It turns out that when a group of entrepreneurial, scientifically minded individuals comes together for a project, big ideas can emerge. Such is the case of the Ventura Shellfish Enterprise — a proposed multiparty project that would allow for 20 100-acre plots for growing mussels in state waters within the Santa Barbara Channel near Ventura Harbor.

Partners working together to further the Enterprise include the Ventura Port District, Coastal Marine Biolabs located at Ventura Harbor, The Cultured Abalone Farm in Goleta and Ventura-based Ashworth Leininger Group, all of whom are in coordination with aquaculture scientists and experts from the state, as well as from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the California Sea Grant, an organization benefiting coastal and marine science and policy.

Individual Enterprise farmers would have the opportunity to work within the specified site farming mussels to be processed at the Ventura Harbor, with the hard part — applying for and receiving permits and leases — taken care of collectively.

Via a $300,000 NOAA 2015 Sea Grant Aquaculture Extension and Technology Transfer Grant to California Sea Grant awarded to the Ventura Port District, matched through the volunteered time and expertise of a slew of experts in aquaculture and permitting, the Enterprise is currently readying the creation of a strategic permitting plan, submitting permit applications and information in compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, accreditation of a testing and monitoring laboratory at the Ventura Harbor and implementation of an outreach program.

THE CONCEPT

Of all the bounty gathered from the sea, squid is the largest catch processed at the Ventura Harbor — making up 28 percent of California’s total haul. Between 2011 and 2015, over 212 million pounds of squid were processed in Ventura, according to numbers provided by Ventura Port District Business Operations Manager Brian Pendleton.

The amount of squid per year fluctuates, however. In 2011, 64.7 million pounds of squid were caught and processed. In 2015: 19.2 million. Pendleton says that the Ventura Shellfish Enterprise would be an “opportunity to diversify.”

“We have an opportunity for another commercial product to be landed here at Ventura Harbor which adds employment, distribution and other jobs and so on up and down the supply chain,” said Pendleton. “The scale of the potential operation, if it were to be achieved, would be the largest in California.”

Mussels grow directly attached to line rather than in cages. For the Ventura Shellfish Enterprise, the Mediterranean mussel will grow in spades in similar fashion to the tune of an estimated 20 million pounds per year.

Currently, less than 900 acres is leased by the state for shellfish aquaculture, with additional acreage in Humboldt Bay issued by the local harbor district, and in Agua Hedionda Lagoon in Carlsbad, leased by NRG Energy, which operates a power plant there. The Enterprise project would dwarf current acreage with its 2,000 potential acres.

Farmed mussels are a global industry, with China providing most of the world’s supply. According to NOAA, 91 percent of the seafood Americans eat is imported, and only a fraction of a percent (0.8) of the world’s aquaculture is produced by the United States.

Using a geographic information system developed at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Bren School for Environmental Science and Management to identify an “optimal growing area that minimizes conflicts with other ocean uses,” the Enterprise will determine a potential growing area along the Ventura coast.

Initial identification of a suitable growing area using the GIS (geographic information system) model was selected by eliminating areas with existing navigation routes, marine protected areas, areas of hard rocky bottom representing essential fish habitat, oil and gas leases, and existing infrastructure such as telecommunication cables and municipal wastewater discharge pipelines. Temperature and mussel-growing conditions were also taken into consideration, as well as potential impact on existing commercial fisheries.

The mussels would originate from an onshore hatchery, where they would begin life as juvenile mussels (known as spat) until they grow large enough to attach to special, so-called “fuzzy lines.” These lines would then be transferred to the specified locations by the individual growers to mature, at which time they would be harvested and processed onshore at the Ventura Harbor.

Enterprise partners estimate production at roughly 20 million pounds of mussels per year at full project capacity, exceeding an anticipated value of $50 million annually.

“Seafood is a resource that, with a little bit of vision and active management, can be a real asset to the coastal economy,” says Doug Bush, general manager of The Cultured Abalone, an onshore abalone farm based in Goleta.

