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All caught up in ocean farming

(First of two parts)

With 800 mechanical arms in rapid motion, the looms in a cavernous Day Road warehouse roar as they spin a patented net that has ensnared what some believe could be the future of marine farming.

“We’ve seen the disasters of fish farming – the waste, the concentration, the pollution,” said ocean engineer Langley Gace as looms in 6-foot-wide pits churned out a batch of nets bound for a Hawaiian fish farm. “We’ve come into this wiser.”

Gace designs and markets “sea stations” crafted by NET Systems, which has manufactured netting for over 26 years on the island.

While fishing boats have been the traditional mainstay for NET Systems, the company has found itself at the forefront of a burgeoning off-shore aquaculture industry.

Unlike shallow, coast-hugging pens common in existing fish farms, NET System’s sea stations are fully submerged at depths of over 40 feet and are commonly set 2 miles from shore. The stations resemble flying saucers, with a horizontal steel rim encircling a central spar.

The netting, made from a polyethaline fiber used in bullet-proof vests, is stretched along the station’s frame to hold over a hundred thousand fish.

In 10 years, offshore fish farms have cropped up across the globe, with NET Systems supplying most of the cages.

“That’s our niche,” said Gace. “We have cages in Spain, Portugal, China, Korea, the Caribbean. The growth potential is huge.”

It’s simple supply and demand that’s driving much of aquaculture’s off-shore development. As consumer demand for seafood increases, wild stock has plummeted.

Overfishing is blamed for much of the decline in wild fish and other seafood. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, commercial fishing has pushed 75 percent of fisheries worldwide to the brink of depletion or far beyond healthy limits.

Any increase in supply will have to come from a boost in aquaculture, say top officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

While farm-raised fish may recharge supply, aquaculture is not without its detractors.

Each year, millions of farm-raised fish escape from pens and compete with wild varieties for food.

They also edge into spawning grounds, adding a domesticated strain to the wild gene pool.

Near-shore fish farms are also blamed for increased pollution.

According to a University of Washington study, salmon net pens in 1997 were responsible for over 90 percent of the total amount of visible solids in Puget Sound.

“We’ve learned from these types of farming, and we offer something different,” said Gace.

With NET System’s sea stations, fish wastes that often foul waters at coastal pens are flushed away by strong off shore currents

“We have our cages a half-mile out in 200 feet of water,” said Neil Sims, president of Kona Blue, an aquaculture operation in Hawaii. “The current travels briskly out there and keeps the waters pristine.”

Sea stations spend most days submerged, protecting them from storms that can damage nets and allow farm-raised fish to escape.

A sea station owned by Cates International fared better in a Pacific storm than the company’s fishing boats.

“While the storm was taking place, I did not worry about our fish cages,” said the company’s president, John Cates. “I did have to worry about our boats in the harbors and all of our homes. We did not lose any fish in the weather and did our normal harvest.”

According to Gace, the sea stations derive much of their resilience from his company’s patented netting. Rather than hooking each strand together, NET Systems weaves strands at the linking point.

“It’s not linked the way you might link your fingers,” Gace said, hooking his index fingers together. “With our nets, its weaved straight through. It’s much stronger when it’s linear.”

The nets are composed of Dutch-made Dyneema, an artificial, plastic-like fiber stronger than equal diameter steel, according to Gace.

Once the custom-crafted nets spill from the looms, they are covered in a bonding agent that repels sand and ultraviolet rays.

The company uses a complex system to stretch and fit the net using heat, wenches, jigs and laser-guided measurements.

“It’s not not easy to do,” said Gace. “We have a 20-page manual that we keep close. It’s proprietary. Our competition would like to copy it.”

Over 30 sea stations are in use around the world, with many more on order. Prices range from $120,000 to $180,000. The larger, more expensive models tower at nearly 70 feet, with enough capacity for 140,000 fish.

Future sea stations may grow to three times the size of today’s versions with surface crew quarters and gas-powered propellers.

But, until then, Gace is content to craft a product that is still on the cutting edge.

“We do all sorts of things here for all kinds of purposes,” he said. “We make the fishing nets in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, the nets in hockey so the puck doesn’t fly out and nets on ferries so your car doesn’t fall off.

“Now we’re doing something that, until we came along, couldn’t be done – and that’s something, especially because it’s from here. It’s a tangible product from Bainbridge Island. It’s not just ‘Made in the USA,’ it’s ‘Made in Bainbridge.’”

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