Data loading...

The Tuna Semi-Submarine That Never Made It To Sea Spain, September 5, 12

It’s been a decade since an idea to fatten Bluefin tuna en route to Japan was first proposed, and the Spanish group of marine aquaculture farmers says it is still “too complicated” to consider today.

Back in 2002, the Spanish naval shipbuilding company, Navantia, formerly called IZAR, introduced the design for a semi-submersible ship to on-grow Bluefin tuna as it sailed to the lucrative Japanese market. The “Tuna Offshore Unit” – once billed as having the potential to earn about USD 320 million after 20 years of operation – was to transport the fish in nets below the ship. It was projected to deliver 800 tons of tuna after a nine-month period, 60% of which was supposed to be fresh, according to a presentation given at a conference in 2004.

The idea was to buy juvenile fish in spawning grounds such as the Mediterranean Sea in May, and then gradually travel to the hot water areas of the Gulf of Guinea, followed by Australia, and then eventually to Japan to sell the fattened fish at the best price. The fish were expected to show higher growth rates in water temperatures between 24-26°C than those in the Mediterranean or wild conditions.

“This type of concept of production makes the management of the farm extremely complicated,” says Javier Ojeda, general secretary of the Spanish Association of Marine Aquaculture Producers (APROMAR). Currently, members of the organization are only involved in larval rearing of Bluefin tuna, and not in the fattening of the fish, but he says this “could be on the table in a few years, like four to five years from now.”

In addition to expressing biological concerns about transporting the fish, Ojeda does not think the unit is a good investment. “It’s too complicated. I don’t think the profit or the revenues would be enough to compensate all the expenses of this type of project,” he says.

The ship was designed to accommodate a 30-member crew and to keep them at sea for such a lengthy period of time would be costly. Feeding the captive tuna – from two 5000 cubic meter cold stores on the ship – would also be another hefty expense to take into account. Back in 2003, it was initially estimated to cost between EUR 60-70 million to construct a Tuna Offshore Unit of the concept size (189 x 56 x 27 meters).

Ultimately, it was the deteriorating market price for fresh Bluefin tuna that caused the project to become “unfeasible from an economical perspective,” says Abel Méndez Díaz, design manager of IZAR’s aquaculture projects between 2002-2004. Prices had remained stable for more than a decade prior, in the range of USD 56-67/kg, and in order for the unit to be profitable, a market price of USD 48/kg was necessary. However, in 2004, the price of fresh tuna dropped to similar levels of frozen tuna, in the range of USD 25-35/kg, says Méndez Díaz.

To overcome the issue, smaller size solutions were developed to reflect the lower market price. The “Fish Transport Vessel” – viable for tuna prices from USD 27/kg – was designed to transport 400 tons of live Bluefin inside the vessel, in addition to 600 tons of frozen tuna. The idea here was to transport the juvenile fish to year-round, warm water areas where they could be fattened in Bridgestone type hatches, before reaching the Japanese market. This concept was never used as Navantia stopped pursuing aquaculture projects in 2005 to focus on building military vessels.

During the first six months of 2012, the average price of fresh Bluefin tuna imported in Japan was about USD 19/kg, down 1% from the same period last year. Between January and June, Japan had imported 2,044 tons worth about USD 38.5 million, a 17% increase in volume and a 15% increase in value when compared to the same period in 2011.