As we become more conscientious about the proteins we eat, how they were raised and where they come from, the question of sustainable seafood has come more into focus. Which species and whether wild-caught or farmed are regular considerations in mindful seafood consumption.
When it comes to farming finfish, for instance, the feed conversion ratio — the poundage of feed per pound of weight gain in the fish — is a commonly used indicator of sustainability. Though FCRs vary across the different finfish species, averages range between 1:1 and 3:1. All finfish, with the exception of bluefin tuna (15:1), tend to fare better, in terms of efficiency, than their land animal counterparts, especially cattle.
Even more efficient than finfish are shellfish, which act as natural filters for our lakes, rivers and oceans. Since shellfish feed on phytoplankton, the question of feed is taken out of the equation, making them some of the most sustainable — and perhaps delicious — seafoods around.
Addressing this demand for not only shellfish but locally sourced shellfish is a particular operation stationed in the waters off Long Beach and first permitted (the first of its kind domestically) for construction in 2012. Catalina Sea Ranch is the first offshore shellfish ranch in U.S. federal waters and is a 100-acre aquaculture farm, currently equipped to grow Mediterranean mussels. The ranch’s first harvest is scheduled for mid-July and is only available wholesale, which means you’ll have to find them on menus at restaurants in the Los Angeles and Long Beach areas.
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The mussels are grown on suspended ropes, away from predators (typically starfish and snails) and in open, upwelling waters atop the San Pedro shell, which plateaus at 150 feet. This means that the mussels grow plump (2.5 to 3 inches) from standing up to strong currents created by nearby oil rigs. They feed on microorganisms suspended in clean, turbulent water while avoiding the sludge and bacteria typically brought up from the bottom dredges of the ocean. From feed to market, these mussels achieve full size in 10 months as opposed to the typical 12 to 14 months.
A solar-powered NOMAD buoy constantly monitors the ranch’s wave and current measurement, nearby marine mammals, water quality, weather and more, facilitating research in shellfish farming and environmental studies. Scientists have access to this information through a cloud server so they can analyze the findings.
At 100 acres, the sea ranch has a capacity of a total 2.5 million pounds of mussels with the ability to supply restaurants with more than 200,000 pounds of fresh mussels every month. In August, it's expanding to a full 1,000 acres. Do the math and you’ll count a lot of California-grown mussels, which positions the ranch as a major player in locally sourced seafood. The ranch also has plans to harvest scallops, oysters and kelp in the future. Since the United States imports 80% of the seafood we consume, this is a small but needed step in the right direction for not only conscientiously sourced meals but the California economy.
The sea ranch is currently providing tours to distributors, chefs and educational groups to view the offshore operation and consider sourcing from Catalina Sea Ranch. Given that we’re starved for locally sourced, quality seafood, we have a lot to look forward to in the shellfish being harvested at the ranch.