In 1979, after the yellowtail project failed,  Minoru Tanaka applied for permission to grow scallops in San Diego Bay.
  • In 1979, after the yellowtail project failed, Minoru Tanaka applied for permission to grow scallops in San Diego Bay.
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California’s history has proven, among other things, that it takes more than a slab of land and a network of irrigation pipes to succeed at the tenuous business of farming. It takes, above all, a craps-player’s gambling heart and a sixth sense about what people might want to eat tomorrow that they aren’t eating today. Keeping these last two requirements in mind makes it possible to believe that Minoru Tanaka, a stocky, energetic, fifty-seven-year-old Japanese immigrant who is partial to fat cigars and gold Cadillac Sevilles, might someday succeed at a farming venture that would make an Imperial Valley melon grower shake his head in wonder.

Tanaka doesn't have the requisite piece of land or a single irrigation pipe, and he doesn’t need either — he’s a fish farmer and his crop is a few baskets of Japanese scallops. These shellfish have no use for fertile soil or a spray of water from some river-fed pipe. They need only a bay full of pollutant-free seawater. But finding that pollutant-free water in San Diego Bay, out of reach of vandals and potential scallop thieves, is not an easy task, Tanaka has discovered.

Scallops are common farm animals in Japan.

Scallops are common farm animals in Japan.

As a fish farmer, Minoru Tanaka can count himself among a small but growing group that sees itself as gradually changing the shape of the fishing industry. In the future, they say, fish farming (called aquaculture or mariculture) will produce a substantial amount of the fish and mollusks people eat. Its influence is already being felt: by the mid-1970s, aquaculture accounted for about six million metric tons of fish, or about ten percent of the world fish production; aquaculture sales in California alone amounted to $17.5 million in 1978.

Last fall the state legislature passed a law that defines fish farming as being a form of agriculture rather than an industry. This makes aquaculture privy to some handsome benefits — including tax considerations — that other California farmers have already, and was good news to the approximately 250 fish farmers in the state. These farmers have operations that range from small backyard ponds stocked with a few catfish to large pools in which they grow tons of freshwater fish. Very few of these farmers have delved into research on growing sea creatures, and fewer still have cultivated saltwater animals for marketing.

A rock scallop’s shell acts as a glue as it grows.

A rock scallop’s shell acts as a glue as it grows.

Minoru Tanaka would like to be a commercial fish farmer, selling his products to fish markets and restaurants in Southern California. But the crop he has chosen, Japanese scallops, is a brand-new farm commodity in California. He has to act as an amateur researcher to determine how to make his scallops grow in their new home as well as they grow in his native Japan. Scallops are common farm animals in Japan, where fish farming is a well-established, neatly organized, labor-intensive industry that enjoys heavy government investment. In fact, the fish farms account for somewhere between twenty-two and forty percent of the total fish sales in the country. The Japanese farms cultivate, among other fish, about 150,000 tons of scallops each year. Some of those scallops are eaten at home, boiled, fried, dried, or raw; some are dried and exported to China and Southeast Asia where dried scallops are in demand. In the United States, most of the scallops in fish markets and restaurants have been caught off the coast of the northeastern United States and eastern Canada, and then flown fresh or frozen to the markets.

Today, Tanaka is apparently the only person in California, and possibly on the West Coast, who is trying to grow scallops for sale.

Most West Coast saltwater fish farmers grow oysters, which have a long history of successful cultivation here (in California, they are grown in Humboldt Bay, Tomales Bay, Drakes Estero, and Morro Bay); or abalone, which in the last six years has become a commercial farm product (near Port Hueneme and Monterey, and in Morro Bay).

Tanaka's friend Roy Everingham gives him a lift in a boat to Everingham’s bait barge.

Tanaka's friend Roy Everingham gives him a lift in a boat to Everingham’s bait barge.

If Tanaka devises a way to keep his shellfish alive and healthy in San Diego until they are big enough to eat, and if he finds a place to grow them here, perhaps the price of fresh scallops in local fish markets would drop from the current $8.95 a pound. In the meantime, though, Tanaka is learning that despite their tough exterior, scallops are delicate, unpredictable creatures — so unpredictable that at times his project seems foolhardy. But Tanaka has a history of tackling difficult business projects and making them work. Seventeen years ago he convinced Japanese consumers — in a fortuitous combination of clever packaging and a slump in the Korean supply — that they should eat the sea urchins he was sending them from the waters off Ensenada rather than the sea urchins from Korea that they had been eating. The sea urchin export industry that he founded now comprises about fifteen separate companies on the West Coast. About three years ago, he opened the Japanese restaurant near Montgomery Field, Tengu, with his wife and a business partner. Off and on over the years he has dabbled in tuna fishing. Two years ago, he closed the financially pressed urchin business (the sea urchin population along the coast had been severely depleted), and now, while his wife takes care of the restaurant, Tanaka deals with his scallops in San Diego Bay.

