Investment Fund Pours Cash Into Cleaner, Greener Fish Farming



Eliza Barclay, NPR

Like it or not, our seafood increasingly originates not in the deep ocean but on fish farms hugging the coasts. Aquaculture already supplies about half of the world’s seafood, and global production is going to have to more than double by 2050 to meet demand, according to the World Resources Institute.

The business opportunity here is tremendous. Thousands of operations around the world now produce huge numbers of salmon, shrimp, mussels, tilapia and catfish, to name a few fish species that thrive on farms.

Not without significant cost, though — from pollution to antibiotic overuse to slavery, the global industry is rife with problems. But there also plenty of examples of fish being farmed in a way that may not endanger wild populations, deplete the ocean of them for feed or generate a lot of nasty waste.

Enter Aqua-Spark, an investment firm headquartered in Utrecht, The Netherlands. It wants to lend a hand to the small-and-medium sized businesses committed to producing safe and environmentally conscious farmed fish. When it launched in December with $10 million ready to deploy, Aqua-Spark became the world’s first investment fund focused on sustainable aquaculture. The money comes from 35 investors — one institutional, the rest private individuals — from seven countries who see an opportunity to make money in farming fish in new, responsible ways.

On Thursday, Aqua-Spark named the first two recipients of its funds. One is a California-based biotech company called Calysta that’s making a fishmeal substitute. The other is a tilapia operation in Mozambique called Chicoa Fish Farm that the fund hopes will be a model fish farm for all of sub-Saharan Africa. Together, they’re getting $4 million.

Mike Velings, Aqua-Spark’s founder and a managing partner, tells The Salt he’s confident these two companies could help transform the industry. And he says the fund has big plans to invest in a host of other innovative companies developing technologies and techniques for producing a lot of fish safely, with minimal impact on the environment.

Many producers of salmon and other carnivorous fish rely on smaller wild species like anchovies as a high-protein feed. (It takes about three pounds of these fish to produce one pound of farmed salmon.) But, as we’ve reported, stocks of these wild fish are strained.

Calysta, meanwhile, has created a product, called Microbial Protein, designed to ease the burden on these species. It’s a fish meal substitute made from microbes that occur naturally in the soil using fermentation. (Read my colleague Dan Charles’ recent story for more on how that works.) According to the company, the end result is “a nutritious, high protein feed that is a sustainable alternative to fishmeal.”

“So far, most of the real alternatives for fishmeal are more expensive, but we think Calysta’s product is something that’s really competitive,” Velings tells The Salt. “If you could … prevent anchovies and other little fish from being fished for aquaculture, you could tip the balance of the oceans globally.”

Calysta’s feed, which is sold in powder or pellet form, is approved in the European Union for use in salmon, as well as in pigs, chickens and cattle. That bodes well for approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other governments, says Velings.

Chicoa, the Mozambican tilapia farm, won support from Aqua-Spark because Velings says it has great potential for expansion and making a dent in the shortage of healthy protein in sub-Saharan Africa.

“There’s a deficit of 1.6 million tons a year of fish protein in Africa, and we want to help solve that by investing in multiple tilapia farms in different regions,” says Velings. “Chicoa is our foothold in the continent.”

Other aquaculture experts are optimistic about Aqua-Spark’s approach. “I think the private sector garners the most force out there, and I don’t see anybody else doing what they’re doing,” says Aaron McDevin, director of aquaculture at the World Wildlife Fund.

“We need to leverage examples of sustainable aquaculture, and with these investments, NGOs can start pushing the curve a little bit. We can say to big, mainstream fish buyers, ‘Why aren’t you looking at these feed alternatives to wild fish?’ “

Velings says the plan is for Aqua-Spark to raise $400 million by 2025.

The Muckleshoot Tribe is spreading traditional food through schools

Shawn Saylor, the kitchen coordinator for the Muckleshoot Indian School, holds a piece of salmon to be served at the school.
Shawn Saylor, the kitchen coordinator for the Muckleshoot Indian School, holds a piece of salmon to be served at the school.


By Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission


The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe is making sure traditional foods are part of many of the meals it serves. Six kitchens across the tribe – including in schools and elder facilities – adopted new protocols to encourage the use of traditional foods.

The Muckleshoot Indian School is using the protocols to designate at least one day a week for traditional foods. The introduction of traditional food has been a learning process for both the kitchen staff at the school and the school community, said Shawn Saylor, the school kitchen coordinator.

The Muckleshoot school kitchen began introducing traditional foods soon after the protocols were in place four years ago. But even then, students were still able to choose a cold sandwich if they didn’t like the traditional option.

But after awhile that changed. “We don’t even make the sandwiches available on traditional food day anymore,” Saylor said. “The kids just forgot they didn’t like salmon. We don’t even do things like Sloppy Joe’s anymore because the kids just don’t like them.”

