As Wild-Caught Species Vanish, Are Lab-Grown Fish the Future?

Overharvesting and climate change are imperiling several species popular on dinner plates—but big-money biotech startups are floating a solution
764

Imagine no more fresh sea bass at Whole Foods or frozen salmon at Trader Joe’s. Local Michelin restaurants like Urasawa and Sushi Zo, with their grated wasabi and 21-course omakase, are shuttered. This scourge doesn’t play favorites. Alaska pollock, a cheap fish once thought to be inexhaustible, has vanished, reducing Mrs. Paul’s Crunchy Fish Sticks to food nostalgia. The hunched figures baiting hooks on the Santa Monica Pier have faded from memory, too. The only fishermen left are in old photographs. The only fish that remain are mounted behind glass in museums.

That’s not a Black Mirror elevator pitch. That’s the future: joyless, hopeless, fishless.

Eco bloggers call it “fish apocalypse,” and, according to scientists, it’s real and well underway. They’ve run the algorithms that estimate global fish populations and parsed the data. Here’s the statistic that gets everyone’s attention: Wild stocks of Pacific bluefin tuna, the torpedo-shaped beasts that can weigh as much as a Steinway grand and cruise through oceans at freeway speeds, have plunged 96 percent from preindustrial levels.

A visit downtown to International Marine Products, the city’s best wholesale fish market, makes the bluefin’s plight seem like more than just numbers on a screen. The people here track the price of the fish like commodity traders track pork bellies. Most of it, 80 percent, goes to Japan, where it can sell for as much as $200 a pound. But mention wild bluefin to these merchants, and they fall silent, like you’re asking about a dead relative. “We used to sell Pacific bluefin but rarely see it anymore,” says Maynor Perez, a sales rep at the market. “Almost all of it we get now is farm raised in Baja, Mexico. Those fish are only 80 to 100 pounds, max. They’re fatty, but they don’t taste as good as wild.”

BigEye Tuna (Ahi) being cut at the International Marine Products facility.

Luis Garcia

Bluefin isn’t the only fish in peril. A 2018 University of British Columbia study singled out 825 commercially exploited fish and calculated how vulnerable each is to extinction. The news isn’t good: “Our results show that 60 percent (499 species) of the assessed species are projected to experience very high risk from both overfishing and climate change under a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario by 2050.” The study’s “regression model” predicts that fish species with a “very high risk index,” like Pacific bluefin, would have at least a 20 percent chance of “high extinction risk in the next few decades.”

The recent 2019 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services study, a scathing indictment of humanity better known as the IPBES, projects an even bleaker future. This 1,500-page report, prepared by hundreds of experts from 50 countries, pegs a million species for extinction within three decades. Fish will suffer the greatest losses due to lethal factors like ocean heat waves, acidification, overfishing, and the rapid expansion of 400 “dead zones” collectively the size of Wyoming. Here’s another bullet point: Extinction rates today are tens to hundreds of times higher than in the past 10 million years.

The IPBES concludes that sweeping “transformative changes”—from curbing pollution to cracking down on illegal fishing—are necessary to prevent mass marine life extinction.

The solution to this ecological nightmare appears to be simple enough: Reform our unsustainable and sinful business-as-usual practices by closely monitoring trawlers and ramping up renewable energy. Not quite, however.

Even if every country lowered its CO2 emissions to zero overnight, and new catch limits were immediately enforced, there’s still the matter of all that nasty stuff that accumulates inside wild fish. This ranges from known toxins, like mercury, to suspected carcinogens, like PCBs, to wild-card pollutants, like microplastics (smaller than 5 mm), which the jury is still out on, although the evidence doesn’t look promising.

International Marine Products fish cutting room, fish being prepare for distribution.

