Big Fish

Nader Agha walks by an old storage tank on his Moss Landing property, where Mark Pender wants to develop what he describes as an environmentally sustainable fish farm.

If Los Angeles-based developer Mark Pender’s plans come to fruition, sushi-grade yellowtail will soon become Moss Landing’s most valuable fish. But they won’t be landing at the harbor, they’ll be hatched and raised at the one of the biggest land-based fish farms in the world.

The proposed project, Monterey Bluewater Farms, has been in pre-development for the last three years, and renderings of its build-out resemble something out of Silicon Valley: a 400,000-square-foot campus dotted with modern buildings and giant grow tanks covered with rows of solar panels. There’s a cafe, an outdoor classroom and aquarium-like viewing areas.

And Pender, who’s helped develop smaller fish farms across the world, says the technology has arrived to make the operation eco-friendly in that there will be no discharge into the ocean. The region’s reputation for sustainable seafood, he adds, is a primary reason he wants to build the farm there.

“Monterey Bay would be synonymous with environmentally sound farmed fish,” he says.

There’s a catch: Pender and his partner, Werner Forster, need to ensure access to a specific pipe that runs into the bay that they can use to bring in seawater to refresh their farm’s tanks, which will lose water due to evaporation. The pipe in question begins at Nader Agha’s Moss Landing Commercial Park, the same 200-acre property where Agha hopes to build a desalination plant, and where Pender plans to lease about 20 acres from Agha for the fish farm.

But as that pipe travels west toward Monterey Bay, it passes under a stretch of land owned by the Moss Landing Harbor District, and therein lies the catch: Agha has an easement to use the pipe under Harbor District-owned land – about 25 percent of the pipe’s length – but it sunsets July 31, 2017.

“You can’t expect me to build a $50 million fish farm with an easement that terminates a year and a half from now,” Pender says.

Pender approached the district in 2014 to negotiate extending that easement, but because the land is owned by Agha, district officials insisted on negotiating directly with Agha and his attorneys.

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Those talks were slowed in part because Agha had been courting the district to be the lead agency for his desalination proposal, known as The People’s Project. The district in September 2014 agreed to be the project’s lead.

But what might seem a simple real estate negotiation – extending an easement – is anything but: Agha owns mud on which the district has some boat slips, and their easement to use that mud expires on the same date, so that agreement is also part of the bartering. To complicate matters further, Agha’s desal project’s preferred outfall pipe, which would discharge brine into the bay, is the same pipe Pender wants to use. (The 51-inch diameter pipe, which acts like a conduit, is big enough to be utilized by both.) Agha’s attorney David Balch says that he has two alternative outfall options.

Moss Landing Harbormaster Linda McIntyre says the negotiations have been discussed in closed session for the last year, and as such, she is restricted from speaking about them. They will be on the agenda for the Jan. 27 meeting.

Balch says both sides have been working diligently to come to an agreement. But Pender, who has paid thousands to have his yellowtail brood stock nursed at Hopkins Marine Lab over the past year as negotiations have stalled, is growing impatient, and thinks Agha’s offers to the district have been more than fair.

“I cannot afford to sit around for another 18 months while they have a pissing contest,” he says.

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