Ask any of the few aquaculture companies in California and they will tell you it is not easy to produce seafood for local markets. Given our extensive coastline and high demand for seafood, California is ideal for offshore aquaculture production. A combination of factors, including past unsustainable practices, cheaper but less healthy foreign-grown products, and a lack of understanding of actual environmental impacts, has led to inefficient permitting for offshore aquaculture ventures. SARC is teaming with local aquaculture companies and legislators to advance the permitting, regulation, and management of offshore and onshore marine aquaculture facilities and activities, with the goal of assessing and minimizing environmental impacts, providing a forum for identifying industry best practices, and working with diverse stakeholders to generate recommendations for the state of California.

Our focus is to help provide CA consumers the choice of buying locally gown or harvested products from well-managed industries, which will have positive overall impacts on environmental sustainability. This includes lower carbon footprints, as products grown locally minimizes shipping requirements. Working with industrial ecologists such as the Bren School’s Dr. Roland Geyer, and environmental economists such as Drs. Chris Costello and Andrew Plantinga, SARC is well-poised to examine critical questions in the socio-ecology of aquaculture.  

Bernard, harvesting his mussels at his offshore farm.

Bernard, harvesting his mussels at his offshore farm.


Bernard Friedman and his mussel-farming team at Santa Barbara Mariculture are the only existing offshore aquaculture company in California. Certainly more are on the horizon. According to SARC researchers Steve Gaines and Sarah Lester, offshore areas provide aquaculture with ample space and resources to grow as an industry and seafood source in California. One important feature of offshore aquaculture is that ocean currents deliver phytoplankton that nourishes mussels, oysters, scallops, and other filter-feeding species. Currents can also dilute biogenic wastes emitted from farms, thus causing relatively minor ecological effects. Compared with agriculture on land, aquaculture may be a highly sustainable protein source for humans, but there is never a free lunch.  Can offshore facilities also pose risks in terms of entangling marine mammals, polluting the seafloor, or depleting the water of plankton? Local farmers like Friedman are working with regulators and SARC to identify and mitigate these and other potential negative effects of offshore farms. The goal of this collaboration is to develop best practices for offshore aquaculture that protect resources as well as consumers. 


SARC is working with Douglas Bush, owner of the land-based Cultured Abalone Farm located on the Gaviota Coast, to learn about best practices, understand industry constraints, and assess the sustainability of land-based culture of marine organisms. Counter to most land-based aqua-farms, which produce freshwater species and use high volumes of freshwater, production of marine species like abalone use very little freshwater. Fed only marine macroalgae, including red algae grown on site and kelp harvested offshore, land-based farms like Bush’s can be engineered and managed to minimize exchanges between the farm and the ocean, reducing the release of nutrients and other waste into the wild. This is in stark contrast to some aquaculture industries, such as vast shrimp farms in Southeast Asia, which have been known to discharge high volumes of nutrients and biowastes, and have removed vast areas of critical coast habitat, such as mangrove forests.

The Cultured Abalone grows marine species in tanks on land, which use low amounts of fresh water.

The Cultured Abalone grows marine species in tanks on land, which use low amounts of fresh water.



Born out of the Food from the Sea Summit at UCSB, SARC has begun a collaborative project investigating the impacts of aquaculture on marine ecosystems and human health. SARC will work with researchers from the National Center for Ecological Analysis and SynthesisScripps Institute of Oceanography at UC San Diego to conduct a comparison study of ecological and human health effects of different aquaculture habitats (off-shore, coastal, land-based) and what this might mean for development and regulation of aquaculture in California and globally.

One of our first initiatives on this project is a life cycle assessment (LCA) of the aquaculture feed industry, comparing novel fish meal substitutes in salmon feeds. We are working closely with Dr. Margareth Overland and her team of fish nutritionists, physiologists, and immunologists at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU).


