Velella Research Project is raising fish in sea-drifting pods


September 16, 2011

The Velella Research Project's Aquapod, adrift off the coast of Hawaii

The Velella Research Project's Aquapod, adrift off the coast of Hawaii

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There are a number of reasons that many people are opposed to fish farming. Among other things, they claim that the caged fish release too much concentrated waste into the surrounding waters, too many antibiotics and anti-algal chemicals are used, the ecological balance is upset when non-native fish escape from their pens, and strain is put on populations of local fish that are captured for use in feed for carnivorous farmed fish. Unfortunately, wild-fish-capturing methods such as drift net fishing and bottom trawling have big problems of their own. A new system that involves raising fish in mesh spheres that float in the open ocean, however, is claimed to sidestep many of the drawbacks of traditional marine aquaculture. The Velella Research Project is pioneering the technology.

The project is being carried out by marine biologists from Kampachi Farms (formerly Kona Blue Water Farms), an aquaculture company based out of Hawaii's Big Island. They are experimenting with raising hatchery-born Almaco jack fingerlings in a 22-foot (6.7-meter) diameter Aquapod, a floating spherical brass mesh fish pen. Instead of being moored in one place, the pod is drifting in eddies that carry it 3 to 150 miles (4.8 to 241.4 km) off the island's west coast, in waters up to 12,000 feet (3,657.6 meters) deep.

The Aquapod is tethered to a tender vessel, which houses marine biologists who feed and monitor the fish. The boat's engine is occasionally run to make course corrections, although it mostly just drifts with the pod. Its location is tracked at the project's land-based headquarters using GPS.

Because the pod is drifting in the open ocean, with the current flowing through it, the fish waste is continuously carried off and dispersed. The brass mesh resists biofouling, so anti-algal chemicals aren't needed, and the Almaco jack (also known as Kampachi) are native to the region. Also, much of the fish meal and fish oil in their feed has been replaced with sustainable agricultural proteins such as soy.

Velella is not entirely unopposed, however. Hawaiian environmental group KAHEA has raised concerns that the National Marine Fisheries Service was premature in issuing a permit to the project, having not sufficiently investigated its possible ecological impact on the region. There are also worries that even if the one Aquapod causes no problems, future multiple pods dispersed in one area could.

Kampachi Farms co-CEO Neil Anthony Sims countered that drift pen technology has virtually no environmental impact on the underlying seafloor, surrounding water quality or wild fish outside the Aquapod, and that the test fish are healthy and growing well.

The word Velella, incidentally, is the name of a family of marine creatures that float on the surface of the open ocean.

More information on the project is available in the video below.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

How does feeding the fish soy impact on the quality of the meat? Isn\'t soy an endocrine disrupter for the fish as well as for humans?

Carlos Grados

Holy carp! This is what I\'ve been wondering about for years! (well, almost) The difference is that I want to see us raising fish like tuna from eggs to, say, fingerlings, and then released into the wild. Once they get past the first few days their odds of survival increase dramatically. I believe we could undo a lot of the overfishing by protecting the young long enough to give \'em better odds.

There\'d be no direct money in it, but if a few governments banded together to do it, I think the impact would be very positive overall.


Typical of environmentalists If it looks like a good idea, and somebody might make a profit, they are against it.


It is great that something might help with an issue that is quite possibly bigger than climate change, in our future.

Simon Gray

@slowburn: That\'s a really intelligent comment which contributes to the debate immensely. Of course I could have made some worthless vacuous comment about people who put profits before everything but that would be labelling people without having real evidence and that would be just childish wouldn\'t it?

Nigel Allen

What Slowburn said is literally what is happening here. With no reason--let alone evidence--to even suggest a problem they are opposing it. It is the classic precautionary principle nonsense at work: If something is new and untried it can\'t be proven to be 100% safe; so until it is proven 100% safe it should not be tried.

Snake Oil Baron

The comment about soy is worth considering but it may not be an issue. I don\'t know for certain but I doubt that hormones and their chemical mimics would bio accumulate and if not, they would only affect the fish--which are to be eaten anyway. If the soy made some of the males unable to spawn or even convert to female (as some fish do under certain natural conditions) it shouldn\'t affect the fish\'s muscles.

Another posibility is to use fish harvested this way for fish food, either for other harvests or for inland fish farms or even as high protein/fat animal feed.

If you had these in places like the Gulf of Mexico\'s so-called dead zone, where it is said that oxygen and nutrients are depleted because of river delta algae blooms from farm fertilizer, no one should be whining about releasing dispersed fish poop and the fish are close enough to the surface to be well oxygenated (their swiming could actually facilitate local mixing of water).

Snake Oil Baron

Re; Nigel Allen It is easier to convince people who put profits before everything to operate in a low environmental impact manner, than it is to get the so called environmentalists to allow someone to profit from solving environmental problems.


Sounds like a great idea! Especially for raising fingerlings as has been pointed out. The basket looks on the small side for large fish, but maybe the size could be increased. It would be great if we could lessen commercial fishing by providing this option! Commercial fishing has vastly reduced the average size of many types of fish, and harmed recreational angling.

Ron Wagner
Obviously farming fish will be wonderful for fish in the wild. Less long lines, less netting and the reduction of kills of non targeted marine life all benefit from fish farming. Fish flour can be used for very high quality feed stock for both man and beast. Jim Sadler

While Kampachi Farms (formerly Kona Blue Water Farms) CEO Neil Sims likes to claim that his experiment on our oceans has been a wild success and has resulted in "virtually no environmental impact", he would prefer you not know that Velella has already caused negative impacts on the surrounding environment. Early this spring, before the facility had even received its permit, inclement weather snapped the rigging lines holding its two aquaculture cages. Subsequently, both cages were lost, one sunk in the water and the other remained adrift and to our knowledge has never been located or recovered. This event occurred only a few months after Kona Blue was fined for damaging a coral reef off the Kohala coast with another aquaculture project. Unfortunately, the environmental assessment that cleared way for the facility's permit gave these incidents scant attention, failing to analyze the potential impacts of the lost cages or assess what impact may occur from a future accident. Instead, the federal government blindly put faith in the company to prevent future accidents. In part, this is why Food & Water Watch and KAHEA filed suit against the federal government for issuing a permit for the project.

If we are to avoid the problems of big factory fish farming in Hawaii, it is absolutely critical that regulators completely analyze and disclose the likely impacts from such facilities. See our report, The Empty Promise of Ocean Aquaculture in Hawaii, for more information:

Food & Water Watch Food & Water Watch

Food & Water Watch receives a lot of its funding from the commercial fishing industry. They have been waging a propaganda campaign on the internet against open water aquaculture for several years now to protect the financial interests their contributors.

mike d
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