And, over the last several years, we have been working to do just that, from helping launch the Atlantic Lobster Sustainability Foundation to participating in the Global FISH Alliance on the Spiny Lobster Initiative in Honduras and Nicaragua, to name just a couple of examples. We realized, however, that even with our and others’ efforts to rebuild stocks and encourage sustainable practices, there was still an impending supply problem. Namely, the global population was growing rapidly – with more people moving into the middle class and, with that, the ability to enjoy a celebratory meal of, say, lobster – but the supply of lobster was stagnant or declining.
We decided then to try something totally new for our company – and something that has not been done successfully on a large scale by anyone: lobster aquaculture. For a variety of reasons, lobster aquaculture has been notoriously difficult, and as a result the global supply of lobster has been essentially all wild caught. Well, fast forward eight years to today – during which time we’ve been meticulously working the science – and we believe we have now cracked the code on how to do lobster aquaculture. We also know that we have the resources and the strategic intent to be able to bring it to scale.
Earlier this year, Darden announced plans to create the world’s first commercial-scale lobster farm, which will be located in Malaysia and produce Spiny (also known as Rock) lobster, primarily for sale to the Asian market. Spiny lobster is a more efficient species for aquaculture because it lives in warm water, which enables it to grow faster. Additionally, Spiny lobster doesn’t have large claws like cold water lobster, which tend to be highly cannibalistic and not suitable for commercial aquaculture. Malaysia, where Spiny lobsters are native, is the ideal location for developing the farm due to the consistent water temperature, local geography, and lack of tropical cyclones. We expect to start producing lobsters by 2017 and, by 2029, we believe the farm could produce as many as 40 million pounds of lobsters annually.
Now I know to people outside the seafood world, this might not sound that thrilling. But it’s actually game changing. It will increase the global supply of lobster, which will both take pressure off wild stocks and help remove the incentive for unsafe or unsustainable fishing practices, such as dive-caught lobster or juvenile harvesting.
And what makes this effort especially exciting for me is that Darden is doing it in a way that explicitly builds in sustainability from the ground up. After all, our primary objective is to create a sustainable supply of lobster over the long term, so we’d be crazy to go at it any other way.
We’re in year two of an in-depth environmental impact assessment, using the findings to ensure that the farm is designed and operated in a way that protects the environment. For example, we’ve conducted satellite imagery to make sure we site it such that it doesn’t affect coral reefs or sea grass meadows and we’re undertaking research on current flows to avoid negative impacts on the sea floor. We have also designed the farm to have relatively low cage density, and have feed research underway to achieve the most efficient feed ratio possible.
We’re focusing on the social and economic aspects of sustainability, too. The farm is designed to operate on a contract farming model in which Darden hatches the eggs, independent farmers raise the lobsters, and Darden commits to then buy the grown lobsters. What’s great about this model is that it will provide sustainable livelihoods for thousands of local Malaysians. When the farm is operational, it will employ 12,000 workers, who we expect will earn double or even triple the current average local wage. And we’re making sure they do so in a safe, environmentally responsible way by developing specific operating parameters that farmers will be required to follow. Beyond simply providing the opportunity, we’re also working closely with the local government to develop and implement a comprehensive economic development plan that ensures the farmers receive the training, support and capital they need to be successful over the long term.
For all these reasons and more, I feel so privileged to work for Darden – we are a company that is led by our values and always makes a sincere effort to do things the right way. And I feel so blessed that through my work, I have the opportunity to do something that, in some small way, will leave the world a little better place for my children.
Bill is Senior Vice President of Purchasing, responsible for International Purchasing, Bakery, Concept Support, as well as supply chain sustainability and public policy initiatives. Bill is also President of a key Darden strategic initiative, Darden Aquafarm. Bill has served as a member of the Board of Directors of the National Fisheries Institute and was one of the co-founders of the Global Aquaculture Alliance. Additionally, Bill serves as a Member of the Board of Trustees of Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute, the External Advisory Board for the University of Florida’s School of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and the Board of Directors for the Lobster Sustainability Trust in Canada.