Earth’s ocean ecosystems are deteriorating. Wild fish stocks are increasingly vulnerable. And yet by the year 2050, global demand for seafood may have increased by as much as 80%, according to research from the Blue Food Assessment.
The Kingfish Company wants to help satisfy some of that demand while reducing the environmental toll of seafood production. The agtech company launched its first land-based aquaculture production facility in the Netherlands before introducing its flagship line of yellowtail kingfish products in Whole Foods Markets across the U.S. Soon, Kingfish will bring its production operations to the U.S. with a new facility in Maine.
Earlier this week, The Spoon joined Kingfish founding partner and CEO Ohad Maiman on Zoom to find out more about the company’s aquaculture technology and plans for expansion.
Why land-based aquaculture?
Traditional aquaculture has raised global seafood production capacity in recent decades, but alarms have been raised recently about the industry’s environmental impacts. Traditional fish farms can create toxic algal blooms and ocean dead zones; farmed fish can also transmit diseases to already-vulnerable wild populations. In response to these concerns, Washington state banned salmon farming in 2018, and Argentina became the first country to ban the practice this year.
Traditional aquaculture can’t solve the seafood industry’s supply bottleneck problem, which is why the Kingfish team saw the need for an alternative model. “Thinking about the next 30 years of continued growth in demand for seafood, we saw the need for a technological solution,” Maiman told The Spoon.
Kingfish aims to solve some of the problems of traditional aquaculture, the biggest of which is ocean pollution. In underwater cage farming, animal waste and uneaten feed get released into the surrounding water. In Kingfish’s system, the flow of water is more controlled: Water is cleaned on its way into the system to maintain optimal conditions, and cleaned again on its way out to the sea.
The controlled nature of Kingfish’s farm environment also allows the company to prevent parasites or diseases from entering the system, eliminating the need to administer antibiotics or other medications (another problem of traditional aquaculture).
There’s also the problem of seafood feed: Some traditional aquaculture operations use massive quantities of wild fish to feed their farmed species. The use of lower-grade feed in traditional aquaculture can also lead to less nutritious seafood products. Because Kingfish operates in the premium seafood space, the company can source higher-quality feed options and cut down on marine ingredients—replacing fish meal with insect meal, for example.
Inside a land-based fish farm
It would be counter-intuitive if Kingfish’s land-based aquaculture system involved pulling fish from the sea and ranching them. Instead, the company maintains several broodstocks of yellowtail kingfish on-site, and uses them to sustainably generate new generations of fish.
Kingfish’s system mimics the seasonal light and temperature conditions that the fish would experience in the wild. “When the light lasts longer and the water temperature rises, and they feel it’s spring, they spawn eggs,” Maiman said.
The hatchery and larval rearing phases are key for the company, as there are no commercial sources for yellowtail kingfish fingerlings or eggs. The fish spend about 15 days in this phase, at the end of which they measure about an inch in length. Then they’re transferred to the main system, where they live for up to 11 months.
To slaughter the animals as painlessly as possible, the company uses an electric stunner. “By the time they are harvested, they are stunned,” Maiman said. “They immediately lose consciousness at that moment and then they die in cold water, but no longer feel it.”
At Kingfish’s Netherlands facility, the system that supports the animals throughout their life cycle is run using 100% renewable energy. At the planned facility in Maine, the company anticipates that they’ll be able to source about 50% of their energy from renewables. Kingfish is also seeking out partnerships with new renewables projects in the area, as the company can commit to the long-term offtake that new projects need to take off.
The future of fish farming
As a high-value, import-dependent species, the yellowtail kingfish was an ideal pilot fish for the company. “If you go to Nobu and have yellowtail jalapeno sashimi, it will typically be flown in from Japan or Australia,” Maiman said. “We are the largest local producer in Europe and are working toward doing the same in the U.S.” By offering a domestic source for yellowtail in Europe and North America, the company can both cut the product’s transportation footprint and provide fresher fish.
Kingfish began by addressing demand for yellowtail kingfish from Japanese and Italian restaurants, but the company also sells its products in grocery stores. According to Maiman, the team is aiming for a roughly 50-50 split between sales in restaurants and high-end retail stores.
The company went public in Norway last year, and is using that fundraise to grow its Netherlands production capacity. The team is also working on pre-construction and engineering for the new Jonesport, Maine facility, and scouting out future sites in southern Europe and the West Coast of the U.S.
With this expansion, Kingfish plans to boost its yellowtail kingfish capacity—and, eventually, to begin producing its next fish species. An internal group nicknamed Kingfish X is currently deciding which species that will be. Maiman couldn’t go into detail about which fish are being considered, but he did hint that the team is looking for another import-dependent, high-value species.
The company’s overarching goal is to be at the forefront of a technology-driven paradigm shift in aquaculture. “Within the last year or two, this technology has crossed the rubicon from an experimental to a commercially viable technology,” Maiman said.
“At some point, any new technology becomes less of a mystery—and then it’s the first few companies that have been able to build scale and establish a market position that lead the sector.”