full of flipping fish in the kitchen” to Catalan at Pazo.

As Catalan says, “It’s crazy how fresh that fish is-it’s super-fresh,” adding that sea bream from “the European market is good but not as good as the Columbus Center fish.” Foreman points out that, even if he was to have sea bream flown directly from Europe with the utmost speed, “they’re still going to be three, four, five days out of the water,” rather than the hours involved in getting ARC’s fish from tanks to kitchens.

To top it off, Foreman notes enthusiastically that ARC’s fish “are grown to the size that you want too,” which prompts him to make an analogy: “Imagine a farmer down the street that was growing lambs to exactly the size that you want, fresh-killed after your phone call to him.”

Foreman says ARC’s fish have filled the bill like no other supply. “The first job for us is to find high-quality seafood products on a consistent basis,” he says, “and this fulfills it as well or better than anything else I’ve seen, and we’ve tried just about every exotic source to get great seafood as quickly as we possibly could.”

Zohar has his own reason to be excited about ARC’s work with high-value marine fish: a company, Maryland Sustainable Mariculture (MSM), which formed in 2010 and shortly thereafter obtained a licensing agreement to commercialize ARC’s technology, expects to get up and running soon-though, precisely when remains to be seen. And if MSM starts production and finds success, so too will Zohar’s work.

“Everything that I do all my scientific life for the past 35 years,” Zohar explains, “is in the interface between the basic research and the application-that’s actually the mission of IMET, the emphasis is on research, education, and economic development. And with MSM, the idea is that they’ll grow fish, but then they want to take it globally, because you can cut and paste [the technology] in modules anywhere in the world.”

Thus, while today ARC is supplying some of Baltimore’s finest restaurants with sea bream and sea bass, if all goes well, soon MSM will supply seafood distributors and supermarket chains in the region with the same fish on a consistent basis. And then later, if the anticipated success continues, MSM will sublicense the technology wherever someone wants to grow high-value marine fish species for profit.

“We are doing due diligence with one investor now and are negotiating for space in Baltimore City,” says MSM’s Michael Quinn, a name partner at the Baltimore law firm Neuberger, Quinn, Gielen, Rubin & Gibber. “I’m hopeful,” Quinn continues, “that over the next few months we’ll be ready to really nail down the space and start constructing the actual operation” – though he says he’s “too superstitious” to try to pin down a more specific time frame.

Quinn says he and MSM’s David Wolf, a retired executive vice president of the health insurer CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, “together with Dr. Zohar, are leading the drive to commercialize” ARC’s technology and are confident that “once you start to sell fish, the operating profit is positive immediately, because there’s a decent profit margin on the price of fish.” But to do so, the operation needs to produce much more fish than Zohar’s lab is growing now.

“At the Columbus Center,” Quinn explains, “they’ve been producing a couple of tons of fish per year, but if you want to do this on a commercial basis, you need to grow a couple hundred tons of fish per year. So our goal for the first production facility is 200 tons, generating about $3 million per year, and then we’ll scale that up to 300 or 400 tons, because you get a lot of economies of scale at the higher production levels.”

Then, Quinn says, MSM wants other aquaculture companies to buy into its license.

“Once we have a commercial production facility in operation,” Quinn explains, “then there will be plenty of interest from third parties to sublicense the technology for other locations, and the great thing about the technology is that you can use it anywhere. You don’t have to be near the ocean; it’s a clean, self-contained system, and you can put it in a warehouse anywhere, with minimal climate control. You could grow this stuff in Nebraska.”

Still, Silverstein says that while MSM’s anticipated 200-tons-per-year operation is “bigger than anything else that’s out there,” it falls far short of the “3,000-tons-a-year scale that is kind of the break point where you get the economies of scale working in your favor.”

Recirculating aquaculture systems such as ARC’s are “very capital-intensive projects, so the upfront outlay is quite large,” Silverstein says, but the scale that MSM is planning on is “a step toward a commercially productive basis that could convince people that they could do 3,000 tons or more a year”-and, he adds, the sublicensing scheme “makes a lot of sense.”