Luis Garcia

Aquaculture, which now accounts for 53 percent of all fish consumed by humans worldwide, comes bundled with its own health risks: growth hormones, antibiotics, vaccines, anthelmintics (drugs used to treat parasitic worms), and artificial dyes (farmed salmon is gray) for starters. Then there are the unsavory diets used to fatten fish raised in cages and pens. Farmed salmon, for example, are fed pellets made of fish oil and smaller fish (aka “Grinding Nemo”), pulverized chicken feathers, poultry litter (chicken feces), GMO yeast, soybeans, and chicken fat. Farmed fish also contain 20.5 percent more unhealthy saturated fat and as much as 20 percent less protein than wild fish. Here’s the kicker: They also contain eight times more PCBs, high levels of mercury, and dioxins from herbicides like Agent Orange. You won’t find that on the label at Ralphs.

Despite all of this, there is hope. Not the flimsy hope based on our better angels, vegan morality, and magical thinking but the kind of science-based hope that’s been known to disrupt global industries overnight and make Series A investors in Silicon Valley stupid rich. The venture capital guys call it “cell-ag,” short for cellular agriculture. The business plan is simple: grow food in a lab instead of in nature and, in the process, save our ravaged planet by manufacturing it with such radical efficiency that the carbon trail left behind barely registers. Do that, and Bill and Melinda Gates will beat a path to your lab door.

The pioneer in this nascent industry is Memphis Meats (lab-grown beef), but there’s a clutch of smaller biotechs in the mix, including Perfect Day (milk), Clara Foods (eggs), Geltor (vegan protein), and Afineur (coffee). There are even companies reverse-engineering things like silk (Bolt Threads), leather (Modern Meadow), and fragrances (Ginkgo Bioworks). Gaining increasing attention in this space are the cell-ag startups specializing in fish. Each is based in California, each trumpets a PC slogan, and each has been infused with serious VC money: Finless Foods (Emeryville, “Sustainable Seafood, Without the Catch,” Draper Associates), Wild Type (San Francisco, “Better Meat,” Spark Capital), and BlueNalu (San Diego, “Rethink Seafood,” New Crop Capital). There’s even a Singapore cell-ag, Shiok Meats (“Seafood, Reinvented”), that’s focused on crustaceans.

The manufacturing of fish instead of catching them wasn’t hatched in a Cupertino garage. The groundwork was laid in a 2002 academic paper titled “In Vitro Edible Muscle Protein Production Systems: Stage 1, Fish.” Aerospace people just called it “MPPS.” The paper explores how astronauts could make their own high-protein food in space during protracted missions. In a series of experiments, muscle tissue was extracted from goldfish. After successfully culturing and harvesting those cells, the researchers ended up with a wedge of fish tissue that looked like a goldfish fillet. The scientists concluded this new tech had game-changing potential: “We feel that not only have we pointed the way to an innovative, viable means of supplying safe, healthy, nutritious food to space voyagers on long journeys, but our research also points the way to a means of alleviating food supply and safety problems in both the public and private sectors worldwide.”

By exploiting recent breakthroughs pioneered in the medical and biotech fields, specifically tissue engineering and synthetic biology, researchers today have built upon that crude in vitro work and arrived at the inflection point where some investors now believe lab-grown commercial fish products are not only possible but also inevitable. Spark Capital, the visionary money machine that placed early bets on startups like Twitter, Tumblr, and Warby Parker, is the lead investor in the coho salmon cell line that Wild Type has been developing for the past two years. Spark thinks of this company as the cell-ag equivalent of Impossible Foods, a socially conscious, Earth-friendly startup for the Anthropocene age that will appeal to the Greenpeace as well as the ketogenic crowds.

Albacore Tuna on display for sale, International Marine Products.

Luis Garcia

John Melas-Kyriazi, an early stage investor for Spark, has tasted Wild Type’s coho salmon in its raw state—both as sashimi and salmon roll—and gives it high marks. “It tastes great,” he says with the kind of enthusiasm a major investor would be expected to muster. “I was blown away.” He considers Wild Type more than just another biotech and, instead, an “aspirational consumer brand.” Not only that, he thinks its scientists have the ability to improve on nature: “We can tweak the amount of iron or omega 3s or add vitamins and minerals in the fish cells. We can even make it taste better. That’s really exciting.”

