14 March 2017

"We farm this fish because we must – we feel compelled to do so..."

Written by Neil Sims, Posted in Fish Net Blog

Why did you decide to become a fisheries biologist and how did you land in Hawaii?

I grew up on the East Coast of Australia, about one and a half stone-throws from the beach. I was always fascinated by biology – I had an ant farm and a butterfly collection - and I had uncles that owned farms out West, raising cattle, sheep, wheat and sunflowers. I loved the water – surfing and swimming and fishing in the ocean - and marine biology was a natural calling. 

Early on, I worked in the Cook Islands for 8 years, as the Government’s Fisheries Research Officer. A major part of our initiative there was to encourage the transition from diving for wild pearl-shells to farming of black pearls. I learned that there had once been a “boom-and-bust” pearl shell fishery in Hawaii, so when a Japanese-backed company offered me a pearl research position in Hawaii, it felt like the hand of fate, firmly pushing me in the middle of my back.

The original pearl research project was based at Kona’s Natural Energy Laboratory, which is an incubator facility for energy and aquaculture. For a fisheries biologist, that facility is a gem, so I have been based out of there ever since.  

For decades the worlds Bluefin tuna populations have been declining. You brought an alternative product to the marketplace. You farm raise Kampachi, a fish that is considered taste wise on par with blue fin tuna. Why?

Paul Greenberg, of the New York Times, posited in his book, Four Fish, that kampachi could be the sustainable alternative to Bluefin Tuna. This fish helps us fulfill our mission of softening mankind’s footprint on the seas. We can produce kampachi in the hatchery, so we don’t need to take fish from the wild. We can grow them in offshore, submersible net pens that have no significant impact – and often no measureable impact – on the surrounding ecosystem. We feed them with a sustainable diet that minimizes the use of marine proteins and oils, and ensures that the fish is healthy, and healthful. And kampachi’s taste is buttery, and rich and creamy; it works both as sashimi, and as a cooked fillet.

So we farm this fish because we must – we feel compelled to do so. It is a passion. It’s an imperative. It’s an obligation. With this fish, we can show how we can raise superb seafood in a way that produces a healthful, delicious product in an environmentally responsible manner. We want to be able to scale up production, so that more people can savor kampachi, but we want to also do this in a way that meets the most-rigorous *ASC standards for environmental and social impacts.


You will be on the Four Fish Times Forty panel in March at the SENA 2017 in Boston this March. Please tell us why you think it is so important to put a human face on the producers of aquaculture? 

Aquaculture is an industry that can foster great good in the world. On a global level, it is the most highly efficient form of animal protein production, in terms of land-use, water use, and greenhouse gas emissions. It is also extremely healthy for consumers. And superb seafood is also an immense pleasure to eat; it creates human happiness, which is a wonderful thing! We all love to gather together with friends and family around platters of seafood.

Yet, as a developing industry, aquaculture has had its challenges, and these have often overshadowed its benefits. Aquaculture can be a powerful force for social development, and for improved environmental welfare, but such good news often doesn’t make the headlines. We need to talk more about these benefits; those of who have been working in, on, or under the water need to share our stories with journalists and chefs and consumers, so that there is a deeper, broader understanding of why we are so proud to grow our seafood. 


Having lived most of your life on the ocean, what are some of your firsthand experiences seeing plastic trash and what does the problem of plastics in the oceans mean to you, personally?

Particularly during the years when I was working in pearl farm development, I spent a lot of time on remote atoll islands – some of the most remote specks of land on the planet. And invariably, whenever I would walk along the high-tide line, on the windward coast of these atolls, I would find piles of plastic heaped up upon the shore, driven there from ocean storms. It was deeply saddening, to see how vastly we spread our crap … literally all over the earth.

The larger pieces of plastic trash would have a polyglot of languages imprinted upon them, attesting to the global nature of the problem. It is all of us. We are all responsible. What we do in China, or Chile, sooner or later washes up on our shores, or someone else’s. Our oceans are connected, and they connect us all. They really are all just one, singular ocean. And we are screwing it up, royally. 


In your work, you seek to sequester ocean acidification with algae. This takes a lot of creative, out of the box thinking. Do you have any advice on how to apply this kind of thinking to collectively address the large issue of plastics in our oceans?

Ocean acidification is indisputable – it is a simple function of the concentration of CO2 in seawater, and as CO2 levels rise in the atmosphere, there is the incontrovertible power of equilibrium that pushes it into the oceans. The impacts of ocean acidification are incalculable – the entire oceans are perched on a delicate balance of pH, which impacts all bone and shell formation. Yet precious little attention is paid to what happens under the water, where we cannot easily see. There are – to my understanding – no reasonable solutions to ocean acidification, and no viable way to avoid the impending mass extinction event that is coming to an ocean, soon, near you. 

There is only one way that I can see that we might be able to partially mitigate the looming impacts: we need to encourage the global expansion of seaweed farming. It needs to happen fast, and vast. Seaweeds are plants that require no land area, no artificial fertilizer, and no fresh water, and they literally suck the CO2 out of the water. Marine agronomy is the term that we now use for expanded farming of seaweeds for food, feeds and fuel, and it is the only way that I can see how we might harness the engine of entrepreneurial incentive to counter ocean acidification. If we can find profits in farming seaweed, then free enterprise will do a large part of the work for us.

That is the only answer that I can also see to the problem of plastics in the ocean – we need to find ways to build businesses that are based in innovative solutions.  


From your perspective, where are the critical points for Aquaculturists to look to reduce, recycle and reuse plastics?

Seafood has had a love-affair with single-use styrofoam for far too long. It was easy, it was inexpensive, it was light, and it kept our precious seafood cold. That has to end. We need to elevate consciousness around the use of plastics in post-harvest product handling in the same way that awareness of environmental sustainability has led to a revolution in thinking about what we do on the water. 

*ASC= Aquaculture Stewardship Council (http://bit.ly/1ARthBd





About the Author

Neil Sims

Neil Sims

Neil is co-Founder and co-CEO of Kampachi Farms, LLC, based in Kona, Hawaii, and in La Paz, Mexico. Over the past two decades, Sims has led teams that have accomplished breakthroughs in pearl oyster culture, marine fish hatchery technology and open ocean mariculture systems, and offshore aquaculture legislation and regulation. Sims’ Kona research team pioneered the Velella project, demonstrating two new concepts in U.S. Federal waters: untethered, open ocean ‘drifter pens’; and “over-the-horizon aquaculture”™ with an unmanned net-pen operation in 6,000 ft of water, 6 Nm offshore.

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