Open Blue and the Innovation of Open-Ocean Fish Farming
Creating a sustainable, environmentally neutral food source in the deep seas of Panama.
8 miles off the north coast of Panama, in the Caribbean Sea, you will find the largest offshore fish farm in the world. Each month the farm harvests and ships 250 tons of Cobia – a mild white fish – to destinations all throughout Asia, Europe and the Americas. It’s an impressive feat considering the Company is merely 6 years old, but more impressive perhaps is Open Blue’s ability to stay true to its humble mission: provide a healthy and sustainable food source that can feed a growing population.
The Business’ Origins
In 2009 at the age of 29, Brian O’Hanlon founded Open Blue. O’Hanlon long believed there was a need to develop new methods of fish farming. He believed he could farm a healthier, more sustainable fish than those being farmed on-shore and in controlled pens in shallow coastal areas. In these legacy methods, fish are exposed to disease and pollutants from local runoff of PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls) and mercury and the habitat becomes congested with unsustainable levels of fish feed and biomass (i.e. fish poop) that eventually come to cripple the entire system. O’Hanlon thought he could eliminate these problems by farming in the open ocean. Using natural dilution to prevent disease and pollution, O’Hanlon believed he could revolutionize the fishing industry and create a long-term healthy food source – free of pesticides, mercury, hormones and any other contaminants.
O’Hanlon chose Panama because it was home to the operation’s key ingredient: Cobia. Cobia, also known as black salmon, is often described as a mix between swordfish and Chilean sea bass. It’s buttery with a firm texture and loved by chefs for its versatility. More importantly, it can go from egg to 10 pounds in about a year, whereas it takes salmon roughly three years. Yet Cobia provides roughly the same nutritional value as salmon and other popular fish and is full of healthy omega 3 fatty acids. Additionally, cobia growth isn’t affected or stunted by confinement and population density, making it a perfect candidate for fish farming.
Open Blue controls the entire life cycle of the cobia they farm, from egg to market. The company spawns the fish in captivity where the eggs spend 3 weeks in Blue Open’s hatchery. The larvae then move onto the nursery where they spend 60-90 days growing to roughly 150 grams. Once the appropriate size, they are vaccinated and transferred to their open ocean aqua-pens. The fish are then raised in a custom designed, vertically integrated platform 8 miles off the coast of Panama where the water depth measures between 210
and 230 ft. The pen sits about 30 feet below the ocean surface, surrounded by buoys and identified on nautical maps and GPS. Underwater cameras monitor the cobia’s progress and assist with the feeding process. A specialized blower disseminates the feed, which is designed and cultivated by Blue Open and includes fishmeal, fish oil, plant proteins, vitamins and minerals to best replicate Cobia’s natural diet. The fishes’ diets are free of hormones, colorants and pesticides. Throughout their lives, the cobia are exposed to a high energy environment where the currents can exceed 3 knots. The result is a fitter fish and a high quality, healthier protein. Rather than congest a contained body of water like other fish farming techniques, Pollutants and fish poop are washed away with fresh, clean water by the strong currents that engulf the farm. The fish “never see the same water twice,” O’Hanlon loves to say. The water dilution effect allows for the natural biomass to build up at sustainable levels contributing to a healthy ecosystem.
When it’s eventually time to harvest the cobia, Blue Open uses a custom ship to crowd the fish in their pens and pump them onto the deck where they are immediately knocked unconscious, cut, drained, and placed in sea water ice sludge to preserve their meat. According to O’Hanlon, it is the most humane way of killing the fish and it preserves the quality of the product. Most fish, when killed, become stressed and undergo rigor mortis, causing their muscles to tighten, creating a tough, pungent meat. Open Blues avoids this with specialized, enhanced technology.
After they are killed, the fish are taken back to the Open Blue facilities where they are each assigned a unique identification code for full traceability and sent off to their destination where end consumers can use the tracking code to review the fish’s life cycle.
The Big Picture
The world population is growing at historic rates while climate change is limiting the resources to provide sustainable food sources. Food sources we consume today are incredibly inefficient to produce. Red meat, poultry – even salmon and chilean sea bass, the two most common fish – are exceptionally wasteful. O’Hanlon believes that open-ocean aquaculture may be the only solution for long term sustainability. He has dedicated his life to improving the processes and efficiencies of the science. In do so, he’s also created an admirable business.
Interview with Brian O’Hanlon
Student comments on Open Blue and the Innovation of Open-Ocean Fish Farming
Brian, interesting detailing of the operating model and the business model of the fishing business. Admittedly, I didn’t know much about the industry before reading your post, but the establishment of fisheries in open water seems like a no-brainer (likely why it’s such a great business idea!). We always joke in chemistry that “the solution to pollution is dilution” and it’s funny to see a business model built off that pun. I love the tie-in with the geography and the fish species chosen “for its versatility” and the humane way in which they’re caught and harvested. I can see a high-end restaurant promoting the benefits of open-water fish farming as the most sustainable alternative while simultaneously taking advantage of the different flavors of the fish. Thanks for posting!
Hi Brian, it’s interesting to learn something about the fishing industry! The operation model seems a big break though, in the sense that it not only provides a healthy and sustainable food source to feed a growing population, but also creates a more profitable business model. It sounds very attractive for upscale restaurants to serve the Open Blue fish that does not only have a great marketing story but also great product quality. Guess my only question would be on its full economic picture: how costly this operation model is and can the premium Open Blue charges justify the operation cost. Thanks.