This kind of fine-tuning is a topic that scientists who are developing cell-ag prototypes discuss during whiteboard meetings. The chatter goes like this: If we can make it still taste like real food, why not zap the fat content in a rib eye steak or edit out the lactose from dairy products or make cholesterol-free eggs? Dr. Kate Krueger, a biochemist who worked at Perfect Day in 2016 and witnessed several iterations of that startup’s cultured milk come to fruition, falls into this camp. She has tasted the future and warns dairy farmers about what’s already flowing through the disruptor pipeline. “It’s creamier,” she says, comparing lab-grown milk to animal milk. “I thought it was a superior product.”

All of the fish biotechs tread lightly when the talk turns to altering cellular blueprints by offering consumers things like mash-ups (imagine swordfish crossed with monkfish) or superfood nutritional profiles (adding more long-chain fatty acids, say, or boosting fiber content). Such marketing tangents conjure viral video protests and “Frankenfish!” panic threads on Twitter. So, for now anyway, the focus is on absolute purity. Forget laboratory tricks like CRISPR or GMO. The idea is to grow real fish from real fish cells with no genetic manipulation. Or, to borrow a tagline from the Finless website: “It’s not ‘lab food,’ it’s not vegetarian. It’s real, fresh fish.”

How is it even possible to make fish in a lab? Despite all the fancy science, success hinges on the one thing that makes all life possible: cell division. Lots of cell division. By one estimate, a single-family serving of animal protein contains a trillion cells.

Here’s a facile version of the process: Extract a pea-size biopsy from the type of wild fish you want to grow; isolate the “progenitor” cells and suspend them in a nutrient-rich serum that promotes growth; pour that fishy slurry into a bioreactor that mimics the womb-like conditions favorable to cell proliferation; then, when the cell count reaches critical mass, seed the cultured cells onto an edible, plant-based scaffold (seaweed works) that permits nutrient and oxygen flow; those cells will continue to divide until they eventually form a 3D fillet that’s cellularly identical to the original biopsy tissue.

One startup has already demonstrated proof of concept—sort of. Two years ago Finless unveiled a prototype made of lab-grown carp and farm-grown potato held together with a food paste enzyme. This was a big deal in the press: the first cell-ag fish product presented at a public tasting. The five bite-size croquettes, sautéed in a cast-iron skillet by a professional chef, were valued at $1,000. The price per pound for this “clean meat,” free of pesticides, PBDE, prescription drug residue, and anything else that might kill you, was a hefty $19,000. Cell-ag prototyping doesn’t come cheap.

Cooking up Wild Type’s “cell-ag” coho salmon.

Hattie Watson

Was it worth it? Here’s what a journalist from The Guardian had to say: “As I suppress thoughts of beakers of pink liquid and taste my perfectly cooked croquette, I find it both delicious and disappointing. … I just about detect a pleasant aftertaste of the sea, though not fish as such.” That the croquette mix skewed heavily toward starch—75 percent potato, 25 percent carp—probably didn’t help. Neither did the fact that the cells were never “differentiated,” meaning that those pricey hors d’oeuvres weren’t made with 100 percent muscle cells. “They were fish cells, but it was just biomass,” explains Alain Rostain, the CEO of Clean Research, a startup that wants to culture zebra fish cells. “It wasn’t a high-protein, high-density complete protein product.”

Mike Selden, cofounder and CEO of Finless, accepts these bad reviews like a young chef who knows he screwed up on opening night. “We did kind of a Hail Mary there,” he says of the PR strategy. “We wanted to be the first startup to have a reporter eat our product.” Asked to pass judgment on the croquettes himself, the 28-year-old biochemist starts spinning. “They were delicious,” he says. “It tasted like carp.” But then that pretense disappears: “She was fair. It was not extremely flavorful.”