“Parents come in and visit us and they end up saying “I didn’t know they fed you so well here,’” Saylor said.

Each Thursday the kitchen staff prepares a meal following the traditional food protocols. Popular choices include halibut, seafood soup (which includes clams, shrimp, mussels and salmon), fish tacos or salmon. “We end up doing salmon a ton of different ways,” Saylor said. The school buys salmon directly from the tribe’s seafood enterprise.

The kitchen staff have also served elk and venison, even though it drives up the cost of the meals. “We will occasionally have a hunter donate meat to us,” he said.

The protocols also call for eliminating processed foods, trans-fat oils and high fructose corn syrup.

The kitchen staff also regularly meets with students to discuss how to make traditional Thursdays better. “We listen to the students and we like to explain why we do certain things in person,” Saylor said. “It builds trust between us and the kids. We even sometimes get food suggestions from them to try out.”

“The best part of my day is when kids come through the line on traditional food day and say “This is awesome,’” said Saylor.

2 accused of illegally selling caviar, steelhead, salmon

State agents believe the men have connections to an international poaching ring.

Diana Hefley, The Herald

EVERETT — An undercover operation in Snohomish County by state fish and wildlife agents has netted two men with suspected ties to an international fish-poaching ring.

The men are accused of illegally selling caviar, steelhead and salmon. One of the men admitted to illegally “snagging” at least 100 pounds of steelhead, prosecutors said. The men were charged on Tuesday with unlawful trafficking of fish, a felony.

“It’s bad enough when they’re stealing by harvesting illegally. They’ve added to the egregiousness by then making a profit,” said Mike Cenci, a marine patrol captain with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Agents say the men are believed to be connected to a fish-poaching ring that was operating out of several other states. Earlier this year, eight men were indicted in Missouri on federal charges for poaching and trafficking in American paddlefish and their eggs. More than 100 other people were arrested or cited for their part in illegally selling Missouri paddlefish to national and international caviar markets.

American paddlefish, also known as spoonbills, are native to the Mississippi River watershed. The prehistoric fish can live for decades, weigh up 160 pounds and reach seven feet long. Criminals sell eggs from the boneless fish as higher-quality caviar.

“Paddlefish are often sold under the guise of sturgeon,” Cenci said.

With a decline in the highly-sought-after and expensive sturgeon roe, paddlefish eggs have gained popularity. The increase in demand has led to a decline in the paddlefish population, according to federal fish and wildlife agents. Chinese paddlefish, once plentiful in the Yangtze River, are believed to be almost extinct.

Authorities allege that Igor Stepchuk, 38, of Lynnwood, sold an undercover agent five jars of American paddlefish eggs for $500. He also is accused of illegally selling steelhead, and coho and chinook salmon.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife began investigating Stepchuk after receiving a tip in 2011 that he was trafficking illegal caviar. The agent met with Stepchuk numerous times. His friend Oleg Morozov, of Kent, also is accused of trafficking fish.

Stepchuk, a convicted felon, eventually offered to sell the agent steelhead, court papers said. He reportedly told the agent he had poached about 100 pounds of steelhead. It isn’t clear where he caught them. He reportedly showed the agent a freezer full of fish.

Non-tribal fishermen are banned from selling steelhead. Commercial and recreational salmon fishing also is heavily regulated.

Cenci said it’s also illegal to catch fish by snagging, which often means dragging a hook through the water and impaling the fish, rather than waiting for a fish to bite.

“It’s offensive to sportsmen and sportswomen. It’s a matter of ethics,” Cenci said.

The defendants reportedly went on to sell the undercover agent more than a dozen jars of caviar and more steelhead. In total, the men charged the agent more than $4,500 for the fish and eggs.

Detectives sent samples of the caviar and fish to the department’s molecular genetics laboratory to confirm the species. The lab is used primarily to help manage wildlife and fish resources, but enforcement agents use the facility to assist with criminal investigations. DNA testing was done, and the samples were consistent with steelhead and chinook and coho salmon, court records said.

“That kind of activity has a great impact when you’re dealing with endangered salmon runs,” Cenci said.

Bob Heirman, conservationist and longtime secretary-treasurer for the Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club, has been planting salmon and trout in Snohomish County for decades.

Poachers are “robbing resources while some people are trying to recover them,” Heirman said.

Stepchuk and Morozov are expected to answer to the charges later this month in Snohomish County Superior Court.

Unfortunately, the state’s fish and wildlife species often find their way to illegal national and international markets, Cenci said. “We’ve seen everything poached from roe to bear gallbladders,” he said.

He encourages seafood eaters to make sure they are buying from licensed and legitimate sellers. “If there aren’t people willing to buy (illegal products) the incentive to poach for profit goes away,” Cenci said.