The sea bass likes clear, oxygenated, clean waters. These are the conditions that Aquanaria has arranged in the Atlantic Ocean to cultivate this species, which also needs its own space, organizes itself in hierarchies and enjoys fighting against the current. Between 40,000 and 50,000 specimens do so in each of the 48 nurseries that this company has in the waters of Gran Canaria, between two and three miles from the coast.
The fish barely occupy 2% of the tanks, where they reside like pigs in a large pasture, but with a gym. It is there where they manage to reach, during a five-year-old breeding, a size of between two and four kilos, a treasure for great chefs from Italy, Spain, Dubai or the United States, who cover with it the scarcity of wild specimens.
With 127 employees on staff, the Canarian firm reached 30 million euros in turnover in 2022 and expects to exceed 33 million in 2023, when they celebrate their 50th anniversary.
Aquanaria’s current figures are the tip of the iceberg in a story full of expensive failures, successes and vision of the future that begins more than 2,000 kilometers away from Canary Islands waters, in Cantabria. It was there that the company was born, in 1973, focused on working with prawns, oysters and clams, “when aquaculture seemed like science fiction”, recalls Pedro Sánchez, the company’s commercial director. Then came the cultivation of other species such as turbot, sea bass, sea bream or sole, always for commercial purposes and with little economic success. The best business was molluscs: their seeds were in great demand on the Cantabrian coast, the United Kingdom and France.
long term bet
Those responsible for the company, however, decided to focus on the fish. They trusted them for the long haul. Especially in sea bass, for which they searched for waters that were better adapted to the characteristics of the species. They found them in the furthest point of Spain from Cantabria: the Canary Islands. They started farming fish in the port of Taliarte, in Telde (Gran Canaria, 102,769 inhabitants). And together with the Canarian Institute of Marine Sciences, they explored the possibilities of developing nurseries in the open sea.
They were first installed next to the port area and, later, in front of the Salinetas beach, so close to the coast that bathers could swim there. They worked with other species such as the gilthead bream, the amberjack —known as amberjack and milkfish on the Peninsula— or the black bocinegro. “But what we were best at was sea bass, so we opted for it,” says Sánchez. His internal studies also invited him to work in that direction: the fishery for the species decreased while its demand did not stop growing. “We wanted to be the alternative to wild sea bass,” says the top sales manager.
Sánchez recounts a journey full of triumphs and failures, research and studies, professionals and robots, business and financial challenges, technology development and animal welfare conditions. “The story can be told in a few minutes, but there are many years of work, experience and barriers to overcome,” insists the Aquanaria spokesperson, who speaks of making very risky decisions. The one they applied in 2015 changed everything. If the usual thing was for companies in the sector to supply supermarkets and supermarkets with portion sea bass, about 400 grams, they opted for restaurants and an average weight of between kilo and kilo and a half. They moved away from the volume to give size. Gastronomy had a hard time understanding it. “There is a feeling that farmed fish are worse than wild ones. It doesn’t have to be that way, as happens, for example, in livestock farming: no one questions whether or not a cow is wild”, stresses Sánchez.
Today the company achieves a production that varies between 2,500 and 2,800 tons per year. Thanks to a diet based on fish and legumes —in small dry pellets, which allows them to avoid anisakis or dirty the water—, the fish weigh between two and four kilos. Every night, the employees fish for the sea bass that the market demands. They are packed at dawn and in the morning they travel on flights to the 24 countries that today buy this fish. Its main market is Spain —40% of the catches remain here—, but the second is the United States, where the specimens arrive in a maximum of 36 hours. Italy, France, Dubai, South Korea or Hong Kong are also good buyers. In Spain, they serve it in Michelin-starred restaurants such as Cocina Hermanos Torres (Barcelona), LÚ Cocina y Alma (Jerez de la Frontera) or Mu·Na (Ponferrada). Also in many others such as María de la O, in Granada.
Not counting 2020 —a complex year for most companies due to the start of the pandemic—, Aquanaria’s turnover is growing at a rate of around three million a year. In 2019 the figure was 26 million, in 2020 it decreased to 19, in 2021 it recovered to reach 27 million and in 2022 it has reached 30 million. The company has already begun applying for permits to expand its facilities. They want to develop another 24 new nurseries to have a total of 72 and exceed 4,000 tons of annual production. We will have to wait, however, for the end of the decade. The bureaucratic process —which affects 23 different areas of the public administration— can last between two and four years, to which must be added another five from the time the sea bass hatches until it reaches the optimum weight for consumption. Pure patience.
THE COUNTRY of the morning
Wake up with the analysis of the day by Berna González Harbor
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