Harvesting Seafood Innovation

By David Dean, posted Apr 19, 2019
Chef Lancelot Hu shucks oysters at Wrightsville Beach Brewery, one of the local businesses and organizations supporting a growing aquaculture industry in the area. (Photo by Michael Cline Spencer)
Can Wilmington become the home of seafood innovation in the United States? A two-day workshop coming this month to the University of North Carolina Wilmington is primed to go a long way toward reaching that goal.
Fish 2.0 is a global effort to connect entrepreneurs with partners and investors who can help develop the next generation of seafood-related businesses.
The Wilmington event April 23-24 aims to attract participants from across the South Atlantic region from Florida up to Maryland. This is actually the second time UNCW has hosted a regional Fish 2.0 session, with the 2017 version opening eyes locally and around the country to the Cape Fear region’s potential in developing solutions for challenges facing seafood production, supply chain and trade.
Diane Durance, director of UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship is the lead for the Fish 2.0 event in Wilmington. She sees her organization’s role as being a leader in developing entrepreneurial solutions to challenges in the marine environment such as pollution, seafood safety, climate change, and reversing a trend that is seeing a significant decline in seafood that is wild caught as opposed to farmed, leading to seafood shortages.
“If we don’t conquer this we won’t have fish on the menu,” she said.
Oysters are a particular focus of the CIE, which is developing a video education series on aquaculture in North Carolina and undertaking other efforts to help small businesses growing and distributing oysters.
Local businesses such as Wrightsville Beach Brewery are participating in the effort, which Durance hopes will help open 100 businesses in the next three years, adding close to a thousand or more new jobs.
The founder of the brewery, Jud Watkins, is a licensed commercial fisherman who buys fresh seafood for the restaurant directly from local fishermen. Oysters on the menu come from regional waters, and the brewery has a mission to educate customers about environmental stewardship.
The ability to develop sustainable aquaculture is important, Durance explained, due to the fact that seafood is the most efficient protein to farm or grow because of its incredibly high food-to-body weight. Whereas you need 10 pounds of beef or pork to produce 1 pound of protein, seafood is almost 1-to-1.
Finding new, more efficient and sustainable ways to produce the healthy food source that can feed a large number of people lends itself to the development of many different innovative businesses. The use of sustainable energy, better fish feed and even ways to use marine life in different ways are some of the goals of Fish 2.0.
The Wilmington workshop is the beginning of business-building opportunities where participants soak up what potential investors are looking for from a financing angle and learn other aspects of developing their businesses.
There are opportunities to pitch business concepts on day two of the workshop; in total, there is expected to be over 20 pitches from entrepreneurs passionate about the seafood industry, ranging from catching and/or farming seafood to finding new uses for shellfish to delivering seafood to the table at home or in the area’s seafood restaurant scene.
The previous Wilmington Fish 2.0 boosted several innovative businesses including local company Shellbond, developers of a powder made of organic calcium from marine shellfish – like oysters – which is absorbent and biodegradable. This product has an incredible amount of applications in cleaning up things such as oil spills by soaking up the oil, unlike current chemical-based solutions that simply break up the oil.
Fish 2.0 is looking to spur innovation in every step of the supply chain, improving traceability, which is a huge concern for grocery chains and restaurants.
Locals and tourists in the Cape Fear region looking for meals naturally gravitate toward seafood, and local food purveyors need to know where the seafood comes from and that it is safe. Innovations in such mundane aspects of the food chain as refrigeration and transportation can be huge, especially in situations when natural disasters hit seafood areas and alternative sources need to be found to keep stores and restaurants in business.
“We are seeing more interest in oyster leases,” Durance said. “There are commercial fishermen here looking into adding oyster and clam aquaculture to their businesses. There’s even an uptick in ecotourism through a linked oyster trail.”
Deborah Mosca is helping Durance manage Fish 2.0 in Wilmington, having assisted with the 2017 version. She worries about the quality of seafood, both wild caught and farmed, due to climate change and pollution.
“We are now seeing plastic pollution in the ocean life – not just whales washing up onshore because they starved to death due to the plastic in their stomachs, but microplastics that get into the meat of the fish and then we ingest it. It will be decades before we can assess the harm it may do,” she said.
Mosca sees the Fish 2.0 workshop as a jumping-off point for businesses, entrepreneurs, investors, researchers and others involved in seafood to find each other.
“This really helps struggling seafood businesses find resources and support locally,” she said, adding, “North Carolina does well in tech and life sciences, and it’s about time we leverage our tremendous amount of marine resources, especially those here in Wilmington.”
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