About once a week, Tanaka drives from his home in a Chula Vista neighborhood of ranch-style houses with two-car garages, to the north end of San Diego Bay. By prearrangement, his friend Roy Everingham gives him a lift in a boat to Everingham’s bait barge, a long, flat raft with a simple square shed rising from one end. The barge is anchored in the middle of the bay, about halfway between Ballast Point and Shelter Island.

The barge stocks bait for fishermen. Since last spring, Everingham has let Tanaka hang his string of scallop baskets from the barge. Those baskets are about a foot square at the bottom, and their blue netting rises to a point so that when fully extended, the string of baskets looks like a stack of net pyramids. Tanaka’s scallops rest in the bottom of each of these baskets that hang submerged in the bay.

For about five yen (two cents) each, Tanaka buys the baby scallops from a hatchery in northern Japan, where the bulk of that country’s scallops are grown. When he buys them, the shellfish are about the size of a quarter and shaped like the emblem on a Shell gas station sign; they are white, beige, and dark brown in color. Tanaka sent for scallops for the first time last May. He ordered 300 shells, packed in layers of foam soaked in seawater and cooled with packs of synthetic coolant. The trip from the hatchery to San Diego took twenty-five hours, but almost all the animals died en route — after a few days in California, only twenty-five scallops were left. Tanaka figured the long trip and warm weather killed the shellfish, so he decided to order more of the mollusks after the next spawning season. In November a shipment of 2100 scallops arrived in San Diego for Tanaka. About ninety percent of the shipment survived the trip this time.

On his weekly visits to the bait barge, Tanaka pulls the baskets aboard the barge to check on the condition of his scallops, clean algae off the netting, or replace baskets that are too tangled with algae to clean. He never has to feed his scallops, and that’s one of the beauties of his sea farm. The animals take care of themselves, straining from the ocean water any tiny edibles that pass through their net cages. So far, though, Tanaka has found that their appetites seem to be the single hearty feature about these scallops. They are very sensitive to pollutants or shifts in the temperature or salinity of their habitat. After seven days of heavy rains in February, for example, when massive amounts of unsalty and dirty water drained from San Diego streets into the bay, Tanaka pulled his scallop baskets up to find about eighty-five percent of the shells were stretched open. All but about 300 shellfish were dead.

Sitting in a Chula Vista coffee shop one day recently, Tanaka absent-mindedly emptied a packet of sugar into a nearly empty cup of coffee and capped his story of the latest deaths by stretching his face into a mock pout and saying, ‘‘It’s just like my baby, they growing, you know? It’s so sad.” He has saved the shells of some of the dead scallops the way a parent might save a child’s lock of hair as a memento.

Mortality among scallops is not the first or only problem Tanaka has had with seafood. In fact, he’s had enough fish problems to convince most people to stay far away from water and water-related businesses. When he first came to North America from Tokyo, it was to start a yellowtail fishing and export business in Ensenada in 1962. At the time he owned a successful import-export business in Japan that dealt mostly in importing casings made from sheep intestines in India and Pakistan for Japan’s meatpacking industry. The Ensenada fishing business was intended to be an extension of his Japanese business. The yellowtail would be exported to Japan, where the fish is popular. (During Japan's winter months, when it is not as available as during warmer months, a fisherman can get the equivalent of about one hundred dollars for a twenty-two-pound yellowtail.) Before Tanaka could take advantage of the demand for yellowtail in Japan, though, the business sank in a mire of import regulations. At that time, Japanese law prevented import of yellowtail. Tanaka had been assured by government officials that the import restrictions were going to be lifted, and they eventually were — but not soon enough for Tanaka. After two years and $200,000 were invested, Tanaka sent his Japanese crew home and he filed bankruptcy for his entire business, including the business in Tokyo.

This business failure in 1964 devastated Tanaka’s ego, and even though his wife and two children were still in Tokyo, he didn’t feel he could move back to Japan as a failure. “I lost everything,” he says now. “We spent so much money. I didn’t want to go back to Japan because everybody knows we failed and lost. I couldn’t go back to Japan crying.” For the next three years he tried to build a new business of some sort in California and Mexico, finally hitting on exporting seaweed, an extract of which is used by the Japanese in cakes and as a dessert. (He was eventually driven out of the seaweed business by the unionized Japanese industry.) When he moved his family from Japan to Chula Vista in 1967, he was in the midst of trying to convince Japanese consumers to buy his wild North American sea urchins.

In 1972, just as his sea urchin business was succeeding, Tanaka started dabbling in fish farming. As in experiment, he imported baby shrimp from Japan, where shrimp growing is one of the largest of the fish farming ventures. With permission from the San Diego Unified Port District and San Diego Gas & Electric, Tanaka submerged his shrimp, held in two mesh cages, in the water at the mouth of a stream that flowed into the bay from SDG&E’s power plant near the foot of J Street in Chula Vista. The warm water was salt water that the power plant pumped in from the bay, circulated over its machinery as a coolant, and then pumped back into the bay. But after nine months, Tanaka abandoned his shrimp project. He found that the water temperature dropped to as low as fifty-nine degrees Fahrenheit in winter, too cold to fatten shrimp.

