Samia Sarkis collects nets of scallops, left to grow in the wild after being produced in a lab, during a BIOS research project into the merits of aquaculture. *Photo supplied
Samia Sarkis collects nets of scallops, left to grow in the wild after being produced in a lab, during a BIOS research project into the merits of aquaculture. *Photo supplied

FRIDAY, AUGUST 12: Fish farming could be a money-spinning industry in Bermuda, scientists have said.

Local restaurants and sushi bars on the Eastern Seaboard of the US, could provide a market for home grown delicacies, pilot projects have shown.

Premier Paula Cox has targeted the ‘blue ocean economy’ as a growth sector as the island searches for new job-creating industry amid a continuing economic slump.

And ‘aquaculture’ – farming seafood in ocean enclosures – has been highlighted as a potential business opportunity.

Samia Sarkis, who led a pilot project culturing and marketing Bermuda scallops, believes it could be a workable idea.

But she said it would need direct Government support through legislation and financial incentives, including waiving of charges to lease the ocean floor, in order to attract serious entrepreneurs.

Both Government and the Chamber of Commerce have targeted increased business activity in Bermuda’s territorial waters as a potential boon to the struggling economy.

And a ‘use it or lose it’ clause in international regulations means that if Bermuda does not start to take advantage of opportunities within the 200-mile economic exclusion zone, others will.

Dr Tony Knap, director of the Bermuda Institute for Oceanic Research (BIOS), said aquaculture was a more sustainable option than longline fishing — another industry investigated by Government.

Based on two previous BIOS projects he believes it would be possible to create a Bermuda based export industry providing locally grown delicacies like Bermuda scallops to east coast sushi bars in the US.

Ms Sarkis, who led the research project on culturing Bermuda Scallops, said the project had shown that aquaculture had huge potential in Bermuda.

She said there was sufficient demand on the island for a million scallops a year to supply the local restaurants.

And she believes any emerging business could expand to farm other species both for the local and international market.

The scallop project involved breeding and growing the tiny shellfish in tanks at BIOS before leaving them to grow in coves and docks around the island and harvesting them for sale.

Ms Sarkis said endemic Bermuda species, like scallops, were the most environmentally sound projects for aquaculture and had the advantage of being brandable as Bermudian delicacies that could not be produced elsewhere.

It is likely that any such project would initially be small scale, requiring a handful of experts as well as trained workers to tend and harvest the fish as they grow.

She said the market was there within Bermuda with several restaurants doing a roaring trade in the homegrown scallops during her pilot project.

“We were looking at a million-a-year-market locally, selling at a dollar-a-scallop. That would be a nice small operation. Obviously if you wanted to export then there are different challenges involved.”

One barrier is the lack of available coves and docks for aquaculture on an island where almost every part of the shoreline is used for beaches, boats and other leisure activities.

It is possible to do open-ocean aquaculture but there are additional costs involved in the form of boats and the risk from storms is higher.

“It is still something that needs a lot of research and development work, but it could be an industry in Bermuda. There were private businesses interested when we did our project.”

But Ms Sarkis warned Government would have to show it was serious in order to attract businessmen.

“You’re talking about something that nobody has tried before in Bermuda on that scale so you would have to provide incentives.”

A separate project conducted by Tom Sleeter in Bermuda in the 1990s also had some success in farming mahi-mahi (dolphin fish) in netted enclosures alongside the causeway.

Dr Knap said: “In four months you could grow a pan-sized mahi-mahi. They actually grow seven times faster than salmon.

“The project was very successful — it just needed more research.

“I think it’s worth looking at again but it requires someone who is prepared to be patient and would be willing to put some money into it. The returns could be pretty good but they would not be immediate.”

There is some controversy associated with aquaculture, in particular with fin fish, but both Dr Knap and Ms Sarkis believe the obstacles are surmountable.

In the case of scallops, the project actually proved to be of benefit to the environment by reintroducing a declining species to the island.