Bernard Friedman’s typical day starts around dawn, when the first rays of sunlight paint the Santa Ynez Mountains pink. As smells of hot coffee and diesel gas waft through the Santa Barbara Harbor, he hops onto his 35-foot boat Perseverance — so named for the 13 years he courted his wife, but a trait he’s forced to exhibit endlessly — and heads out to sea.
Unlike most Santa Barbara fishermen, from urchin divers to black cod long-liners, who must navigate for miles to reach unpredictable fishing grounds, it takes less than 15 minutes for Friedman to pull up to his sure-thing site, a 25-acre underwater grid of mesh ropes connected by red, blue, and green buoys located less than a mile off of Hendry’s Beach. A few minutes later, as the sunrise starts reflecting off the glass windows of The Boathouse restaurant, Friedman is already hauling in his morning catch, a few hundred pounds of mussels that he grew from tiny seeds to plump shells over the past year. They’re sheared off the clumpy ropes onto the spinning bristles of a specially designed scrubbing machine and will later be hand-washed on deck and dumped into the purple mesh bags that find their way to restaurants and seafood dealers hundreds of miles away.
MUSSEL MAN: Bernard Friedman started his shellfish farm off of Hendry’s Beach in 2002, and, more than a dozen years later, is still the only open-ocean fish farmer in California. He dabbled in oysters, but mussels have been the king crop since 2010.
He’s repeated this routine most days of the past 12 years, yet the 2014 haul was the biggest yet: more than 160,000 pounds of mussels, and the first time he’d ever maxed out the farm’s current capacity. “I can’t grow enough mussels to satisfy the demand,” explains Friedman, who fields orders on his cell phone from the Santa Barbara Fish Market, Harbor Seafood, and Kanaloa Seafood while on the boat. “We harvest exactly what people need, and you can be eating it tonight. What we do is unparalleled in most farming industries. We harvest to order.”
Friedman’s job is even more unique than that. While a handful of shellfish farms exist in coastal estuaries and some freshwater fish species are cultivated on land, the 42-year-old is the only open-ocean aquaculturist in the entire state of California. He founded Santa Barbara Mariculture in 2002 by taking over an existing but essentially forgotten offshore oyster farm. He eventually moved to mussels, and business blossomed, fertilized by modern culture’s insatiable desire for locally grown, sustainably sourced cuisine. Friedman believes he could easily double his business and move 7,000 pounds a week, which wind up on plates from the Central Coast south to San Diego and out to Arizona. “Just this town alone could exceed 2,000 pounds a week,” he predicted.
And it’s not just hungry foodies banging the drum. As the world watches wild-caught fish stocks disappear, today’s aquaculture advocates — including prominent UCSB scientists, who can see the Perseverance working from their oceanfront offices — believe that fish farms, when done right, are critical to feeding the Earth’s exploding population. Shellfish, in particular, give the most protein bang for the buck with the least environmental impacts. And most everyone agrees that it’s high time the United States — which chalks up more than $11 billion in annual trade deficit by importing 91 percent of our seafood, half of that from often under-regulated fish farms — started putting more oars in the water.
Yet even with the stars so magically aligned, and a banner year under his belt, Friedman fears his business may not be able to grow or even survive. Though he’d held a 72-acre lease from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for a decade and always farmed about 25 acres, Friedman learned in 2012 that he was really only permitted by the state to farm one acre. Let’s fix that, he thought, only to quickly learn that his graduate degree in fisheries management did not prepare him for the costly, time-consuming regulatory rigmarole he’d have to endure, especially if he wanted to expand the farm to harvest more mussels and maybe even oysters or scallops. But three years, multiple studies, and lots of correspondence later, the alphabet soup of agencies involved still can’t predict when or if he’ll ever be legal.
In the meantime, two ambitious open-ocean fish farms are swimming into Southern California waters. Both are state-of-the-art attempts to tackle America’s seafood deficit on a grand scale, and that could be good for the gander. But both are backed by millions of investment dollars and robust research initiatives, putting Friedman’s mom-and-pop-sized golden egg in jeopardy. He fears that the onerous, expensive rules established for these large operations will keep artisanal fish farms like his out of the game for good.
“Sometimes I get the feeling that I was never supposed to actually make it, that open-ocean farming is for the millionaires, not for the small guy at all,” Friedman told me one sunny morning last month, as bivalves flew across the bristles and into trash cans full of sea water. “But somehow I’ve succeeded — at least for the moment.”
By Paul Wellman
ALL HANDS ON DECK: Onboard the Perseverance, which he had specially designed for a one-man shellfish farming operation, Friedman first processes the mussels on an $18,000 scrubber that was built in New Zealand, where mussels have been safely harvested for decades.
Aquaculture goes back to the earliest days of California statehood. After the San Francisco Bay’s native oysters were decimated by ’49ers during the Gold Rush, the state began importing oyster seed from Washington State and Mexico. Commercial oysters really took off in 1875, when East Coast species were one of the first products delivered to town on the transcontinental railroad.
Today, the state’s shellfish farms are mostly in Humboldt, Tomales, and Morro bays; Drakes Estero was also a hub for oysters until the National Park Service ended that operation last year amid much controversy. There are also a few abalone farms (including The Cultured Abalone on the Gaviota Coast); many more freshwater trout, bass, tilapia, and catfish farms; and the country’s largest caviar industry thanks to the white sturgeon farms of the Sacramento Delta.