Silverstein stresses as well that “we need all of these aquaculture systems, all sustainable means of production” to meet growing global demand for seafood at a time of when fisheries around the world are being overexploited. So if, “in the middle of Baltimore, they’re producing clean bream and bass for the regional market using that technology, and with a low carbon footprint for shipping,” he concludes, “it seems like a solution worth pursuing.”

The world’s fisheries are in a state of crisis, a problem that has been becoming increasingly clear with each passing year. Even as more fish are captured to feed a growing number of people eating more fish-world population, at about 7 billion today, is predicted to be between 8.3 and 10.9 billion by 2050, while per capita fish consumption has continuously risen, about doubling to almost 20 kilograms since the 1960s – authorities fear the needed production of captured fish may collapse, creating a global food crisis.

As the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization stated in the 2012 edition of its biannual report State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, analyses showing that more than 85 percent of seafood landings are of species that are either fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted or recovering “suggest a global system that is overstressed, reducing in biodiversity and in imminent danger of collapse.” Despite these pressures, the system thus far has “been surprisingly resilient in terms of output and food value,” the FAO continued, even though “harvesting has been increasingly inefficient.”

The picture is so bleak that the UN Environmental Programme predicts that by 2050, absent major worldwide reforms, overfishing will have combined with the effects of climate change to cause the collapse of all major commercial fisheries. Meanwhile, fish are contaminated with such toxic levels of mercury – a ubiquitous byproduct of an industrialized society – that, according to a recent study surveying fish samples from across the globe, eating one 6-ounce portion of fish per month exceeds U.S. Environmental Protection Agency human-health guidelines for exposure to the heavy metal.

Aquaculture – growing fish in pens and cages in the sea, in coastal lagoons, or in tanks or ponds on land – has long been the strategy to insure against the depletion of wild stocks. But Mark Spalding, president of the Ocean Foundation in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit that works to protect and restore the world’s oceans, says the effort has been falling short.

“In order to meet the world’s growing demand for fish,” Spalding explains, “aquaculture, which we now think is where more than 50 percent of fish come from, has to grow at 10 percent per year going forward, but it’s actually growing at 6 percent and decelerating.” And the key question, he says, is “which kinds of aquaculture can best get the job done.” Trying to answer that question is what Zohar’s aquaculture lab does.

Spalding visited ARC in 2011 and found it “quite impressive,” he says, “because they’re really trying to test a whole lot of things all at the same time.” A widely used form of aquaculture called floating net-pens – a very descriptive term, since the fish are grown in large, netted pens floating in coastal or ocean waters – has a “laundry list of problems,” says Spalding. “The fish escape and crossbreed with wild animals, they transfer diseases, they pollute the water with their waste and their feed,” he explains. The tank-based technology that Zohar’s lab has been developing “solves a lot of the things that have always concerned folks” about the practice.

Taking it commercial, Spalding continues, opens “a whole other debate over whether it should be on a smaller scale near a market, so the carbon footprint is very low, or a very large-scale production facility with shipping.”

In the end, Spalding predicts “we are going to continue to see wild-caught fish at the very highest end of the market, like the bluefin tuna, and in subsistence-fishing for poor people all over the world. But if aquaculture can supply the middle – the standard consumer, the restaurants – so that we’re not taking biomass out of the ocean and out of the mouths of poor people and out of the mouths of other predators in the ocean, we maybe can do this right and reduce the number of stressors on the ocean in the process of finding these alternative ways to grow fish.”

In Baltimore, Spalding continues, “the nice thing about Zohar’s facility is it’s very much like a lab operation, where you are really getting data as well as growing fish, and that will allow us to decide how to design this if you do take it commercial. He’s testing the different boundaries of which species will work, and which will not. But until we solve some of these things that he’s working on, aquaculture is not going to save the ocean-but we need it to.”