Selden is quick to point out that much has happened since that first reveal. For one thing, his researchers have developed 12 different fish cell lines, including the holy grail species that could bring maguro sashimi to the masses. “We have the only bluefin tuna cell line on Earth,” he says. “That’s a pretty big advantage.” Those onerous per-pound costs have also plunged, from $19,000 to $9,000 to less than $4,000. Within five years, he assures me that grocery stores will be selling cultured bluefin tuna at $20 a pound. “Right now, it doesn’t taste as good as wild fish,” he
admits, “but eventually it will.”

The cofounders of Wild Type, Justin Kolbeck and Aryé Elfenbein, are just as confident about their coho salmon venture. But they say company policy prevents them from talking about release dates. A scientist with a background in cardiology and molecular biology, Elfenbein knows how vast the gap is between a prototype that tech writers blog about and the shrink-wrapped fish fillet that ends up in the retail and restaurant supply chains. “There are significant hurdles to overcome before we go to market,” he concedes.

That’s for sure. Wild Type has a 15-step flowchart on its website that illustrates just how complex and daunting the task is to bring a cell-ag fish product to the market. Challenges include basic things like cell line development, cell nutrient formulation, cultivator development, and meat texturing. Sandwiched between all the hard science is the grunt work: packaging, distribution, quality control, marketing… Still, it’s difficult not to be optimistic. Pressed on Wild Type’s secret “internal time line” and asked if his salmon would be available at Whole Foods within several years, Elfenbein replies: “Yes.”

Sushi served at a tasting event for Wild Type’s “cell-ag” coho salmon. The startup predicts its lab-grown salmon will be in stores within several years

Hattie Watson

Unlike his partner, Kolbeck isn’t a man steeped in science. He’s a former cog in the U.S. State Department, but that doesn’t make him any less committed to the clean meat movement. A diplomacy stint in Afghanistan made him realize that feeding the world’s population could be done by figuring out cell-ag and waiting for the economies of scale to take root. “I’ve seen food insecurity firsthand,” he says. “When we have 10 billion people on the Earth, and they all want meat and fish, how are we going to feed them?”

That’s the problem. Global meat and fish consumption will keep rising as developing countries prosper. Kolbeck knows that he’ll have to win over the chefs and home cooks in this country before prices drop, and cell-ag surimi becomes a staple in sub-Saharan Africa. That means engineering a juicy salmon fillet, with perfect zebra stripe marbling, that’s indistinguishable from the real thing. “We are not going to ask chefs to sacrifice or compromise on taste or any other things,” he says. “This product may be made in a cool, sustainable way, but if it doesn’t taste great, nothing else matters.”

The biggest player in this fledgling biotech industry is BlueNalu. It has the most funding (seed round: $4.5 million), a dream team roster with catchy nicknames (one scientist, Rami Nasrallah, is known as the “cell whisperer”), the only celebrity endorsement in the space (dashing ocean explorer Pierre-Yves Cousteau, son of Jacques, is on the advisory board), and a new 6,000-square-foot lab in the Sorrento Valley section of San Diego.

BlueNalu even has its own spiffy euphemism for “lab-grown fish”: Cellular Aquaculture™. Why allow the media or anyone else to define what you are when you can do that yourself? Finless CEO Selden has another theory about why BlueNalu trademarked a common label that’s been used in the cell-ag industry for the past couple of years: “They did it because they’re assholes.”

Cofounder and CEO Lou Cooperhouse has ambitious plans for BlueNalu. So much so that he sounds puzzled when asked what pet project his research team is pursuing. While Finless has chosen bluefin as its signature fish and Wild Type is working on coho, Blue-Nalu’s business model is to culture all edible marine life. “We describe ourselves as species agnostic,” Cooperhouse says as if he’s trawling for fish instead of growing them from scratch. “Our approach is to have a platform technology that allows us to develop a wide variety of value-added seafood product, not just a single product.” He pauses to let the enormity of this mission statement sink in. “From fish to crustaceans,” he says, which is like a doctor saying “from podiatry to neurosurgery.”

