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For Good: Seafood processing plant wins Gulf Coast Community Foundation incentive grant

A proposal to create a state-of-the-art seafood processing and distribution plant in Manatee County claimed the top prize on Monday in the inaugural Gulf Coast Innovation Challenge. The winning project “Healthy Earth-Gulf Coast: Sustainable Seafood System” was chosen from a pool of more than 30 proposals in the Gulf Coast Community Foundation’s first ever incentive-grant competition intended to stimulate Florida’s Blue Economy.

The Healthy Earth-Gulf Coast team is comprised of nonprofit and private partners, including the Sarasota-based natural and sustainable foods business Healthy Earth, scientists from Mote Marine Laboratory, the Cortez fishing community and the Chiles Group, a Sarasota-Manatee restaurant group that champions seafood sustainability. 

“What we have is a commodity-based model, but what we need is an asset value based model. We’re currently selling great, wild, organic healthy seafood as a commodity -- and we undervalue our heritage resource,” Chiles Group CEO Ed Chiles explained in a September interview with 83 Degrees.

Chiles says that Manatee County’s “heritage resource” -- gray-striped mullet -- currently leaves the region at approximately $10 per pound and is typically processed overseas before returning to the United States as a salted and cured delicacy known as bottarga, which retails at up to $200 per pound. 

“All the value-added steps are being captured elsewhere on our product,” Chiles says. “We need a state-of-the-art facility so that we can capture the hierarchy of value with that mullet here in Manatee County.”

The Gulf Coast Community Foundation awarded Healthy Earth-Gulf Coast a $25,000 grant to develop its business prototype when the team advanced to the Challenge finalist stage in July. Healthy-Earth Gulf Coast will now receive an additional $375,000 in grant funding to pursue its plans for a value-added processing plant in Manatee County, which the team proposes will create new economic opportunities and revitalize the region’s heritage fishing community.

In addition to the construction of a multifaceted processing facility, Healthy Earth-Gulf Coast seeks to achieve Marine Stewardship Council certification to strengthen a sustainable local Blue Economy centered on mullet, and eventually other locally sourced seafood.

“The problem with aquaculture in the U.S. is that we are grossly behind the rest of the world. The total world aquaculture market in 2014 was $147 billion, and the U.S. accounted for only 1.4 percent of that. We have an $11 billion trade deficit in seafood,” says Healthy Earth CEO Chris Cogan.

“The only aquaculture that exists in the U.S. are ‘Mom and Pop’ farms. They can grow it just fine, but the problem is they can’t do anything with it. Without the proper facilities, they can’t process it and prepare it in such a way that places like Publix or Whole Foods are willing to buy it wholesale. … Everything we do, we want to do sustainably -- whether that’s farm-raising fish, or making a more sustainable market for wild-caught fish, as is the case with grey striped mullet,” Cogan says.

The winning team was chosen by a panel of local business, investment and technology experts who reviewed the five finalists’ proposals and advised the Gulf Coast Community Foundation Board of Directors in the final decision.

The Gulf Coast Community Foundation launched the $500,000 incentive-grant challenge in February. Of the more than 30 teams that applied to the competition, five were awarded $25,000 apiece in July to create their prototypes. All of the original challengers’ submissions, including short videos of their proposals, remain available online at the GCCF website.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

 Jessi Smith is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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