Ask a Fish Farmer: Talking Striped Bass with Omar Alfi of Pacifico Aquaculture
Curious about farmed fish and the world of aquaculture? In our new series, “Ask A Fish Farmer,” we’re exploring the fascinating and important work of growing fish by going right to the source and chatting with fish farmers.
This week, we’re doing a deep dive into the world of striped bass with our friend Omar Alfi, the Managing Director and Partner of Pacifico Aquaculture. Omar’s company excels at growing the omega-3 rich premium whitefish, which we pair with a Spanish Roasted Red Pepper Almond Sauce.
We partnered with Omar and Pacifico Aquaculture not only because their fish are delicious, but also because they strive for excellence when it comes to sustainably and responsibly raising their pure striped bass. They’re even on their way to receiving the four-star Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) certification–and it doesn’t get any higher than four stars. Nor could their farm off the coast of Baja California be any more stunning…
What’s the most exciting part of your day or what do you love most about your work?
My trips out to our farm are my favorite part of the job. The 30 minute boat ride is always peaceful, with an occasional pod of dolphins popping up. Once we get to the farm, I love spending time with the guys feeding our fish and just observing their behavior. It’s a privilege to be able to work in such a beautiful place and with such wonderful people.
Did you grow up eating and loving fish?
I actually didn’t. It was never a core part of our diet, and I think we didn’t really know how to cook it in my family. I always loved fishing, but could never figure out how to prepare it properly. Over the past few years though as I’ve been in the industry, I’ve learned different ways to prep fish, and now I can’t go more than 2 or 3 days without eating fish. Of course, I’m blessed to have constant access to our Striped Bass, which easily turned me into a fish lover!
Describe your ideal seafood meal. What’s on your plate?
My ideal seafood meal is our Striped Bass prepared whole with fennel and sea salt, baked in a clay oven, and cooked up by my good friend, Chef Drew Deckman, in the Guadalupe Valley of Baja California. His unique preparation leaves the scales on which helps to render the natural fat content while steaming the fish itself. It really showcases everything that is great about the species. He’s a wonderful guy and an amazing chef. We’re blessed to have him just down the street from our hatchery in Ensenada.
What lead to you working in aquaculture?
My business partner, Daniel (pictured below), and I made a decision back in 2012 that we didn’t want to remain in finance, where we’d spent our entire careers before then. We saw the writing on the wall when it came to the world’s population growth and the need for more protein, and we decided we wanted to focus our efforts on producing food.
We came across aquaculture by accident, really, when we were introduced to our partners at Pacifico, Eric and Rex. We immediately realized the potential of the industry, and to be honest, we fell in love with the business. We put together an investor group made up of our friends and family and decided to dive straight in! (Pun intended.) Here we are four years later, thrilled to have an amazing product in the market and a fantastic team of over 140 employees in Ensenada, Baja California.
If you couldn’t be a fish farmer, what would you be?
I think if I hadn’t come across Pacifico back in 2013, I probably would have gone back to finance and to be honest….I would have been much less happier than I am right now. I always loved the ocean as a kid; I grew up reading books about sharks and whales, but I never got to pursue it professionally. I never would have imagined that I would be working in the ocean, in aquaculture much less. It is a point of pride that our work and responsible aquaculture in a general sense may be the very thing that saves, protects, and restores our oceans.
Any proud, funny, or memorable moments from the farm?
Although it sounds cliché, every day is memorable at the farm. My favorite day was probably the first time I took my wife, Zeyna, and her family to the farm. This was when we were engaged a few months away from our wedding day. They’d never been to a fish farm and couldn’t believe how beautiful the island was. I was lucky that day because like clockwork, as we were leaving the site, we saw a gray whale a few miles from the site. That just sealed the deal. My in-laws realized marrying into the fish business wasn’t such a bad idea.
What is the purpose of fish farming? Why is it important?
Fish farming is a responsible and efficient way to produce animal protein. By responsible, I mean that we are saving wild fish by farming fish, and by efficient, I mean that fish convert food to protein MUCH more efficiently than most other forms of protein.
How did you choose Striped Bass?
We chose true Striped Bass for a couple of reasons. First, it tastes great and already has a pretty strong following in the marketplace. Second, it grows extremely well at our site. Third, the striped bass has long been a favorite of sports fishermen. Its popularity pushed it to the brink. Our goal was to help lower the burden on the wild striped bass fisheries, while broadening the reach of a truly excellent species. The world deserves to experience the deliciousness of the striped bass that American fishermen have long been familiar with. Fortunately its hardiness makes it an ideal candidate for truly sustainable aquaculture.