To support this bold statement he begins to recite the inventory of all the cell lines in the BlueNalu vault: Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, mahi-mahi, sable fish… “We’re not talking about getting into a couple restaurants in five years,” says Cooperhouse. “We’re talking about getting into mass-volume products.” To do this he envisions a string of fish factories scattered across the globe, each one capable of supporting a population of 20 million people. The first one might be built in Asia, the EU, or the U.S. It all depends on where the money is. Wherever it ends up, Cooperhouse has assured investors that the company will break ground before 2025.

“Other company prototypes have been blended, breaded, and fried,” he says, taking an obvious swipe at Finless. “Later this year we will present a whole muscle meat prototype, which nobody has done yet.” But when it comes to details, the cheerful narrative ends abruptly. Secrecy shrouds the R&D in this business like smog covers Long Beach. Asked what kind of cells were used to pull this off, he says only “various fin fish.”

A dish at a tasting event for Wild Type’s “cell-ag” coho salmon.

Hattie Watson

Monitoring the conversation is Lauran Madden, BlueNalu’s principal scientist. She immediately clarifies her boss’s boast about having perfected the world’s first “whole muscle meat” fish prototype: “I don’t know if I can say 100 percent muscle.” The words are spoken slowly and deliberately, as if she’s testifying before Congress. “There might be a certain percentage of an additional cell type or a patented food-grade binder or something like that.” Perhaps sensing doubt, she stresses that the work BlueNalu is doing is truly groundbreaking. “The bottom line is that this is not a product that is blended,” she says. “It’s the fish equivalent of a whole chicken breast. The flesh will stand on its own and match the sensory experience of the origin species, including texture, mouth feel, and flavor.”

There are doubters, naturally. That’s going to happen when a CEO claims to have figured out how to shred the $400 billion global fishing industry. Dr. Ricardo San Martin, the Alternative Meat Lab research director at UC Berkeley’s Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, is among the skeptical. “Cellular agriculture is difficult—it’s not like brewing beer,” he says adamantly. “You have to treat cells very carefully. There are dangers of contamination, and it’s very difficult to harvest cells on a large scale.” Even if proved successful, he doesn’t believe these new cell-ag biotechs would actually be selling “fish” products. “Fish is something that nature required millions of years to develop,” San Martin says. “This isn’t fish. It’s a part of a fish, just cells grown in a lab.”

The 1.2 million people who work in the U.S. fishing industry certainly agree. The consensus within this fraternity of seafood wranglers is to call cell-ag fish anything but “fish.” They want that hallowed label reserved for the flesh harvested from the bodies of animals that breathe through gills and swim in water. Their lobbyists are pushing for legislation that goes far beyond the Missouri Meat Advertising Law, which went on the books in 2018. According to an MMAL press release issued by the Missouri Department of Agriculture: “Products must include a prominent statement on the front of the package, immediately before or immediately after the product name, that the product is ‘plant-based,’ ‘veggie,’ ‘lab-grown,’ ‘lab-created,’ or a comparable qualifier.”

Washington bureaucracy, which tends to be more reactive than proactive when it comes to food regulation, has already weighed in on cell-ag livestock, an indication of just how fast this science is moving. In March it was announced that the Department of Agriculture and the Federal Drug Administration would jointly oversee the entire manufacturing spectrum of lab-grown livestock and poultry, from cell collection and cell growth to production and labeling. How the Feds will control lab-grown fish, however, has yet to be determined. Most experts agree that cell-ag fish will probably be controlled by the FDA, with the exception of catfish, which falls under the purview of the USDA.

