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Fish tale

July/Aug. 2006 California Country magazine

Kent SeaTech is the world's largest hybrid striped bass farm and California's largest fish farm.


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Desert farm lures a growing customer base


 

Take a formidable desert environment with sparse rainfall and triple-digit heat, then toss in thousands of hungry birds. A throng of thriving fish might be the last thing you'd expect to see in the sun-baked Coachella Valley, but brainpower, willpower and a surprisingly strong resource base have made Kent SeaTech an oasis of reality, not a mirage.

Kent SeaTech is the world's largest hybrid striped bass farm and California's largest fish farm. With a production facility in the Riverside County hamlet of Mecca and offices in San Diego, the company sports an inventory of 3 million fish, yearly production of 3 1/2 million pounds and $10 million in sales.

It all began with a youngster's fascination with science. Buoyed by an inspirational biology teacher, Jim Carlberg's dreams gained ground in high school. His pursuit further intensified in the 1970s while working as a researcher at San Diego State University and Scripps Institution of Oceanography. That's when Carlberg and colleague Jack Van Olst sought a new ocean-based product they could raise on a farm.

Their first foray--raising lobster--flopped.


Harvesting fish at Kent SeaTech requires strength and stamina. The farm produces 3.5 million pounds annually.

"The problem with the American lobster was, they are cannibalistic," said Carlberg, who today is Kent SeaTech's president. "They are solitary and the engineering problems of trying to grow them commercially were too great."

Back the pair went to the drawing board, where they finally hooked a winner--a hybrid fish that is attracting a growing legion of customers with its quality and consistency. The hybrid is a combination of the Atlantic striped bass and the freshwater white bass. It matures at a faster rate and yields more meat than its parents.

After several years of university research, Carlberg and Van Olst obtained financial backing in 1980 to develop the world's first commercial hybrid striped bass farm. The concept developed steadily, albeit slowly, until they met Richard and Vince Kent, Illinois-based food industry experts who owned and operated Orval Kent Food Co. Inc., the nation's largest wholesaler of fresh deli salads. In 1992, the Kents made a major investment in the technology and gave Carlberg and Van Olst a chance to sink or swim.

The farm has smoothly navigated its way to star status among seafood suppliers, thanks to a combination of the latest technology and time-honored practices.

It all starts with the arrival of 10 semitrailer loads containing a total of 3 million bass fingerlings from Arkansas.

These fish are placed in 100 high-density concrete tanks, where computers monitor all stages of development, as well as maintain the proper water temperature and feed distribution.

It takes about a year for the bass to reach market size. When they weigh close to 2 pounds each, hearty wet suit-clad workers harvest the fish by net and crane. Nearly 40 tons of bass are harvested each week.

Once harvested, the fish are sorted into eight categories, ranging from 1 1/4 pounds to 2 1/2 pounds or more. An identification tag is placed on each bass, which is iced, boxed and ready to head to market. The tags were initially used to satisfy regulations--to distinguish the farm-raised fish from wild-caught ones--but they're used today primarily to set their product apart from the competition.

There are three primary destinations for Kent SeaTech's fish: Asian markets, sushi restaurants and high-end white tablecloth restaurants, including Cuistot in nearby Palm Desert, an opulent suburb of Palm Springs.

"I have used striped bass for more than 35 years and it's a great fish," said Bernard Dervieux, chef/owner of the restaurant, which recently was among six in the United States to score a perfect 100 for food by "Conde Nast Traveler" magazine. "It's flaky, not too strong and has a nice fish flavor without being fishy. It's my favorite fish."

Dervieux said his customers not only appreciate knowing where the fish came from, but that it's local.

"They are amazed that we have such great product locally," he said.

Fish is making more waves in American diets, but much of it travels great distances before it's eaten. The U.S. seafood trade deficit is about $9 billion a year.

Carlberg said he would like to reduce that trade imbalance and help feed a hungry population at the same time. He hopes to expand sales by touting the freshness and consistent quality of this farm-raised fish, marketed as California Farmed Striped Bass.

"We have fish that are harvested here, shipped out of Los Angeles by air and can be consumed in New York the next night," Carlberg said. "On average, a wild fish is in a boat for anywhere from three to six days, goes through a broker and wholesale distributor to a processor. By the time it's on the plate, it's typically 10 days to two weeks old."

Having enough water at a farm in the desert would seem like a troublesome point, but the area offers a literal wellspring of the invaluable resource.

Warm geothermal water is pumped from the underground into the fish tanks. The water is filtered and then recirculated up to five times. The recirculated water not only fills carp and tilapia ponds on the 160-acre farm, it also provides nutrient-rich irrigation for nearby crops and contributes to a wetland wonderland for an astounding number of pelicans, cranes, seagulls and other birds.

The result is a benefit to the surrounding environment and efficient production of several types of food from the same irrigation water, with no adverse effects to area ecology.

Kent SeaTech is so sophisticated that their fish barely notice the brutal summer heat of the Coachella Valley, which can approach 120 degrees. The staff, however, must adjust to the sizzling temperatures.

"I grew up in the valley and kind of acclimated to it and didn't know any better. I thought the entire world was like this," Carlberg said. "We've had some difficulty recruiting some of the technologists that have grown up in places like Colorado. They were used to alpine forests and they've had difficulty with their first summer here. However, we have several Ph.D. scientists now that have been recruited, even from Canada, that have adapted quite well."

Kent SeaTech is more than a large food supplier. It's a place where a variety of ongoing research projects could help in many areas. This comprehensive effort has been aided by federal agencies, including grants from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

"It's exciting," Carlberg said. "We're doing some just incredible things with the University of California and other institutions in the area of molecular biology and animal husbandry. We're looking at genes, gene functions, fish health management and developing innovative vaccines that avoid disease instead of relying on treatment methods."

Carlberg said a rising tide of seafood demand bodes well for the future of one of California's most unusual and progressive farms.

"Our endeavor marked the first time that high-quality, farm-raised striped bass was available commercially anywhere in the world, and we're quite proud of that accomplishment."

Jim Morris is a reporter/photographer in Sacramento. He can be reached at info@californiacountry.org.


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