Darden Restaurants is taking the plunge—with the design and operation of the world’s most expansive lobster aquafarm, scheduled to open in Malaysia in five years.
Since 2004, Darden, the world’s largest full-service restaurant company, which owns chains including Red Lobster and Olive Garden, has been developing the proprietary scientific technology needed for hatching fry at the new facility.
The goal is to have the $650-million facility producing lobster for the high-demand Asian market by 2017, although it will be 2029 before the facility is fully operational with significant production.
Darden will be investing $200 to $300 million and the remainder will come from investment partners. Once operational, the aquafarm will produce an estimated 40 million pounds of spiny lobster per year (estimated to be worth $1 billion), almost all destined for the Asian restaurant and foodservice markets. The North American market is undetermined at this time.
“We cannot continue to rely solely on our wild fisheries without creating overfishing and unsustainable wild fishing,” says Rich Jeffers, spokesperson for Darden. “Aquaculture has to be part of the solution.”
According to the Ocean Conservancy, fish farming is one of the fastest growing responses to a declining wild fish supply and now accounts for more than 40 per cent of the world’s seafood consumption.
George Leonard, director of aquaculture at the nonprofit organization, lists four components that should be a part of any sustainable aquaculture facility:
- Ensuring the type and amount of feed are well managed and used sustainably.
- Recognizing the potential risk of disease if too many species are grown too close together.
- Ensuring a particular watershed doesn’t overtax the ecosystem by assessing how a particular farm fits into the broader landscape.
- Defining socioeconomic benefits for the local peoples.
According to Jeffers, Darden chose Malaysia because spiny lobster is indigenous to the region, the warm waters are conducive to rapid growth, and the region is free from catastrophic tropical storms.
Data from the Monterey Bay Aquarium shows the health of spiny lobster populations is highly variable from one part of the world to another, depending on the total population size and the ways in which the adult lobster are harvested.
“A healthy population will have a balanced management system,” explains Alison Barratt, with the California-based aquarium. “It’s important to assess the population size and make sure the management policies are in place to maintain sustainability.”
“This project will be the first aquafarm Darden has been involved in as more than a purchaser of product,” says Jeffers.
“We will operate the hatchery on land in Malaysia. The fry will be sold to local fishermen who will grow them out in open waters—this part of the growth cycle takes about 18 months. Then Darden will buy back the fully-grown lobster, process and market them.”
The Malaysia project is unique in that it is the first fully integrated lobster aquafarm where the hatching, the grow out, and the processing take place in one aquafarm park.
“It’s also an opportunity for our company to have a positive social impact on Malaysia,” continues Jeffers. “The aquafarm will employ upwards of 12,000 people in what would be considered high wage jobs in the Malaysian community.”
By Jo Matyas