Open-ocean aquaculture, meanwhile, is quite popular across the globe, and a limited amount exists in other parts of the United States, particularly the Northeast. But it remains elusive in California, where it’s daunting on many levels: Anchored farms may not withstand our wave-wracked coastline; the on-deck work is much harder, costlier, and riskier than toiling in tranquil tidal flats; and, most prohibitively, very few have the wits, wherewithal, or wallet size to carve through the state’s strong coastal-protection policies.
Friedman wouldn’t have a farm if it weren’t for Jeff Young. The Los Angeles native and UCLA alum created the original lease in the early 1980s while finishing his graduate degree in fisheries at Humboldt State, where he saw oysters grown in Humboldt Bay. When his then-girlfriend (now wife) promised to move back from Hawai‘i if they could live in Santa Barbara, he realized that, unlike the rest of California, the coastline lies west-to-east and is further protected from the rough Pacific by the Channel Islands. Young thought a shellfish farm might work here.
And it did, but there was another problem: Young’s oysters made people sick, thanks to the poopy water that wastewater treatment plants were pumping into the ocean. So Young got a crash course in water-quality law and fought a multiyear battle against the Goleta Sanitary District and City of Santa Barbara, eventually reaching a confidential settlement. “That’s ultimately how I became a lawyer,” said Young, who now handles civil litigation and copyright cases from his office next to the Arlington Theatre and also sits on the Regional Water Quality Control Board. He worked the farm without much success until the mid-1990s and then didn’t think about it for years.
While Young was laying the original anchors, Friedman was still a high school student in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. The son of a dentist and homemaker, Friedman always loved growing things and even served as president of his school’s Future Farmers of America chapter. He came to surf Los Angeles at age 19, wound up taking biology classes at Santa Barbara City College, and then got a degree in biology from UC Santa Cruz. On research diving projects in Alaska and later for UCSB, he was mentored by some of the more esteemed marine ecologists in history, like otter expert Jim Estes and rockfish guru Milton Love.
In 1998, Friedman started working for Ecomar, the innovative company that scraped mussels off of Santa Barbara Channel oil rigs and sold them commercially. He returned to academia a year later, heading to the University College Cork in Ireland for a master’s in fisheries management, development, and conservation. “I ditched everything, put all I had in two suitcases, and left the country,” he recalled. “I didn’t think I was coming back.”
But longtime girlfriend Rebecca Frodsham, whom he eventually married in 2006, lured him back to Santa Barbara for the summer of 2000, where he wound up at Ecomar as a diving supervisor. “Bob Meek taught me a lot, how to be a businessperson, how to make money on the ocean,” he said of Ecomar’s owner, who died suddenly while diving in 2004. “It’s really easy to go bankrupt out here. You need to design for failure and be ready for the ocean to kick your ass.”
As part of his graduate thesis, Friedman tested how oyster seeds performed on an oil platform off of Carpinteria. When they worked, he contacted Young about taking over his old, unused lease in 2002. “I don’t know if I ever charged him anything,” said Young. “I was just thrilled that someone would make use out of it. I think it’s a great resource that’s benign to the environment.”
By Paul Wellman
Santa Barbara Mariculture was born in an opportune era, right as vast swaths of the population started buying locally grown foods for both environmental and nutritional reasons. Friedman’s “Hope Ranch Oysters” were incredibly popular for a while, but he decided to focus on mussels alone in 2010 when domoic acid poisoning wiped out his oyster crop. Aside from some other ups and downs, like when scoter ducks decimated his mussel seed in 2008 and caused him to default on his boat loan, Friedman’s business steadily grew.
Such growth came despite lingering public perceptions that fish farms are not so groovy. Indeed, shrimp farms do decimate mangrove forests, nonnative fish have infiltrated wild populations, and antibiotics, vaccines, and food coloring used in crowded fish pens freak people out. Plus, the early promise of fish farms was undercut by how many wild-caught fish were required to grow popular species like salmon, which once required five pounds of feed to get one pound of protein out.
Shellfish farmers avoid most of these problems, particularly because their crop feeds on free-floating phytoplankton. But technology is also tackling most other fish-farm concerns — at least in countries that care about ecological impacts. More efficient fish feed now exists, and sustainable practices are more tracked than ever thanks to tools like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, annual reports from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Resources Institute, and certification programs that big guns like Walmart rely on.
That’s a good thing, says Hunter Lenihan, director of the Sustainable Aquaculture Research Center at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, who said half of the planet’s seafood demand is already being met by aquaculture. “We have maxed out wild fisheries, but we still have a growing human population with a growing seafood demand,” said the Berkeley-raised marine ecologist who’s been at UCSB since 2002. “The only way we’re going to feed people with a healthy protein from the ocean is aquaculture.”
With many of the legitimate impacts being handled, Lenihan believes people will start to look more kindly on fish farms, especially thanks to good examples like Santa Barbara Mariculture. “We’re on the cusp,” he said. “Society is increasingly understanding the impacts of wild-caught fisheries on ocean ecosystems. Aquaculture is an exploding field for the rest of the world, but in the United States, there’s been relatively slow growth. I think we’re going to see a big change.”