About four years later, Tanaka decided to try fish farming again, returning to the subject of his first North American venture, yellowtail. But this time his plan was to fatten the fish in captivity and sell them to Japanese restaurants in Southern California, where high-quality fish is particularly prized in sashimi, a raw fish dish. Tanaka and a friend who had a sportfishing boat cruised to an area near the Coronado Islands, dropped nets, and caught small yellowtail. Then they took the fish to a ten-acre plot of sea water Tanaka leased from the State of California through the fish and game department. The plot, located in the ocean about a mile offshore from the Silver Strand, was leased by Tanaka for about one hundred dollars a year. He marked it with buoys and put his yellowtail in a large cage suspended from ropes stretched between some of the buoys and held steady with anchors. About four times a week, Tanaka boated out to the ocean farm and dumped squid and mackerel into the cage. By controlling the yellowtails’ diet, Tanaka figured he could control the flavor and weight of his fish. Under ideal conditions, he expected his fish would be ready to go to market in about four months. He expected his yellowtail to be better than any fish local restaurant owners had ever laid eyes on. They would be perfectly fat. Unfortunately, as Tanaka discovered just as he thought he was ready to market his fish, they would also be illegal to sell. He had caught the fish on a Mexican sportfishing license in Mexico, and learned too late that he couldn’t, under Mexican law, legally sell fish caught on that license. He also learned that California regulations say that a yellowtail has to be twenty-eight inches long before it can be sold here. Yellowtail grow very quickly to about twenty-four inches, but after that their growth slows down, and it takes proportionately more time and food to add inches to their length. Tanaka learned that vandals are one of the hazards of fish farming. One day he went out to his offshore fish farm to find that about twenty buoys (costing seventy dollars each) he had set to mark the boundaries of his farm had been cut loose and stolen.

Tanaka finally ended up giving his 140 yellowtail away, much of his crop going to Marineland for display in their aquarium. The entire project, financed in part by a fish farm in Japan, cost about $100,000. Tanaka has not really given up on the concept. He still thinks yellowtail farming can work on the West Coast, but he figures it would require an investment of about half a million dollars. It would probably have to be based in Mexico where young yellowtail are easier to catch and regulations governing the size of marketable yellowtail are not as strict as in California.

In 1979, after the yellowtail project failed, Tanaka applied to the state fish and game department for permission to grow scallops from Everingham’s bait barge in San Diego Bay. He applied to the federal government’s National Marine Fisheries Laboratory in Maryland for permission to import baby scallops from Japan. After about three years of paperwork and waiting, in April of 1982 Tanaka won permission to import his scallops and his latest project began.

So far, Tanaka has spent around $10,000 to grow the scallops. After the rash of deaths among his stock in February, anyone would understand if Tanaka decided to drop out of fish farming for good before he loses more money. Yet Tanaka still thinks there’s a future in his scallop venture. There are a few factors that keep him optimistic. For instance, in November a Japanese scientist attending an aquaculture symposium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography inspected some of the handful of scallops left from the first batch of shellfish Tanaka imported in May. The scientist told Tanaka that his shellfish were growing at a faster rate than the same scallops in Japan. By then Tanaka’s scallops were about the size of a fried egg, having reached nearly their market size a year ahead of their Japanese counterparts.

To make his farm into a full-scale business, Tanaka figures he would need to have two million scallops and about $200,000 for equipment and employees, including a round-the-clock watchman to thwart vandals. He would also need a lease on several acres of sea water.

Though he still holds the lease on ten acres a mile off the coast — the site of the abortive yellowtail farm — Tanaka hasn’t used that for the scallop project because of its vulnerability to vandalism. Once he had the right plot and the scallops and seed money, Tanaka would need a year and a half to grow the first shells to market size.

Tanaka is still betting that he will succeed. In February, as scallop breeding season approached, he took fifty-four shells to David Leighton, a marine biologist who works in a lab near Scripps. Leighton is an expert on abalone and rock scallop. He has perfected techniques for controlled spawning of shellfish, and he’s developed some potentially commercially useful techniques for rock scallop, a shellfish that grows wild along the California coast but that grows in such small numbers it is not legally harvestable by commercial divers. Rock scallops differ from Japanese scallops in their outward appearance and in some of their living habits. For instance, a rock scallop’s shell acts as a glue as it grows, welding the scallop tight against whatever it happens to be sitting on, either a rock or some other hard surface. Japanese scallops are freestanding and don't attach themselves permanently to a surface. Otherwise, both of these scallops have a similar anatomy, including an adductor muscle that opens and closes the shell and is used as food by humans. They also have the same reproductive systems. Leighton has agreed to apply his knowledge about scallop reproduction to try to hatch some Japanese scallops from Tanaka’s stock. If Leighton succeeds, Tanaka won’t have to go to Japan for baby scallops, a factor that could improve his odds in his fish farming gamble.

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