If there is a cautionary tale here, it involves AquaBounty Technologies, a Massachusetts biotech that received FDA approval for its controversial GMO salmon, AquAdvantage, in November 2015 after almost two decades of regulatory scrutiny. Four years later that genetically altered fish, which contains DNA from Chinook salmon and an eel-like species called ocean pout, which allows it to grow twice as fast on less food than wild Atlantic salmon, isn’t available to U.S. consumers. Right after the FDA ruled that AquAdvantage was safe for human consumption, Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican whose home state of Alaska depends heavily on commercial salmon fishing, added language to the federal 2016 budget bill that prohibits the importation and sale of GMO salmon until the FDA “publishes final labeling guidelines for informing consumers of such content.” A press release from Murkowski’s office states this was done to protect Alaska’s fishing interests and Pacific salmon stocks from the threat of Frankenfish.

Cell-ag fish hasn’t received much support from the restaurant community either. Wolfgang Puck, the elder statesman of California food trends, and José Andrés, a superstar chef who knows all about fish apocalypse, declined to be interviewed for this story. Michael Cimarusti, the executive chef at Providence and Il Pesce Cucina, is also anti cell-ag. His voice goes up a few notches when asked if he would ever serve lab-grown fish in his expanding seafood empire: “God no! I would sooner close my restaurants than serve fish that was raised in a test tube. It kind of freaks me out, it’s not even fish, it’s a protein source that has … I don’t even know what … maybe some similarity to the flavor of fish.”

A tasting event for Wild Type’s “cell-ag” coho salmon.

Hattie Watson

The two-star Michelin chef has concerns about the safety of the product, too. This is a man who won’t even look at farm-raised fish, much less put it on a menu. To him, bluefin cells cultured in a bioreactor is the culinary equivalent radioactive isotopes. “I would worry about any food that is manipulated to this degree,” he says grimly. “What happens in 20 years when we find out that the manufacturing process has tainted the cells and sickened the kids that grew up eating it?”

Dr. Amy Rowat, an associate professor of integrated biology at UCLA, doesn’t accept the fake-food rhetoric. After conducting clinical research on plant-based cell scaffolds and cell culturing, she’s come to the conclusion that clean meat fish products will hit the market within five years, and people will buy them. “The public perception to lab-grown meat is changing pretty rapidly,” she says. “You can see this with the Impossible Burger, which has a genetically engineered component in it [the burger’s blood-like heme is produced by a GMO]. This mind-set is pervasive and is spreading across the country.”

PETA president Ingrid Newkirk has no qualms about lab-grown fish either. According to her, like EVs and conflict-free diamonds, a no-kill fish is a consumer product that’s long overdue. She mentions the Max Planck Institute, a German academy of higher learning, which published a 2019 study that proved fish can recognize their own reflection. The mirror experiment is the “gold standard” for determining whether or not an animal is self-aware. Newkirk complains that scientists at the Planck Institute studied fish “up the wazoo” (for five years) before they found an academic journal willing to accept their manuscript. “Fish have emotions,” she says, “and extremely good memories.”

To spare marine life, we will need to embrace the next great food movement: lab-to-table seafood. But will we? That depends on several things, not the least of which is whether these startups can scale (no small thing) and cut costs to compete with the price of wild fish—not just the iced branzino at Eataly but the farmed stuff at Costco as well. Then there’s the F-word: Frankenfish. Research director San Martin, the bearer of bad cell-ag news, insists this is a problem. “Changing any human food consumption behavior, even to a plant-based meat product, is super complex,” he says. “This isn’t like switching from corded phones to wireless phones. We can adapt to that very easily because the phone doesn’t mean anything to us—it’s just a communication tool. With food, though, there’s a meaning attached to what we eat.”

There is a body of evidence to suggest that shoppers may not be ready for cell-ag fish. A paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Plos One titled “Attitudes to In Vitro Meat: A Survey of Potential Consumers in the United States” says that while politically liberal people were more interested in the idea of adding clean meat to their diet than their conservative counterparts, only one third of the subjects included in the sample would be willing to eat clean meat regularly in place of farm-grown meat. The major consumer concerns were price, flavor, and the unnatural manufacturing process.

