Bellingham fish farm design co. gets step up from U.S. trade program

By Emily Hamann
The Bellingham Business Journal

Where are the fish of the future going to be raised? Almost 30 years ago, Henning Gatz made a bet: farmed fishing was heading indoors.

Now, it looks like that gamble is paying off.

Gatz is the president of Aquacare Environment Inc., a Bellingham company that builds closed environment aquaculture systems, a method of fish-farming that happens entirely indoors, in closed, controlled tanks that can range from almost 2,000 gallons to more than 185,000 gallons.

Although it is more expensive to set up than an outdoor fish farming operation, like a pond or an open sea cage, Gatz said the benefits for companies that want to set up these operations are worth the cost.

“We create an ideal environment for the fish to grow and thrive in,” he said.

Growing fish in an uncontrolled environment has risks. As an example, he cited a red algae bloom that is killing huge numbers of salmon at fisheries in Chile.

On March 7, U.S. Representative Rick Larsen was in Bellingham talking to local businesses, and one of his stops was at Aquacare.

Larsen was behind a recent measure to reauthorize funding for the State Trade and Export Promotion, or S.T.E.P., program, a federal program that makes a funds-matching grants to states for the purpose of helping small businesses compete internationally.

“We’re big supporters of that in my office,” he said.

Through the S.T.E.P. program, last year Aquacare got a grant for a trip to meet a potential client in Australia.

Gatz said that in-person meeting is what sealed the deal — that meeting turned into a $500,000 order, and they’re in talks now with the same company for an even bigger deal that Gatz expects to be worth around $4 million.

“We lost a really nice job in Tasmania, maybe five years ago,” Gatz said, “because we couldn’t go down there.” Although they were the low bidder, Gatz said the potential client went with a Danish company that could afford to fly to Tasmania for a face-to-face meeting.

Washington is a major user of the S.T.E.P program. In the 2015 fiscal year, Washington got $747,300 in federal funding through the S.T.E.P. program, and matched $402,346, for a total of $1,149,646 in awards given out to small Washington businesses. Washington was second only to California in the amount of money awarded last year.

Gatz founded Aquacare in 1987. It has only focused on indoor fish farms.

“We were a little ahead of our time,” he said. “So there were some thin years in the early days, but now we’re right there and this is what the market wants.”

Gatz declined to say how much the company is making now. Aquacare has five employees who work at its office at 708 Coho Way.

Gatz said controlled environment fish farming is greener than traditional fish farming. Indoor fish farms can be closer to cities, and the consumer base. That means a lower carbon footprint from transport.

In the closed recirculating system, 90 to 95 percent of the water is reused.

Aquacare helps its clients get set up to convert the fish waste to fertilizer.

“That stuff really makes plants grow,” Gatz said.

They have also worked with clients on integrating hydroponics, building systems where fish and plants are grown symbiotically.

Aquaculture has gotten attention in recent years. Mitsubishi Corp. bought Norwegian salmon-farming company Cermaq. Then last year, agricultural products giant Cargill announced that it was buying salmon-feed supplier EWOS.

“It’s matured to the point where it’s now an accepted industry,” Gatz said. He has noticed that since those deals happened, there’s been more interest in fish farming.

Now, Gatz is hoping for the opportunity to work closer to home.

“Maybe one day we’ll have a chance to build a controlled-environment fish farm in Whatcom County,” he said. “That would be interesting.”

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