I will never forget the first time I heard the business proposal for farming lobsters, which later became Caribbean Sustainable Fisheries (CSF). The proposal was brought to me by a college lecturer and marine biologist. It was a classic interesting academic piece, but by the end of the first presentation, although the entrepreneur presenting was clearly passionate, I thought it was a load of nonsense.
I left the meeting a little disappointed because I wanted to get into food production, and as a passionate foodie, shellfish seemed a great place to start. Over the coming days, I generated some follow-up questions and attended a second meeting. By the middle of the second meeting, I knew I would never get involved because there was a myriad of problems, including unproven science, no data, passion but not direction, and no real financial plan.
As I was on my way out, the presenter mentioned that a high-end Michelin starred restaurant in Spain had requested 100 kilos of live lobster, per week, forever. The restaurant wanted pristine uniform lobsters, which could only be produced on a farm. They were also desperate to secure a long-term sustainable supply because they couldn’t find a reliable source for spiny lobsters anywhere else. Huge demand, a valuable product, and little competition. I was in.
But I still had a few questions. I wanted to know if the owner truly understood the lobsters and the business. So, I tasked him to keep a single lobster alive in a bucket for a month. I’m not sure if he used a bucket or a kids paddling pool, but the idea was, if he was successful, I was in to fund the pilot. It sounds simple, but it’s a valuable test I now apply to every potential aquaculture entrepreneur I meet or business I evaluate.
After the month was up, and the lobster was still alive, I knew then that he understood the species, and it was just a case of making some really big buckets to start a successful business.
“Why aquaculture?” This is a question I have been asked many times. Why did I get started in a business I had no experience in?
Having spent quite a lot of my early professional life involved in pioneering start-ups in technology, I was really looking for something that was new and hadn’t been done before. I thrive on being told, you’re crazy, it’s never going to work. It inspires me to prove everyone wrong.
And with my family background in construction, I knew aquaculture facilities needed to have good engineering, good construction, and the operational flow to make them cost effective. All things I knew I could achieve.
When we started with CSF, it probably cost $150 a pound to grow a lobster, but it needed to cost $7, and the challenge was to develop a system that would achieve that number.
The Early Years of Caribbean Sustainable Fisheries
With well-trodden business paths, there are protocols to follow. You apply for the permits and licenses; you go to a recruiter; you get the right talent and off you go.
When we embarked on aquaculture 20-odd years ago, there wasn’t a well-trodden path. There were no permits we could apply for, and it was very challenging to find the people we needed. If you can’t get a permit, and you can’t get the right people, the project is a non-starter.
So our early stage pioneering had very little to do with growing lobsters and much more to do with meeting everyone. We met the stakeholders, the local fishers, and the environmental groups that cared passionately about the local ecosystems and had concerns about potential damage a new farm could have on them.
The plan started as a cage-based operation in the ocean system, alongside early stage growth on land.
After naming the company Caribbean Sustainable Fisheries, I wanted sustainability in our DNA. I challenged the team to grow the lobsters all the way through to plate size on land using RAS technology.
After the local groups understood we were on land, they understood our vision. We then navigated the complexities of fisheries rules, which led to our next big challenge.
We needed to work out how to build an on-land facility, which hadn’t been done before in the Caribbean or pretty much anywhere else in the world. How do we move that amount of water, clean it, and return it cleaner than when it arrived? Oh, and how do you stop them eating each other?
Caribbean Sustainable Fisheries Now
Caribbean Sustainable Fisheries is now a successful sustainable lobster farm in the British Virgin Islands. The model we created there can now be replicated almost anywhere in the world.
We adopted an algorithmic approach to raising the panulirus argus, the Caribbean Spiny Lobster. The proprietary process involves us catching puerulus (baby lobsters) as they settle inshore, metamorphosing from their planktonic form to their benthic form. They settle in the millions and many just don’t survive because they can’t find the habitat to settle. 1 in 1,000 survive in the wild, while 800 survive in a controlled environment.
Some traditional farms in other parts of the world catch juvenile lobsters from the coastline and put them in cages and ponds. This practice wreaks havoc on the natural population because that lobster has already overcome a 1 in 1,000 chance of living and becoming a breading lobster. In the wild a lobster’s job is to replace itself.
The fact is, only 1 in 1,000 benthic phase lobsters (baby lobsters but old enough to have a hard shell) make it to adult life. Between 85-98% of lobster larvae die within their first week of life.
That is why CSF patented collector system only collects a certain size window and deviates from the traditional approach by collecting lobsters in the transition to benthic phase. By doing this, the farm has almost zero effect on the natural population and fulfils market demand that wild fisheries would otherwise meet.