Why do farms usually work with a single species?
Farms generally choose one species because there are so many species-specific details that you need to worry about. At the end of the day, the basis of our business is biology, and each species is different.
What makes your farm special or unique?
It is an ideal location to practice aquaculture. Being 8 miles from the port of Ensenada, we avoid land-based influences on our site. The island gives us a base for our operations, while protecting us from some of the harsher elements of the sea like tropical storms. Most importantly our steady, gentle currents, coupled with a 250m submarine canyon, ensure that the ocean floor and surrounding environment are unaffected by our presence.
What is the hardest part of your job or running the farm?
The toughest part about the job is balancing all of the different personalities and cultures of our employees. We’re blessed to have people from six countries on our team, and people from all walks of life. It’s a challenge and also a really fun process to build our team up and create a collaborative environment. Not to mention the fact that I had to learn Spanish well beyond my high school level to actually do my job.
How many people are employed full-time, year-round on your farm?
We have over 140 employees working at our company now! They range from former fisherman to commercial divers to oceanologists to truck drivers to marine biologists.
How does your farm work? How long does the process take to grow the fish?
We hatch baby fish from our 5-10 year old broodstock inside our own hatchery. These babies grow for 60-90 days in the hatchery before they move out to the ocean site where they live for 18-24 months.
What is a hatchery and why is it important?
The hatchery is where we make life! It’s where our broodstock (the fish we’ve set aside to be the parents) are kept year-round until they’re ready to spawn. When the time is right, we move them to a special area of the hatchery and leave them alone to let them do their thing. Once they’re finished (it takes at least a few days), we collect the eggs and incubate them until they hatch. Once they hatch, we have millions of tiny larvae that we take care of in a very clean environment (think a hospital nursery mixed with an aquarium) until they’re ready to go to the farm…about 60 days.
What do you feed your fish? And what is your fish in/fish out ratio?
We’re proud to work with only BAP certified feed providers who are on the cutting edge of responsible production. Our feed is a fishmeal-based feed, but we push to make sure that as much of that fishmeal as possible comes from trimmings from sustainable fisheries. Our diets have been formulated to exactly suit the health needs of our fish while minimizing the impact on wild stocks.
Are there any fish-meal replacements that you are excited to try?
Yes, definitely! I’m very excited to run trials of several of those products, including Calysta’s Feedkind product, as well as the algae and insect-based products that are coming down the pipeline. We’ve experimented in the past with soymeal and have considered using that, although we need to do much more research on how it affects the health of our fish.
Do you use antibiotics on the farm? If so, when and why?
We only use antibiotics in cases where it is critical for animal welfare. In other words, we don’t use antibiotics unless our fish get extremely sick and are on the verge of dying. If that happens, we treat the sick fish in the hopes of keeping them alive, and we set those fish aside to make sure we don’t mix them with non-treated fish. We never sell a treated fish within 6 months of its treatment, which allows plenty of time for the antibiotic to clear the system.
How do you prevent disease amongst your fish?
We really focus on fish health! It starts with the feed. We give our fish the highest quality feed, with a focus on the best ingredients and formulation specifically developed for our species. We then make sure that the area where they live is as clean as possible. We have a crew of three guys who are dedicated to net cleaning, making sure our nets are clean and the fish get plenty of fresh water flowing through the pens. Lastly, we keep very low densities in the pens, minimizing stress on the fish, and giving them plenty of room to swim freely.
Do you use growth hormones on the fish?
No, we never use growth hormones.
How do you monitor water quality? Is this important for fish health and for the environment?
We monitor water quality every day at our site and our hatchery. We have water quality technicians at both locations who take samples from different locations and check for harmful chemicals, pathogens and waste. We also check the ocean floor underneath the pens four times per year to ensure we’re not having a negative effect on our surroundings.
How is the environment at the farm similar to the fish’s natural habitat?
Our fish have an excellent quality of life. They live in a pristine ocean environment, similar to what they would experience in the wild. The difference is our fish get to eat every day, so they are extremely healthy and happy without worrying about predators or finding their next meal. In the pens, they have plenty of room to swim. In fact our pens are over 98% water and less than 2% fish.
What are you doing here on the farm to prevent harm to wild fish of the same species? How do you prevent escapees?
Our team of excellent divers are checking our nets once and sometimes twice a day to ensure there are no holes big enough to allow for escapes. We also have a second net that keeps out predators that also acts as protection for the fish, keeping them in and the seals out!
What does sustainable mean to you? Is fish farming sustainable?
