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Norm Abell, co-owner of the Carlsbad Aquafarm, holds up a tray of abalone. Abell noted that the demand for sustainable aquaculture is growing. Leaders hope to draw more “blue” businesses to the region with a process known as marine spatial planning. Photo by Jared Whitlock
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Leaders aiming for big splash with blue economy planning

CARLSBAD — Rows of white buoys floating in the Aqua Hedionda Lagoon are visible from Carlsbad Boulevard. Underwater, mussels cling to the mesh that’s attached to them. 

The Carlsbad Aquafarm raises and sells these mussels to seafood vendors and restaurants, including local spots like the Oceanaire Seafood Room. Every year, the aquafarm produces an estimated one million pounds of mussels and oysters. And Norm Abell, co-owner of the sustainable aquafarm, said that he’d like to step up production.

“Now that aquaculture is finding its place in the local and national economy, we’re looking to scale up,” he said.

Demand is increasing for not only aquaculture, but also industries like marine biomedicine and ocean desalination, said Michael Jones, president of San Diego-based Maritime Alliance. Jones and other leaders want to attract these “blue” businesses with a different approach to ocean use, known as marine spatial planning.

Marine spatial planning would determine the best use of the ocean, both on the surface of the water and deep below, with a stakeholder process. That way, everyone from fishermen to shipping companies to naval ships get the most out of the sea, while minimizing environmental harm.

The upsides of this type of planning are apparent for someone who wants to build an offshore aquafarm in San Diego.

Currently, an entrepreneur would have to identify the best spots for cultivation, which is no easy task. Vital information about whether shipping lanes run through a proposed area might not be readily available, for instance. And the entrepreneur might wonder if groups will fight the offshore aquafarm. So, there’s less of an incentive to launch the business.

“With marine spatial planning, stakeholders representing businesses and environmentalists have already vetted and approved certain locations as the best place for your business,” Jones said.

The entrepreneur would also have to get permits through different federal and state agencies — a long, complicated process.

“If you don’t know exactly what you’re doing, it’s you against the bureaucracy,” Jones said, adding that’s not conducive to attracting blue businesses to the region.

To streamline the process, marine planning aims to create a simplified checklist of what federal and state agencies require for different industries.

San Diego already has a robust blue economy. According to the San Diego Maritime Industry’s 2012 report, 1,400 regional companies produced more than $14 billion in direct sales in 2011. This economic activity supported 46,000 county jobs.

But Jones believes there’s room to turn the region into a powerhouse. For one, San Diego, once the home to a large tuna industry, already has the infrastructure to support fishing companies. Plus, blue businesses would benefit from places like the Scripps Institute of Oceanography — similar to how research hubs presently feed the biotech industry.

For an idea of how much monetary value is in the water, using state-of-the-art open ocean cage technology, the Maritime Alliance estimates a business could farm 150,000 metric tons of white seabass in one-square mile annually. That seabass would be worth $900 million.

Once it’s shipped off and makes it to tables, the worth multiplies to $3.6 billion, supporting 6,000 California jobs.

Organizations like Carlsbad’s Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute, which works to restore the white seabass population through cultivation, could provide that stock.

“We import most of our fish,” Jones said. “But it’s sitting off our coast.”

While some of the infrastructure is there for blue jobs, Jones said there’s one ingredient missing for the industry to take off: vocal supporters.

Jones explained that when people think blue economy, industries like fishing and ship building come to mind. But San Diego is home to less visible marine robotics, sonar and underwater communications companies. Because many of these blue businesses are export-heavy, they don’t actively promote themselves locally.

“Right now, they aren’t part of the chamber of commerce,” Jones said. “So they don’t have people to go bat for them.”

But marine spatial planning is one way to bring them to the table, he said.

And if engaged with the community as a whole, local politicians would be more likely to craft policies that reflect their needs.

San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox is among the early supporters of marine spatial planning. One reason: He noted that the U.S. imports 80 percent of its seafood. Aquaculture could bring that number down, and fish raised in the U.S. are held to higher environmental standards.

“Wouldn’t it be more cost effective, and frankly a lot more environmentally sensitive, if we could raise our own seafood here?” he asked.

As well as fishing, he added that marine spatial planning should take recreation, conservation and military interests into account.

“We need to do a better job of planning for where these things should be and shouldn’t be,” Cox said.

Cox, who was recently named to the California Coastal Commission, said he’ll promote marine spatial planning at the state level.

Since it’s still early in the process, it’s yet to be determined what it will look like, including which agency will run the meetings and who will participate.

For now, marine spatial planning seems to be gaining traction locally. A variety of local representatives will attend the Maritime Alliance’s Blue Tech and Blue Economy summit in San Diego Nov. 7 and Nov. 8. Plus, the Maritime Alliance plans to release a full study on the economic impact of marine planning next year.

In the past, the ocean was largely divvied up on a sector-by-sector basis. In a nod to a multitude of new ocean businesses and uses, President Barack Obama’s administration called for coastal states to take up marine spatial planning in 2010. Gaining an understanding of habitats, seafloor topography and currents would give planners an idea of where to put wind farms, for example, the administration stated.

San Diego is among the first areas in the nation to consider marine spatial planning. Don Kent, president of Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute, said that marine planning could draw attention to local blue businesses’ economic clout. In turn, that would attract more talent and resources for the industry.

Kent, who’s also eyeing building an offshore aquafarm, noted it’s already difficult to meet federal and state ocean regulations. Marine planning will succeed only if it makes it easier for businesses to set up here, while balancing conservationists’ goals.

“I’m supportive of the concept, but it has to be designed to benefit all parties,” Kent said.