Championing Sustainable Seafood
WORDS BY ABBY WEINGARTEN
Fresh, local seafood should be synonymous with Florida, yet the water-abundant Sunshine State is the country’s largest importer of aquaculture products. It is a reality that has never made sense to the eco-conscious leaders in Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties. And the behavior simply isn’t sustainable anymore.
Enter the Blue to Green effort, spearheaded by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation (GCCF) and its Bright Ideas on the Gulf Coast (BIG) initiative. The idea is to develop the region’s fairly hidden “blue economy” and promote its goldmine of natural resources.
The GCCF regularly awards environmental grants, and the BIG program helps pair innovators with the right resources to create new businesses that stimulate economic growth. Together, these collectives see the area’s water as the next frontier, not only for conservation purposes but also for generating revenue streams.
“One of the facts that people are increasingly becoming aware of is that a healthy economy all starts with the health of our waters,” says Greg Luberecki, a spokesman for the GCCF. “A number of different groups are already starting to work in this area to locally source more seafood and to create value-added processing of seafood right here in our community, instead of exporting it out and importing it back in at a much higher price.”
Marine scientists, seafood purveyors, philanthropists, and independent restaurateurs (like Steve Phelps of Indigenous and Ed Chiles of the Sandbar, Mar Vista, and the Beachhouse) are all becoming part of the conversation. Phelps and Chiles help by incorporating local seafood into their menus. They see the economic and ecological potential in the GCCF’s endeavors, and they want to speed up the change.
“At the foundation, we commissioned a research scan of the marine science business cluster in our region—an economic cluster study. Simultaneous to that, we were looking at different ways we could help inspire and fund innovative approaches to economic development and social entrepreneurism in our community,” Luberecki says.
Florida currently imports $2.6 billion worth
of seafood each year. However, Sarasota
Bay is worth an estimated $11.8 billion
in economic value alone.
This led to the Gulf Coast Innovation Challenge, which called on marine innovators in various fields to develop their own blue economic plans. Thirty-one teams uploaded videos detailing their ideas for solutions and, on July 31, a GCCF panel will announce the finalists. Five teams could be selected to receive $25,000 in grants and complete their prototypes. If an overall winner is chosen in November, that team could receive up to $375,000. This money will help protect the area’s coastal ecosystems and bring local seafood into the international spotlight.
It is a little-known truth that no other region in the country besides Southwest Florida has three national estuaries that are as close together as Sarasota Bay, Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor. Manatee County is home to Florida’s oldest operating commercial fishing village, Cortez. Sarasota has Mote Marine Laboratory, which is one of the world’s premier marine research institutions. There is a huge market for the area’s nautical gems.
The GCCF’s Blue Economy report has identified the full scope of the region’s marine cluster and provided a blueprint for advancing its economic development—from producing more aquaculture products to exporting expertise in the fields of water monitoring and coastal ecology. There are thousands of jobs to be created and tens of millions of dollars to be made.
Florida currently imports $2.6 billion worth of seafood each year. However, Sarasota Bay is worth an estimated $11.8 billion in economic value alone (in terms of jobs, tourism, recreation, and property values).
In Cortez, grey striped mullet is a top export. Mullet roe is exported to Europe or Asia for as little as $10 per pound, yet that same Gulf Coast–raised mullet is re-imported to restaurants across the United States for more than $100 per pound. The cycle is steadily being broken as mullet bottarga is produced locally and showing up on more area menus. Processing seafood like mullet locally reduces food’s ecological footprint and drives economic opportunity.
Caviar is expensive and overfishing has endangered the wild sturgeon population. But Mote Marine Laboratory has figured out a way to responsibly farm the Siberian sturgeon that produces best-selling caviar. Southeast Venture (Seven) Holdings recently purchased this caviar operation and licensed the water technology from Mote. Seven Holdings and its Healthy Earth brand are dedicated to developing sustainable agriculture and aquaculture operations.
The Seven Holdings / Mote pairing is one of the region’s first examples of commercializing research and public-private partnerships. There is much more ahead.
“We are raising awareness and we are hopeful,” Luberecki says. “This is just the beginning.”
The Gulf Coast Community Foundation
601 S Tamiami Trl, Venice