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I have watched with interest as the proposed Gulf Coast Marine Fisheries Hatchery and Enhancement Center has dominated the local news cycle in recent months.

I have no dogs in this fight, and I see valid arguments on both sides, but I’ve grown frustrated by a debate that has, at times, seemed shallow and short-sighted.

We are at a pivotal moment in our city’s history — without a doubt. And I couldn’t say with any certainty that a hatchery is the “highest and best use” for one of the last remaining parcels of our precious public waterfront. But to dismiss that same project as a boondoggle is equally short-sighted.

Pensacola’s Bruce Beach is the proposed site for the Gulf Coast Marine Fisheries Hatchery and Enhancement Center. (Special to The Pulse)

I’m no economist, ecologist or politician, but I have given a great deal of thought to this particular issue.

I was a reporter at the Pensacola News Journal during the lease negotiations for the Bruce Beach property. My reporting on those negotiations was aggressive and, at times, highly critical of the city’s plans. I believed then, as I do now, that the project’s critics were right to question whether an experimental fish hatchery was the “highest and best use” of nearly $19 million in restoration funding.

Those points are, of course, moot now. The funds have been allocated, and, while I believe it is still worthwhile to debate the best location for a hatchery, we should not underestimate the value that this project could bring to our community.

It’s true that the immediate economic impact of a hatchery — vis-a-vis other potential uses for Bruce Beach — might be modest. I’m much more interested, however, in the project’s long-term potential: to position our city as a hub for research and development in the fast-growing aquaculture sector.

The planned $19 million Gulf Coast Marine Fisheries Hatchery & Enhancement Center would redevelop Pensacola’s long-vacant Bruce Beach. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

This is no trifling matter. Aquaculture already produces more than half the world’s seafood, and it is growing more quickly than any other agriculture sector. Worldwide, the industry is valued at more than $144 billion, with an average growth rate of 8 percent over the last two decades.

Farm-raised seafood overtook wild-caught seafood in 2014, and this growth — driven by meta-trends like an expanding global population, declining wild fish stocks and changing diets — shows no signs of slowing. The industry is expected to top $200 billion in value by 2020.

As a community, now is the time to begin thinking seriously about how we can own a piece of this market. With the influx of public funding stemming from the BP oil spill, we are well-positioned to do so.

Other people — many far from our shores — already see this opportunity.

Case in point: Fish 2.0 is a global organization dedicated to driving sustainable innovation in the seafood sector. They’ve cobbled together an incredible network of investors and driven some $60 million in investment since their founding in 2013.

Fish 2.0 founder Monica Jain has 30 years’ experience at the intersection of finance and fisheries. Former President. Barack Obama named her a White House “Champion of Change for Sustainable Seafood” in 2015, in recognition of these efforts. Now, Jain wants to bring her vast network to our shores.

A Pensacola Bay Oyster Co. oyster farm. (Steven Gray Photography/Special to The Pulse)

I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know Monica over the last two years. I spearheaded an effort to bring Fish 2.0 to the Southeast in 2017 and acted as her liason in the Gulf region for the duration of the competition. In doing so, I had two main objectives: To showcase the innovations already happening in our region and to bring fresh financial and intellectual capital back home.

That strategy seems to have paid off. Hometown heroes Pensacola Bay Oyster Co. were one of only 40 startups to make it to this year’s Fish 2.0 finals, which were held at Stanford University in November. There, they shared the stage with Panacea Oyster Co-Op, another Florida oyster startup led by bright, bold, forward-looking folks.

The room was also flush with investors and fund managers — serious people who were eager to learn about the opportunities our region presented. Don McMahon, owner of Pensacola Bay Oyster Co., told them about his plans to build a multi-million-dollar oyster hatchery right here in Pensacola. That project is a linchpin not only for his company’s development, but for the growth of an entirely new, sustainable industry in struggling seafood communities across the state.

Freshly harvested oysters from Pensacola Bay Oyster Co. (Steven Gray Photography/Special to The Pulse)

I left the competition invigorated and emboldened. I was even more excited when I learned earlier this month that Fish 2.0 had submitted a pre-application to Triumph Gulf Coast, in the hope of deepening the relationship between our region and their growing network of investors.

Their request — for $250,000 — would help to establish a dedicated regional Fish 2.0 network, an engine for sustainable seafood development in our backyard.

“Fish 2.0 could help growing seafood ventures raise the matching funds they need for Triumph to reach its objectives, and to more rapidly scale sustainable seafood innovations in the region,” their application reads.

As we continue to debate the most prudent use of public resources, I hope we can keep this bigger picture in mind and, when possible, cast a wider net. Afterall, there are always bigger fish in the sea.

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