Aqua-Spark wants to change an industry known for unclean practices
There’s a certain appeal to fish farming, also known as aquaculture. Growing aquatic life in offshore pens, rivers, or big, terrestrial tanks seems not only audacious, but as convenient as, well, shooting fish in a barrel. Already, aquaculture accounts for nearly 50 percent of the worldwide fish supply, and it’s growing faster than any other type of food production. Farm-raised seafood will soon jump to 62 percent of global fish served on a plate or bought in a supermarket by 2030, a 500 percent growth rate over 20 years, according to the USDA. At a time when 85 percent of marine life is overexploited and overfished, aquaculture seems like a viable alternative.
But in the past, environmentalists have been wary to embrace the industry. Farms generally rely on less than desirable practices to grow their fish. Many use heavy amounts of antibiotics, which can pollute surface waters and spur the growth of antibiotic-resistant microbes. Invasive species of fish that escape netted pens bring disease and decimation to native populations. Perhaps strangest of all, fishmeal used on farms is almost always ground, wild-caught fish. Of total fish caught by fisheries worldwide, 37 percent goes toward making fishmeal.
Aqua-Spark, an investment fund focused on sustainable aquaculture, is out to change these practices and chart an environmentally sound future. Co-founded in 2013 by Amy Novogratz, former director of the TED Prize, and successful entrepreneur Mike Velings, the fund spent two years raising $10 million. Last month, they announced their first two investments, with a goal to grow over $400 million by 2024. They’ve put a finger on the pulse of an industry that’s not only projected to expand rapidly, but with room to develop sustainably, as well.
GOOD caught up with Amy Novogratz last Friday.
Tell me how Aqua-Spark was founded. What’s the driving philosophy?
Amy Novogratz: I was working with TED, working on Sylvia Earle’s TED Prize wish [Mission Blue], and her wish was around bringing more awareness to the ocean and the need to protect more of it in order to restore it.
As part of her wish, we brought 100 people to the Galápagos for a TED-like conference, and talked through all the challenges the ocean was facing. My business partner and husband [Mike Velings] was on the boat. We were immersed in 10 days of all the issues surrounding the ocean, and also meeting a network of ocean scientists, advocates, and philanthropists. We started thinking about what we wanted to do together, and doing something in the ocean space made a lot of sense. He’s an entrepreneur and was investing already.
When you start looking at the numbers of how much fish we’re eating, how much is out there, what’s being produced, how poorly a lot of it is being produced, it really grabs you. Little by little, we dug more and more into aquaculture, and saw a major opportunity to add value there, and also a business opportunity.
One of Aqua-Spark’s first investments is with Calysta, a US-based biotech company that pioneered a new type of fishmeal. Rather than relying on wild-caught fish to make feed, they use a high protein, fermented microbe. It seems like you’re really starting with fish farming’s Achilles’ heel: a lack of sustainable fishmeal.
In general, our whole approach is to try and build a portfolio of companies that are working together, adding benefits to each other, and striving to make the industry better.
Everyone in this space realizes you’re never actually going to have sustainable aquaculture until you figure out the fish feed. Not only is it completely unsustainable and a little ridiculous to feed wild-caught fish to farmed fish, we’re not even there anymore. When you look at the numbers of fish we need to produce, we’re not going to catch the amount of anchovies or sardines we need to feed [farmed fish].
There needs to be a better solution. Soy has been the best out there so far. In some cases, it probably works. We don’t love soya, especially for carnivorous fish. We’re looking at a lot of different areas—we’re looking at algae, at single cell proteins—but we got really excited with Calysta’s product. It just felt like a huge step in the right direction.
A study in Science last month warned that aquatic life may be on the “precipice of an extinction event.” What is aquaculture doing to help?
A doorway into wanting to start this fund was a desire to take pressure off of the ocean. We’re not anti-fishery, and there’s a lot of innovative stuff happening, trying to manage fisheries better.
But when you look at the global demand for fish, you’re not going to be able to get it from the sea. There’s a lot that’s happening in a way that we don’t approve. There’s a ton of illegal fishing, and a lot of fishing practices that are unsustainable.
For us, we think we have this really good answer, which is aquaculture. We just need to make it better. There’s been so much research and development that says we can farm fish in a way that’s really good for the environment and good for us, and that’s how we should farm it.
What can aquaculture do to reduce poverty?
One of the reasons we started this fund was a conversation with WorldFish, which has been working for decades to use aquaculture both to help reduce poverty and to provide everybody with the best, most affordable, and really healthy fish.
Our investment in Chicoa Fish Farm—it’s one part a really incredible farming operation on its own, but it’s also building a hatchery and a feed mill. They will be able to supply local farmers what they need to start their own farms.
I keep going back to the supply and demand numbers, but there’s a huge deficit of protein we [humans] need, and the population’s growing, growing, growing. Certain species of fish, species that are also really efficient, like tilapia, if you have the right fingerlings [juvenile fish], the right feed source, and a bit of knowledge, you can grow tilapia. We need to support that framework by creating hatcheries and feed mills in areas where there aren’t any, and build a better framework for the industry. It’s a really great business solution to food security issues.
So like you said, demand for seafood is expected to swell in the coming decades, but so are the negative consequences of climate change, such as ocean acidification and rising sea surface temperatures. What is climate change going to mean for aquaculture in the coming decades?
In the sense that we’re going to get even less fish from the sea?
I mean, even before going there, if things stay as they are, we’re still kind of doomed.
One of the reasons that we made our first investment in sub-Saharan Africa is that’s where the deficit is one of the largest in general. Mozambique has one of the largest coastlines in Africa. You have a population that’s really used to eating fish. So it had a really high consumption of fish per person, but that fish is no longer there. The consumption rate is actually decreasing, but it’s only because the fish aren’t there.
The worry is, if we start to substitute that protein with beef or pork or high-energy, less resource-efficient ways to grow protein, we’re actually in a ton of trouble. So even looking at the best case scenario, we still absolutely need aquaculture. That’s why I think a lot of conservationists and people who, 10 years ago, were saying, “Oh, aquaculture’s bad and dirty,” are now saying, “Ok, we need to work together and get this right.”