Biochemist Krueger isn’t convinced by the Plos One data. She doesn’t believe consumers have an aversion to new foods, not even to radical new foods. She maintains that fish isn’t so much a cultural icon as it is a unit of heat, a collection of calories, energy to burn. Technology in the postdigital age is advancing rapidly and so are the foods it makes possible. If wild tuna and salmon are to survive, we will have to eat things like lab-grown fish tacos and cell-ag sashimi. “Look at Soylent,” says Krueger, name-dropping the high-protein instant gruel that receives regular updates like a piece of software. “It used to be a cult product for Silicon Valley guys. Now you can buy Soylent Cacao at Walmart.”

She’d better be right. The world needs cultured seafood now more than ever. Peak fish has come and gone. During the postwar decades, when technology like sonar and immense trawl nets were introduced to commercial fishing fleets, the metric tons of fish harvested from the oceans rose steadily. But by the late 1980s, global catches started to decline. The industry blamed the lower yields on catch limits and government regulations, but the real culprit was overfishing. Now, with each passing year, demand rises, supply struggles to keep up, and more species flirt with extinction. The global catch for wild seafood stands at 80 million to 90 million metric tons a year. That’s still a big number. It is, as cell-ag advocates like to say, “equivalent to the human weight of China”—1.4 billion people. This is the business-as-usual model that the Canadian study warned us about.

Fisherman at the Santa Monica Pier.

Luis Garcia

No one knows this better than McDonald’s executives. The ideal metaphor for the fish apocalypse is right behind the counter at the Golden Arches: the Filet-O-Fish. Since the popular seafood sandwich was introduced to the McDonald’s menu in 1963, the primary ingredient has changed as the fish species used to make it have dwindled. The first Filet-O-Fish featured fried halibut. Next came cod, haddock, and New Zealand hoki. Then, when McDonald’s couldn’t source enough Atlantic pollock to satisfy its annual quota of 300 million units, the company switched to the more sustainable Alaska pollock. For this corporate benevolence the Filet-O-Fish received the Marine Stewardship Council’s blue “ecolabel.”

Eventually McDonald’s will be forced to abandon Alaska pollock, too. According to Alaska Fish Radio, a podcast that covers the commercial fishing industry, Alaska pollock has been the “top fish catch in the world for four years running, toppling anchovies from Chile and Peru.” That’s saying something. Anchovies are at the bottom of the ocean food chain, somewhere between plankton and krill. Trawlers vacuum anchovies from the sea like carpet dust. But even anchovies aren’t immune to overfishing. After years of siege, Peruvian anchoveta stocks collapsed in the early 1970s; seven years later, a temporary ban was placed on them. The same could easily happen with Alaska pollock.

If Alaska pollock do go extinct, cell-ag could fill that watery void. BlueNalu’s Cooperhouse gets giddy just thinking about a collab between his company and McDonald’s. “Our product could be in anything from sashimi to fish and chips to a Filet-O-Fish,” he says. “The beauty of this process is that we don’t have all the usual inefficiencies like the fuel and labor associated with commercial fishing or the low 60 percent yield at the restaurant level because of bones, heads, and tails.”

This is the kind of sales pitch that tempts people to cash in their nest eggs so they can get the IPO money and finally buy that palazzo on Lake Como next to the Clooneys. But this is the same message at every tech startup: Write us a check and watch this product change the world—whether it’s Elon’s A.I. brain chip, Jeff Bezos’s life-extension drug, or BlueNalu’s fish factory.

Finless’s Selden says his cultured bluefin will arrive long before the singularity or centenarian pills—five years, tops. It won’t be easy, but it won’t be a moonshot either. “It’s like shooting in the dark at a really large target,” he says. “There hasn’t been a lot of research with fish cells, so you have to start by doing random things to understand how they function.” Give him enough bullets, and Selden will nail the bull’s-eye (eventually). Meanwhile the clock keeps ticking, and an old man on the Santa Monica Pier waits for a tug on his line.


RELATED: How to Steer Clear of Fraudulent Fish


Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.