The global fisheries crisis is a given to Zohar, who, while sitting in his Columbus Center office during a recent visit, started out an interview by saying, “So, you don’t need the introduction of, you know, we are running out of fish and we are overfishing in the wild and the wild stocks cannot really sustain for very long if we continue the same practices and there are many fish that are actually already fished out.” Accepting that there’s a real crisis, he’s instead focused on aquaculture solutions that can help abate the problem-and also correct problems that earlier aquaculture solutions created, such as those Spalding mentioned involving floating net-pens.

“I was part of the early team that developed this aquaculture technology,” Zohar says, referring to the pens, “and the problem is, it has been criticized for not being environmentally responsible.”

First off, the fish waste pollutes the waters where they are raised with dissolved nutrients and solid organic waste, Zohar explains. But “a big, big problem,” he continues, “is when fish escape from the cages and they interbreed with wild stock and displace them, so all of the sudden the wild stocks are not wild anymore; they are replaced by a selectively bred farm animal, and the environment, the whole ecosystem is affected.” Finally, for the fish themselves, the pens create a stressful, unhealthful existence.

“They are exposed to pathogens, to PCBs, to heavy metals,” Zohar says, “and sometimes there are harmful algal blooms around them, and their immune system[s] [are] compromised and they get infected by parasites and diseases. From the fish’s point of view, those systems are not optimal.”

The solution, Zohar says, is that aquaculture needs to be done in closed systems on land with recirculating water – and perfecting that concept has been Zohar’s aim for about the last 15 years. “To be both ecologically responsible and environmentally sustainable, as well as economically feasible in the long term,” he explains, “aquaculture more and more is going to go land-based. And to do that, number one, you need to close the life cycle, with a consistent, year-round, reliable egg supply or juvenile supply” that can be raised to market size-and Zohar’s lab has done just that for a number of high-value marine species, including sea bream, sea bass, and rockfish.

But to be truly sustainable, Zohar says, “our goal was to develop a completely contained recirculating system that is fully bio-secure,” meaning no fish can escape, “and as near zero-waste discharge to the environment as possible. And our system addresses all of those issues: There is no organic waste, no possibility of escape, and the conditions are being kept optimal all the time, because the system is recirculating and completely controlled and monitored to accommodate warm-water species, cold-water species, higher salinities, lower salinities, to allow optimal performances all the time. And there is no disease, no heavy metals, no toxins, no algal blooms. The fish are as clean and green as it can get. And the system is very generic, so we can tailor conditions to accommodate any species of interest by its economical considerations, as opposed to geographical ones. The collection of fish species we have downstairs in the basement, it’s almost like a zoo.”

Zohar is realistic about the challenges his lab’s system faces because of high upfront costs – as Silverstein points out, the high-tech capital costs don’t come cheap. But Zohar – and MSM, which is poised to put real money behind Zohar’s technology – believes it can be overcome because it produces a reliable supply of healthy, high-value fish quickly, so once the batches start reaching the marketplace, the money keeps rolling in, and because some of the operating costs-fish feed and shipping, for instance-are lower than with net-pen facilities.

“There is a lot of argument about economic feasibility,” he explains, because “your initial investment is more. But because the conditions are optimal, we really grow the fish to market size much faster – like in half the time. And the fish are much more efficiently using the feed” because they are in tanks and can eat all the feed they are given, as opposed to the net-pen fish, who eat what they can before much of it sinks beyond their reach. “For the sea bream and sea bass,” he adds, “your only competition when you commercialize it are fish that are being flown in from the Mediterranean, and they are like five to eight days post-harvest by the time they arrive. But our fish are as fresh as you can get. We harvest them, and two or three hours later, they are at the restaurant.”

A critical aspect of the technology, Zohar explains, are the filters the lab has developed that keep the artificial seawater pristine without creating any waste. “We start with city water,” he explains, “and we simulate all of the ingredients of seawater, and then we use microbes in these biofilters, and the water circulates very quickly through the microbes. They use the dissolved waste, mainly ammonia and nitrites and sulfites and all of this kind of thing to live, and they produce free nitrogen, which is what much of air is.” So the nitrogen is simply released into the air.