Sustainable to me means doing something responsibly, in a way that has a neutral or beneficial impact on the external environment. From that perspective I definitely think that fish farming done right is sustainable. We’re saving wild stocks of fish and producing a healthy protein for the world. That being said, I always like to say, just as chickens can be farmed well or can be farmed badly, the same goes for fish – which is why a company like LoveTheWild is so important in helping the consumer choose the products and farms.
What do you do to protect the ecosystem where the farm is located?
Our model of responsible aquaculture is focused on having zero impact on our surrounding environment, to the point that our ultimate goal is to achieve a restorative effect. Low-cage densities, regular internal and third party testing of our water and the ocean floor, monitoring fish health all combine to ensure that the plant and animal life around our island are as pristine as before we arrived.
How do you think most people feel about aquaculture? Why?
I think most people don’t know that much. I’ve seen that just with my friends and family. Initially people have no idea what it means when I tell them I’m a fish farmer. Then when I bring them down to the farm, they’re amazed at how clean and beautiful it is and how complex the process is. The most common thing I hear is, “I never realized how difficult it is to farm fish. There’s so much that goes into it.”
Our job as the farmers and producers of this wonderful product is to educate our customers, to show them how much care we put into raising our fish, and that just like them, we truly care for the environment and for our fish and are trying to bring a responsible solution to the marketplace.
How does aquaculture support the future of wild fish and fishermen?
I think it does so in two main ways: Firstly, aquaculture brings jobs to fisherman who may have lost their jobs due to depletion of stocks. We’ve seen that in a huge way at our company and in our region of Baja California. Secondly, we utilize the same infrastructure, boats, processing plants, etc. This keeps these industries alive even if the fishing isn’t that great!
What makes farmed fish just as delicious as wild fish?
Farmed fish get to live idyllic lives, eating everyday in a clean environment. This reduces stress and improves their health and makes the flesh slightly fatty with a firm texture.
How are the diets of farmed fish different from those of wild fish?
Farmed fish eat diets that are formulated to give them exactly the nutrients they need – in a form that’s easy and safe for them to eat (no crabs poking eyeballs!)
Do farmed fish have the same amount of nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and healthy fatty acids as wild fish?
The honest answer is it depends on what they eat. If the diet has the right nutritional profile, the fish will have the right nutritional profile. Because our feed is fishmeal-based, we’ve found that our fish has very high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, on par with wild fish, in fact.
Is farmed fish just as safe or safer to eat than wild fish (in terms of mercury, etc.)?
Generally it’s a lot safer! Most farmed fish have negligible (if any) traces of mercury or PCBs.
Everyone wants their seafood to be super fresh. How fresh is farmed fish compared to wild fish?
Just as fresh if not fresher! Because of the regularity of farming, we make sure we always have the conditions just right to keep our fish fresh. This includes harvest methods, ice/chain of cold, and of course, our proximity to the end-market!
What role do you see aquaculture playing in the future of seafood? Or the future of feeding the world for that matter?
I think aquaculture has a huge role to play. As our global population keeps growing and diets switch to healthier options, demand for seafood will continue increasing! The problem is we’ve tapped out our stocks of wild fish, so all future growth will have to come from aquaculture.
What innovations or changes have occurred in the aquaculture industry over the past 30 years that you’d like people to know about and understand?
I’m not a scientist so I can’t speak with authority here, but to me the growth in the entire industry is hugely exciting! We need all the farmed fish we can get to continue feeding the world healthy protein!
Do you plan on utilizing or exploring multi-trophic level aquaculture? Why or why not? If so, what species would that consist of?
Definitely, we’ve just started researching this and are very keen to try and grow both shellfish and aquatic plants on our site. Stay tuned over the next few years as we hopefully bring this dream to a reality!
Can you share how you first found out about LoveTheWild?
I met Christy and Jacqueline at a fish conference called Fish 2.0 in 2015. They were the rockstars of the show (I think they won an award), and we ended up talking to them about our farm and what we are trying to build. Jacqueline came to visit last year and the rest is history! We’re thrilled to be working with them and can’t wait to grow our business together.
How do you feel about LoveTheWild and what they are trying to do for the industry?
I think it’s great. I can relate as a supplier of theirs and as a consumer! They do all the work for us as consumers, figuring out who the good farms are and what the best products are. Then to top it all off, they show us how to cook the fish in 30 minutes or less! My wife and I are loyal customers now, and LoveTheWild products have become a regular part of our weekly lineup.
And if you don’t mind sharing, can you let us in on the secret to running a great fish farm?
There’s no secret really. We focus on treating our employees, our fish, and our environment with respect. If we can get that right, everything else will work.