The particular type of mussel to be grown is the Mediterranean mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis), a bivalve species that has naturalized in California ocean waters. Bush says that to grow the mussel, nothing is added to the water. Rather, the mussel acts as a filter, taking in nutrients from the existing algae and plankton.

Mediterranean mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis)

“With respect to seafood, we export our good stuff and have the tendency to import cheaper stuff,” said Bush, who says that the Enterprise has the potential to provide the shellfish to a large portion of the West Coast. “There is a tremendous seafood trade deficit.”

A LEARNING EXPERIENCE

Ralph Imondi, Ph. D., executive director at Coastal Marine Biolabs, and Scientific Director Linda Santschi are partners in the Enterprise project and say that the project has the potential to “transform Ventura’s waterfront.”

Coastal Marine Biolabs will have a very specific role — that is, assuring safety of mussels harvested within the Enterprise. Biolabs will work with officials at the California Department of Public Health to certify that the growing waters meet certain requirements established to assure quality and safety.

Further, “When the project is operational, the lab will coordinate and conduct quality assurance testing for all [Enterprise] growers to ensure compliance with strict guidelines enforced by the California Department of Public Health,” says Santschi.

“If each one of the growers is using their own testing lab, this creates a tremendous burden on the [Department of Public Health],” said Imondi. “Part of our role is providing an economy of scale by having a centralized testing facility that all growers will use that are part of the Enterprise.”

Imondi and Santschi are using this time to educate stakeholders on environmental and economic issues of a project of this size as well.

Beyond that, Imondi and Santschi say that a portion of the growing area will be set aside as a kind of “sea farm” that will “be dedicated to a range of education and research activities conducted by Biolabs and its collaborators.”

To launch the educational outreach portion of phase 1, eight public workshops have been scheduled, ranging in topic from aquaculture itself to the potential economic impacts and benefits of the Enterprise.

THE ROAD TO MUSSEL BEACH

Everard Ashworth, principal with the Ashworth Leininger Group and commissioner and vice chairman of the board of the Ventura Port District, speaks greatly of the potential of the Enterprise to effect change and, most importantly, affect sustainability at the Ventura Harbor and beyond.

Commissioner and Vice Chairman of the Board of the Ventura Port District, Everard Ashworth.

“The best path forward for the Port District is to permit sustainable aquaculture which will secure a robust fishery that we manage as opposed to chase,” says Ashworth.

As the farm will be located within California waters, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Fish and Game Commission and other state regulators will have a say-so in its approval. Ashworth says that initially there are 13 permits to obtain before the project can move forward.

“Some 30 years ago there was an understanding that permitting aquaculture was complicated,” says Randy Lovell, state aquaculture coordinator with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Lovell says that the State has not issued a new aquaculture lease in over 20 years, noting that part of the reason why is the high cost of the permitting process, which can be up to a quarter of a million dollars and two to three years’ time. “What’s new here and what’s inspiring, I think, is the model that this Ventura project is taking in going after those permits and entitlements on behalf of smaller growers who may not be able to consider it.”

Lovell says that the idea is for state agencies to “create a document that would be guidance not only for the Ventura project but for others in the state” as well, as California and the rest of the nation eye the world’s growing aquaculture industry as a means by which to meet the ever-growing nutritional demand for inexpensive protein.

GIVE ’EM SHELL

The word “convergence” has been on Ashworth’s mind as of late, as the Enterprise partners come together. The group expects that the strategic permitting plan will be completed by first quarter 2017, with the second part of the grant work to be completed by second quarter 2018. In the meantime, the Ventura Port District, together with its Enterprise partners, is seeking additional funding to complete the permitting phase.

“If you look at a really good idea, it has its own inertia,” says Ashworth. “This project is worthy and deserving of the focus and attention that will be needed to move it forward.”

The first of eight public workshops will take place on Thursday, Feb. 16, and be titled “Introduction to Shellfish Aquaculture and the Ventura Shellfish Enterprise.” The workshop will be held at the Channel Islands National Park Visitors Center, 1901 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura, 7-8:30 p.m. For more information and a complete schedule, visit www.venturashellfishenterprise.com