The solid waste “produces sludge,” Zohar continues, “and freshwater aquaculture operations collect it and use it as a fertilizer on fields, but this is not environmentally sustainable, really, because those nutrients are going to end up in your watershed one way or another. But you can’t do that with our salty sludge. So we use methanogens, these marine microbes that use organic matter and convert it to methane. We optimized this filter for many, many years, and very efficiently they convert 96 percent of our sludge to fuel-grade methane, and then you can fire a Bunsen burner or a methane-driven generator right out of the fish tank. We estimate that 15 percent of the operation’s energy costs can be offset in this way.”

And sure enough, down in the basement laboratory, three Bunsen burners are sparked, burning off the methane. The operation whirs with the sounds of pumps and filters aside a series of tanks that fill much of the 17,000 square-foot laboratory, each ranging from 4 to 18 feet in diameter and 500 to 5,000 gallons in volume. In one of them, a school of sea bream swim in circles. I’m handed four of them that had been harvested earlier that day, to cook later.

“We started with more than 2,000 fish in there,” says Keiko Saito, one of IMET’s scientists, “but we started to harvest them in March, so now there’s about 1,200.”

“You see the water in these tanks,” adds Nick Hammond, IMET’s assistant director. “Well, it was put in here like a year ago, and they haven’t had to add water. So it’s very, very efficient on the water recycling.”

“And look how beautiful the water is,” says Zohar. “And look how beautiful the fish are! You saw the fish we gave you, the eyes-you can’t get any fresher than that.”

I took home the sea bream Zohar gave me and immediately froze them, sacrificing some of the freshness for the convenience of preparing them later. After about a week, I took them to a cabin in West Virginia, scaled and cleaned them, stuffed them with fresh-picked wild raspberries and a lime wedge, and slow-grilled them under tin foil over a smoky outdoor fire.

Four adults and four children marveled at the rich, smoky flavor of their bountiful flesh – Pazo’s Catalan says they are 85 percent meat and 15 percent head and bones. Served with corn on the cob, and carrots and radishes cooked in peanut oil, butter, and balsamic vinegar with a dash of salt, our bellies filled so quickly that we had one sea bream left over, enjoyed cold later.

The fact that we hadn’t just exceeded the health advisory for mercury was a bonus, but one of the guests, after hearing where they came from, called them “frankenfish,” since they’d been grown by scientists in a laboratory.

Foreman, the consummate restaurateur, bristles at this suggestion.

“I’ve had dorado in Corsica, Sicily, Spain, France,” Foreman says indignantly and continues to rattle off a long list of Mediterranean locales where he’s enjoyed fresh sea bream, “and these are as good or better.” He continues by noting that the “great shame of the seafood distribution in the U.S. is that you’re eating week- and two-week-old stuff, half-frozen, chemically treated.” But “the freshness and consistency” of the Columbus Center fish “is amazing. They are not frankenfish, they are the fish.”

MSM’s Quinn, when asked if the “frankenfish factor” could present a marketing hurdle when his fish go commercial, says essentially the same thing as Foreman: “They’re not frankenfish, they’re just fish.” But, he adds, “they are grown in much happier, healthier conditions than the fish you are buying right now. If you could catch them any more in the wild, you would still have heavy metals, and with these you have none of the concerns about toxins, drugs, and health that you do need to worry about when you are buying those fish from the supermarkets that come from the net-pens. They’re just fish, like any other fish, but better.”

Overcoming the potential for consumers to think of these fish as something unnatural “is primarily an education problem,” Quinn continues. “From an ethical consumer standpoint,” he says, “it really is the only thing that makes sense. You can’t catch these fish in the wild anymore, net-pens have horrible environmental records, and the fish you’re getting from the supermarkets aren’t especially desirable anyway. This helps solve the pollution problem to produce a fish that is completely natural, yet completely clean. And while the operation is high-tech in a way, it is not so high-tech that you can’t do this any place and feed a lot of people a very high-value protein.

“This is part of why I stuck with it,” Quinn concludes. “It has to happen. We can’t keep doing what we’re doing, it’s not right. This is the better way.”

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