Farming the Fish of the Future

It is 6:30 in the morning on the Caribbean Sea, and Brian O'Hanlon is heading out to his farm. As he gets ready to go to work, it becomes clear that O'Hanlon is not a traditional farmer.

O'Hanlon's gear include a wet suit and tanks. His farm sits far below the ocean surface. It is a fish farm. And what he is pioneering undersea may be nothing less than the farm of the future.

"They don't really understand it at first," says O'Hanlon, as he explains people's reaction when they discover that he runs a fish farm. "You have to explain, 'Well, we have cages out in the ocean,' and they think we're catching fish. We say, 'No we're producing fish in captivity.'"

So far, O'Hanlon's farm consists of three massive underwater cages anchored to the ocean floor. They look like they came straight from outer space. Unzip the entry way, slip inside, and you really do enter another world. There are 15,000 fish inside, and once they mature they will go straight to market, and ultimately, to someone's dinner plate.

The Fastest-Growing Food Industry in the World

O'Hanlon, 27, was born to sell fish. His father and grandfather were importers at New York City's fabled Fulton Street Fish Market.

When O'Hanlon was just 16 years old, he decided to enter the business by building a fish hatchery in the basement of the family home in New York. He imported red snapper brood stock from the Gulf of Mexico and tried to spawn them in captivity.

The experiment was going well, until an electrical fire in the hatchery burnt the family house down.

As the ocean's fish stocks dwindle, and consumer appetite grows, fish farms are becoming the fastest-growing food industry in the world. But until now they have had a bad reputation: producing inferior quality fish, and damaging the environment as they do it. O'Hanlon's system is designed to be different.

O'Hanlon's cages sit two miles off shore, 90 feet below the surface, as opposed to most fish farms, which sit in simple nets or cages, close to shore, in the shallow water of protected bays. Those conventional fish farms are certainly cost-effective, but they can been environmentally catastrophic. In many places the fish food and the fish waste destroy the delicate ecology, creating outbreaks of algae and infecting the fish with parasites and sea lice.

O'Hanlon's deep sea system uses fast-moving currents to keep the waters constantly fresh.

"We're growing fish out here in some of the most pristine environments in the world, out here in the open ocean," says O'Hanlon. "We know every aspect of that fish's life, we know what it's eaten and we know what kind of water it's been in. So we don't have that risk of contamination of a fish passing through polluted water."

Farrms of the Future

This is new science, to feed the people of a new century.

O'Hanlon's company, Snapperfarm, is working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and with the University of Miami to make this pilot project a prototype for future fish farms.

Until O'Hanlon builds his own hatchery -- and he says government red tape is making that difficult -- O'Hanlon's fish are coming from a hatchery on the campus of the University of Miami.

Dr. Daniel Benetti, director of the Aquaculture program at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, has helped O'Hanlon identify a little-known species called "cobia" for his fish farm. Cobia grow at 10 times the rate of most other fish, making them an ideal candidate for fish farming.

"The open ocean aqua-culture in the cages, it's just as good as organic," says Benetti. "No pesticides, no antibiotics, no pigments, no medicines, no nothing."

Few Americans realize that already more than 40 percent of the fish we eat comes from fish farms. Many of these farms are in Asia, South America and the Pacific Northwest, and many of them use pigments and antibiotics.

What O'Hanlon is doing is not just good science, it is good marketing. Any store that sells fish knows that fish farming desperately needs an image makeover.

Jonnie Rodhe, one of the owners of the Norman Brothers, a popular Miami grocery store, says some of her customers refuse to buy farm-raised fish, but she's seeing more and more of it.

"There's been a lot of press about farm-raised fish and some it has not been very positive," says Rodhe. "Instead of depleting the population, let's figure out a way to farm-raise them. I see no problem with it. I think it's a great idea."

'You Are What You Eat'

Back at sea, off the coast of Culebra, O'Hanlon and his crew are at work early each morning feeding their fish. Their fish food is pellets, made from a combination of fish meal, protein and vitamins. In this 21st century operation, underwater cameras allow them to watch from the surface as the fish eat … so they know just when to stop.

"You are what you eat," says O'Hanlon. "You want to know that a product is being produced with good clean ingredients … that it's a healthy product. Our fish here are very high in omega 3 fatty acids, [they're] very good for you … that's because of the ingredients we are using in the feed."

Today O'Hanlon has three cages in the deep sea. Over the next year he's planning to add five more, and he's negotiating to establish a second deep sea farm off the coast of Panama.

"We're growing cobia," says O'Hanlon. "But this same system can be used for many other species of fish and in many other conditions and climates."

O'Hanlon's team harvests the fish using a giant water vacuum connected to a venturi pump. It sucks the fish straight from the cages into shipping containers filled with ice.

O'Hanlon hopes his cobia and his ecologically-friendly deepwater cages are the beginning of a revolution under the sea.

What is happening here in the Carribean Sea is being called the "Blue Revolution" -- an effort to harness the sea to feed this generation, without spoiling it for generations to come.