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SYDNEY, Australia -- Repurposing a crusty cargo ship that once ferried bulk items from scrap metal to logs, South Australia's Peter Wahlqvist is betting on a new commodity: high-value green lip abalone.
Using the ship's cargo holds as massive water tanks, Wahlqvist has created what may well be the world's first offshore floating seafood farm. If the venture succeeds, it will mark a step toward moving some of the burgeoning global aquaculture industry out to sea.
"Are we sailors, fishermen or farmers?" asked Wahlqvist, a principal in Destiny Abalone Pty. "I figure we're fishermen, but fishermen developing a new set of skills."
Green lip abalone is suited to this kind of ocean-grown culture -- at least on paper. Green lip abalone is a shelled marine snail with a large edible "foot" that attaches by suction to reefs. Under ideal circumstances, the animal does little but eat and grow.
Green lip abalone is a delicacy in Asia and one of the pricier seafoods on the market, selling for $50 per kilo or more.
For the last decade, Destiny has grown green lip abalone on a land-based aquaculture operation near the South Australian town of Port Lincoln. There, fresh seawater is pumped several hundred meters inland from shallow coastal waters to a five-hectare aquaculture farm, where the abalone takes three to four years to mature in a maze of tanks.
Given that the land-based operation takes its seawater from a shallow coastal zone of seasonally varying water temperature, the company faces high energy bills and engineering costs in assuring a constant supply of seawater at the right temperature.
That's because if any seawater that's much above 20 degrees centigrade is fed through the system -- even for a few hours -- killer pathogens can breed, which can decimate the farm-raised abalone. Conversely, if seawater below 18 degrees centigrade is pumped through the system, the farm-raised abalone will go into a kind of suspended animation and stop growing.
By moving offshore, however, the abalone-raising operation can exploit the year-round stable ocean water temperatures in South Australia's Spencer Gulf. Ultimately, Wahlqvist believes this may cut maturation time by two-thirds and save the company many of the pesky pumping, heating and cooling costs it faces on land.
Independent experts agree that moving abalone production offshore makes sense, at least theoretically.
"Culturing abalone on a ship solves two major problems: how to get fast growth rates without killing the animals and how to get the best growth rate throughout the year," said Kirk Hahn, a California-based abalone aquaculture expert.
"The ultimate test of this operation will be to see if the costs of operating the ship will be less than an on-land facility," Hahn said.
Wahlqvist is confident that his floating ship, with its three generators to provide doubly redundant power and a virtually free oceanic resource of stable water temperature, will prove cheaper.
Story continued on Page 2 »