Coastal wetlands are important to both marine and terrestrial communities harboring nursery habitat and productive ecosystems. California has lost nearly 90% of its wetland habitat through coastal development and habitat degradation. In order to combat these losses, the state is investing great resources into restoration of these important ecosystems. As has been demonstrated in coastal estuaries along the east coast, wetlands can be restored with the conservation of ecosystem engineers who provide habitat and other ecosystem services and in turn promote biodiversity and can filter pollutants. A prime example of this is with reef building oysters. Also a valued commodity in the seafood market, oysters can create habitat that can restore coastal ecosystems and provide a lucrative harvest when planted correctly. 

We hypothesize that restoration efforts can be enhanced at a low cost through public-private partnerships cultivating reef-building, economically important oysters at targeted habitat locations. The Carpinteria Slough has been impacted by human development for thousands of years and as a result has lost a lot of its ecosystem functions, historically serving an important nursery habitat for many marine species. Farming of native ecosystem engineers, Ostrea lurida, in the Carpinteria Slough can provide habitat, increase biodiversity and improve water quality, steps essential to restoration of our local wetlands. Learn more about this project on!

Carpinteria Slough connects the marine and terrestrial ecosystems and surrounded by urban development

Carpinteria Slough connects the marine and terrestrial ecosystems and surrounded by urban development



SARC is examining the expansion of giant clam (pahua) aquaculture practices in coral reef ecosystems in French Polynesia. Pahua is an important cultural species and growing giant clams in aquaculture can provide local communities with an alternative to fishing wild stocks, thus increasing the potential for the recovery of coral reef fish and clam stocks. Giant clam, prawns, and batfish are the top farmed species in lagoons and atolls supporting coral reefs, but given the area's extensive marine territory, there is great potential for expansion. Such potential is being examined by the Chinese and other nations, who are planning large scale, potentially degrading forms of fish aquaculture in relatively pristine atolls. Yet some expansion of aquaculture might not only produce income for local people but could also reduce intensive fishing pressure on coral reef species. How sustainable is coral reef aquaculture? We are working closely with Sarah Argyropoulos and The Nature Conservancy, as well as the Moorea Coral Reef Long-Term



The totoaba is a large sea bass endemic to the northern Gulf of California. Totoaba has a complex life history and even more complicated political and economic history. Lucrative Chinese markets for their swim bladders have incentivized high levels of illegal fishing since 1975 when the fishery was closed. Today, researchers at the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California and private aquaculture companies are looking at the feasibility of culturing these fish in net pens for both economic benefit and to help replenish the natural population. SARC is collaborating with these groups to assess the ecological impacts of reintroduction and the feasibility of population enhancement through aquaculture. SARC is involved in similar projects with the Catarina scallop in La Paz, located in the southern portion of the Baja peninsula.

The totoaba fishery also has close conservation ties to the vaquita (Phocoena sinus), the world’s smallest porpoise, which is also endemic to the northern Gulf of California. Totoaba fishing was outlawed in large part to reduce the potential bycatch of vaquita. Environmental groups and the aquaculture industry can work together to protect both of these species by farming totoaba, thus producing needed resources for local fishers, and under-cutting the illegal wild fishery.


In coordination with the Latin American Fisheries Fellowship (LAFF) Dr. Hunter Lenihan is leading a graduate seminar on global aquaculture and sustainability practices at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UCSB. In this course students will learn about impacts of global aquaculture practices and hear from experts in global aquaculture industry and research. Guest lecturers will include Dr. Doris Soto, Senior Aquaculture Officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); Peter Bridson, Aquaculture manager at Seafood Watch; Dr. Felipe Sandoval, president of SeafoodChile and former Undersecretary of Fisheries of Chile; Margareth Overland, Center of Research Based Innovation; Dr. Rosamond Naylor, Director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment.

Bren students at The Cultured Abalone Farm in Goleta, CA.

Bren students at The Cultured Abalone Farm in Goleta, CA.