With so many tuna held in pens close together and close to shore, one would think waste would concentrate and pollute the water. But Ramos says this is not the case "because of the currents and upwellings we have here."
He says the locations of the pens are chosen for their cleansing currents, both to protect the local environment and because the tuna need clean water to thrive. "And," he says, "we analyze the fish, we analyze water quality at different levels of the column of water, we analyze phytoplankton, we analyze the seafloor, nitrogen levels, phosphorous levels, oxygen levels. Also we analyze sediment and organic material and metals -- copper, lead, and iron. And all the farms participate."
Kent says that a properly placed fish farm shouldn't adversely affect its surrounding environment. "It's like the restaurant trade...location, location, location. If you're in a back part of a bay where the water doesn't really mix -- there's no current -- then whatever comes out of the cage is going to sit on the bottom. But if you site it in a location that has good current and tidal flushing, and you're deep enough, what will happen is the nutrients that come off will leave the cage area and get distributed and absorbed by the environment as if a school of fish were swimming by. People say that it's like having a sewage outfall, but that's not true. In sewage there are viruses and bacteria from humans that could come back and contaminate humans. But fish don't put out human viruses and bacteria. When nitrogen and phosphorous come out in the form of detrital material, they get absorbed by algae five miles away."
Ramos thinks that the ten tuna-farming companies operating near Ensenada have created "about 4000 jobs both directly and indirectly. And we estimate that now this industry represents around $80 million to $90 million per season."
Is that money staying in Ensenada?
"In our case, we pay salaries to 250 to 300 local people, and we buy nets, motors, spare parts, and a lot of things like that locally. Most of the guys who own the company are Mexican, and they live here in Baja or in San Diego. The rest of the companies are owned by people in Australia or Japan."
Kent believes similar farms could be operated off California's coast. And, with a good deal of entrepreneurial investment, he believes someone could go one better and not only catch and feed bluefin tuna but breed the fish from a captive brood stock, something that hasn't been done commercially anywhere in the world yet, though it has been done with species such as salmon and yellowtail. The Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute has successful -- though noncommercial -- captive breeding programs for white sea bass and yellowtail. "Everybody who's doing aquaculture wants control over the culture protocol," Kent says. "The aquaculture in Baja is an example of making an industry out of something that still depends on the wild population. But all the other people who are doing commercial aquaculture in other species are doing it using brood fish that they keep and breed from. But the problem is...our white-sea-bass tanks are 20 feet across. Imagine a tuna tank with brood stock in it that's 100 feet across and 30 feet deep. You're talking about some fairly big infrastructure commitments."
Why couldn't it be done offshore?
"Because how would you harvest the eggs?" Kent answers. "See, with our shore-based operation, the water flows through the tank, the eggs come out, and we catch them in a fine net. You couldn't do that in a big net offshore."
Kent doesn't expect to see aquaculture operations popping up in California anytime soon. Just getting the permits, he believes, would take "18 months to two years." Still, he thinks aquaculture, whether it's offshore catch-and-feed or onshore captive breeding, makes sense for California. "So do I see it happening here? Yes, if someone has the will to do it off of California. And one of the great things about doing it off of California is that I know we'll do it right."