ORLANDO, Fla., Jan. 13 (UPI) -- A new land-based salmon farm, described by industry groups as among the world's largest, is raising millions of the healthy popular fish in giant warehouses about 30 miles southwest of Miami.
The subtropical location for the farmed salmon, which love cold northern waters, is unique in the world. The company, Atlantic Sapphire, pulls cold water from underground and keeps it at 59 degrees Fahrenheit in what it calls a bluehouse -- a greenhouse for fish.
Norwegian entrepreneur Johan Andreassen built the farm in Homestead, Fla., over the past two years, relying on a steady supply of fresh and salt water from underground aquifers, he said. That's because salmon in the wild lay eggs in freshwater rivers, and the young fish swim to salt water to grow.
Ultimately, the company wants to supply a sizable portion of the U.S. salmon market at a time when more Americans are turning to healthy fish in their diets.
Atlantic Sapphire wants to produce 100,000 tons of fish by 2026 and 242,000 tons by 2031. That would represent almost half of current U.S. salmon consumption, but the National Fisheries Institute trade group expects salmon demand to grow rapidly.
The farm near Miami is rearing its first crop of Atlantic salmon to reach market size, which is close to 9 pounds, according to the company. That takes about 20 months.
The largest tanks at the fish farm can hold about 25,000 fish in about 450,000 gallons of water, more than half the volume of an Olympic-size swimming pool.
Some 3 million fish are being raised there. The average size now is a little over a pound, and the company expects to harvest them in the last half of the year.
The process involves hatching eggs in small tanks and moving to larger tanks as they grow. The biggest tanks would dwarf a large two-story house, towering over plant employees.
Once the fish are big enough for sale, a drain will be opened in the tank, whooshing away fish and water into a processing area. The fish are stunned with an electric current before they filleted for sale.
Atlantic Sapphire plans to target major retail grocery chains as customers. Most of the fish will be sold fresh, but some 20 percent will be frozen, Andreassen said. He expects the fillets to fetch a premium by persuading consumers that the farm doesn't pollute the ocean like other fish farms. Farmed salmon sell for about $10 a pound or more retail, he said.
All Atlantic salmon sold for human consumption is farm-raised because Atlantic salmon are endangered. In the United States, the species is only found in the wild in a few rivers in Maine. They grow to 57 pounds on average.
To start work on his 160 acres, Andreassen received permits in 2016 from the South Florida Water Management District to siphon about 20 million gallons of water per day from Florida's underground aquifers.
Most of that comes from the Floridan Aquifer, which is as deep as 2,000 feet -- where the water is brackish or salty. It is salty, cold and clean enough to be a perfect medium for growing salmon in oxygenated water tanks, Andreassen said.
The fish farm will also treat wastewater to remove fish feces and other solids and then inject the wastewater into Florida's boulder zone, which is about 3,000 feet underground -- so deep that water at that level would be filtered through sand and rock for decades or longer before surfacing or seeping into the ocean.
Andreassen founded Atlantic Sapphire in 2010 with a goal of starting land-based salmon farming in the United States because it is a growing market. His first step was to build a pilot fish farm in Denmark. Then he and his colleagues scoured the United States for a good location.
"We thought the Northeast would be the ideal place, and Florida wasn't even on the radar," he said. "We sort of stumbled upon the fact that Florida's aquifers were ideal for us because I found a YouTube video about it."
He said Florida's 21 million-plus population also makes a good local market.
"America should be able to produce its own food. Americans are waking up to the benefits of heart-healthy fish like salmon," Andreassen said.
Many health studies have confirmed that societies with high fish consumption have a lower incidence of heart disease, according to the National Institutes of Health. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's dietary guidelines recommend consumption of about 8 ounces per week of a variety of seafood.
So far, Atlantic Sapphire has run into no opposition to its plan for expansion, but one major environmental group in the area said it is studying the project.
"This [Atlantic Sapphire] facility only recently came to our attention, and we are currently learning more about it," said Shannon Estonez, vice president of policy with the Everglades Foundation. The foundation has worked for years to improve the flow of surface water to the Everglades, to prevent underground saltwater intrusion from the surrounding oceans.
The type of fish farm Atlantic Sapphire is building is known as a recirculating aquaculture system, or RAS, even though wastewater leaves the plant regularly. Such farms avoid the impact of net-pen farming in the ocean, which can harbor disease, create pollution from fish waste and release domesticated fish into the wild.
Fish farms like Atlantic Sapphire's have been endorsed by Seafood Watch, a popular seafood advisory program affiliated with Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. The group tries to advise the public about harmful practices in seafood production.
"Recirculating aquaculture systems like this are pretty new, and we are still evaluating them, but we believe they are better than alternatives for fish farming," said Ryan Bigelow, senior program manager at Seafood Watch. "In confined tanks on land, the fish are grown with less interaction with wild populations, which is what we encourage."
The impact of withdrawing fresh water from Florida's aquifers is believed to be reaching a crisis point in the northern half of the state, said Robert Knight, executive director of the Florida Springs Institute, a non-profit group based Gainesville. But he said the southern end of the Floridan Aquifer has a much larger volume of salty water.
Still, Knight said, many utilities and manufacturing plants are allowed to tap the Floridan Aquifer in South Florida, and the cumulative effect of that is unknown. "Twenty million gallons per day is a lot of water either way you look at it," Knight said. "That's like the entire city of Gainesville's water consumption."
About 72 percent of the world's salmon consumption is farmed, and those farms largely are in ocean nets in Norway, Chile, Scotland and Canada, according to the United Nations.
Atlantic Sapphire has raised up to $3 billion from investors and has about 1,000 shareholders around the world, Andreassen said. The company has its primary offices in Miami, but trades publicly on the Oslo Stock Exchange. It employs over 100 people in Florida and intends to double that by the end of the year.
"We have more and more U.S. ownership, and we consider ourselves a U.S. company now," Andreassen said. He said the company has spent about $250 million on property and construction in Florida.