Although many argue that bluefin tuna should be protected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Endangered Species Act, Umami Sustainable Seafood CEO Oli Steindorsson said for much of the species, there’s just a lack of management.
Umami, a holding company of tuna farms in Mexico and Croatia (where there are also sardine farms for tuna feed), has changed the business model for raising tuna and sees this as one solution to population growth and global food shortages. Japan is Umami’s largest market, and Steindorsson said he plans to expand into American and European markets. We spoke on Friday.
You’re from Iceland. How is the approach to sustainable seafood different there than it is in the U.S.?
It's really important for the income of the whole nation. When I was a kid, more than 60 percent of total national export income was related to fishing. In 1984, Iceland was one of the first countries to implement quota systems for limiting the total allowable catch.
So Iceland started much earlier working toward sustainability. It looks to me like the U.S. has been doing a lot of good things lately, but there is a lot more that could be done.
There are, for example, more jobs in nuclear energy in the U.S. than there are jobs in the fishing industry. In Iceland, the focus is so intense on sustainability and resource management because the people there very much want to leave something behind for the next generation.
Umami Sustainable Seafood owns one company in Croatia and one in Mexico. Both are running tuna operations, with a total of about 500 employees. We catch small tuna, put it in our farms for up to three-and-a-half years and then harvest them.
How does the tuna grow differently on the farm?
If we keep it for up to three-and-a-half years we gain about 10 times the weight. For example, if we put a 10-kilo tuna in the farm, it would be a 100-kilo fish in three-and-a-half years. It would take many more years to reach that weight in the wild.
In addition, we’re protecting them from predators. Fish spend 80 percent of their life searching for or eating feed. We’re providing food for them, keeping them in a clean environment. For every kilo we feed the fish, they would need three to five kilos in the wild because they are moving so much more. Mother Nature will not give them fish to eat every day. Sometimes these fish will swim for days, if not weeks, without eating anything.
I’ve been in this business my whole lifetime--my father was a fisherman. Aquaculture is the only way to meet the growing population of the world.
My opinion is that we are a bit too early in the U.S. market with this kind of concept. But I’m convinced that it’s becoming a more important topic to people. The U.S. is far behind other countries in the aquaculture arena.
Why is the U.S. so far behind?
It’s a good question, and it’s difficult for me to understand. It seems the system here has not gained momentum. On the coast of California there are areas that are great for fish farming, but it’s not possible to get farming licenses. That’s the reason we’re farming in Mexico. I think the one of the problems is that people want to be able to get fish from the sea instead of seeing fish in cages. Sport fishermen see cages and it annoys them.
We can talk about eating in an environmentally friendly and sustainable, way, but it’s not just today and tomorrow. We need to think long-term as well. Aquaculture helps address many of the problems nations will be facing, including lack of protein. We are trying to educate people about how it’s done in other countries.
The biggest problem bluefin tuna has is that it has more buyers than available sellers. We’re working on developing closed full-lifecycle tuna. That would get them to spawn in captivity—just like in the salmon industry.
What’s involved in developing that kind of system?
It takes years to develop the technology. And the difference between tuna and salmon is that when salmon is ready to spawn, it’s six to12 pounds, easy to handle. With tuna, it’s more than 100 pounds. So it’s much more difficult to develop a full-life cycle with tuna. We know it’s possible, but it will take some time.
Nobody is doing it in a big scale, but there are a few universities in Japan that have been able to do this with very small quantities.