TalentView: Megan Sorby, Pine Island Redfish
There has never been a dull moment in Megan Sorby’s career in aquaculture – and, judging from her unstoppable energy and enthusiasm, it looks like there never will be. A specialist in farming some of the more unusual – and challenging – fish species, Megan’s work in developing production of yellowtail kingfish at Kingfish Maine counts as one of her career highlights.
Now this intrepid fish farmer is taking on a new species and a new challenge, setting up a land-based company growing red drum: Pine Island Redfish.
But how did she get started in her career, and what lessons has she learned along the way? And what’s next on the agenda for Megan and Pine Island Redfish? WeAreAquaculture caught up with Megan in Florida to find out more.
From Kentucky to Miami, and then to Stirling, Scotland
Megan grew up in land-locked Kentucky, but from a young age she still told everyone who would listen she was going to be a marine biologist. Catfishing and bass-fishing in her spare time, her ambition only increased as she grew up, leading her to study her passion at the University of Miami, Florida.
“I had some great mentors there,” Megan says, noting that the first step on her aquaculture journey was an internship at the University’s experimental hatchery, working on invertebrates.
“I showed up for the first day, and they had all the new interns cleaning out the filter bags. I think I was the only person that showed up for day two – I just found it fascinating,” she laughs.
Megan graduated from her marine biology degree around the time of the economic downturn, she recalls. She wanted to pursue her love of aquaculture but couldn’t see a way into the workforce at the time.
“I spoke to a mentor of mine and asked what I could do to keep going. I really just wanted to work in aquaculture; I felt like I was done studying. I wanted to learn something hands-on, which is something I think our education system is often missing - that hands-on application."
"That’s how I ended up doing my master's degree in aquaculture at Stirling University - and I loved it,” Megan says.
“I came straight to Scotland from Miami, so it was a big change. Stirling is beautiful, but it was so cold! I had been working in the Caribbean all summer and I got off the plane in Scotland in September and immediately went to buy four coats - I think I was able to get away with two by April," she laughs.
"It was a great program. I also met my spouse Tom there, and we've moved all over the world ever since,” Megan says.
Megan and Tom: a shared passion for new species in aquaculture
"Working with Tom Sorby has been the daily joy of my career, maybe not all day everyday as we see many things differently, but it is what makes us strong. We value each other's opinion, we also push back at each other, sometimes with added volume as colleagues may attest, but in the end, after time at work and time over the dinner table, we come to really solid reasoning behind each action that we take."
"He is brilliant, and the greatest fish-whisperer I know. He challenges me and challenges the sector, and it is my privilege to experience this work with him," Megan says.
“We both share a passion for the development of new species in aquaculture. Unless you're running around with your hair on fire, trying to solve problems and troubleshoot, and make things more efficient, it's not interesting! So, for some of those species that've had more work on them, that are more developed, we're just like: leave those to other people. We'll take the different ones.”
So, she likes a challenge?
“Yeah, just a little bit. Sometimes I think too much!” Megan laughs.
Getting started: red drum and barramundi
Freshly back to the US from her studies in Stirling, the species Megan focused on in her first aquaculture job was none other than red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus), at a research facility in Florida.
“It was a broodstock facility for a nonprofit and mainly targeted for restocking projects on the East Coast of Florida. But it was about that time that the federal government was putting a lot of research focus into the Gulf oil spill and the effects of that, so there was a shift of focus away from that facility. It was all built and ready to hold broodstock, but then they pivoted to focus on other research.”
Megan was sorry to see the red drum project go – but as we now know, this early experience with redfish would be pivotal for her later career. At the time, Megan decided to look for a new species and a new adventure in aquaculture.
“That’s how I ended up at Australis in Massachusetts, growing barramundi. Founded by a great team, their current general manager, Spencer Gowan is amazing, and they are still to this day doing really interesting things. It's a great facility and a great learning opportunity because for a long time, it was one of the largest indoor RAS farms in the world. They were bringing in 250,000 barramundi fingerlings every month and growing through to market size with large systems.”
“It was just what I needed, more exposure to large scale growout. They had – and still have – such a great staff. You had people there that really wanted to teach you how things worked, which is so critical,” Megan says.
“It’s so important to have a good training program that can get people into the situation that forces them to respond to an alarm and actually deal with that problem. But then you also need to talk through that problem afterwards so that you learn from it and learn to troubleshoot it better. I think education in our sector is still missing that a bit.”
A bite of a bigger project: Sablefish Canada
Megan then took on a management job with Trout Lodge’s marine division in Washington State, working on setting up a sablefish hatchery growing fingerlings to supply Gindara Sablefish (then known as Sablefish Canada).
“It was really immersive, and a pretty complex species to grow. They're very slow developing; they are very finicky. If you sneeze at them, they die in the larval phases, so it was a test of patience, but also more exposure to marine hatchery work, which I hadn't done since undergrad, so it was kind of revisiting and getting familiar again with some of those things.”
After this experience, Sablefish Canada hired both Megan and Tom to run their hatchery, a project which lasted almost six years.
“It was a tremendous opportunity to experience large-scale production, to liaise and connect a hatchery team with a grow-out team that is on a different site,” Megan explains, "Making sure that there was communication from the farm back to the hatchery, which is a critical piece of making the whole puzzle work.”
Megan and Tom also worked on upgrading the broodstock facility and its holding capacity.
“That gave us exposure to the construction process, being able to bring a building design through to fruition, and actually put fish in it. That's a process in and of itself – and one I didn't think I would ever engage in – but again, it was another key piece of that puzzle that we hadn't been exposed to yet.”
Back to Florida for a stint in seafood sales – when Kingfish came knocking
After the Sablefish Canada project, the couple came back down to Florida, where Megan worked for Sammy’s Seafood in St. Petersburg, this time in sales and marketing for sustainable seafood from the aquaculture perspective.
"While doing sales for them, they asked me to look at new and upcoming farms that might be good suppliers for them, and knowing the process made it easier to have conversations directly with those farms. And that is strangely how I came across Kingfish," she says.
Megan recalls her first encounter with The Kingfish Company through a conversation with sales representative Marcy Bemiller.
“I was asking her questions about the farm, stocking densities, how they run their systems, and where their broodstock are from. She hung up the phone with me and called me back the next morning, saying, ‘Well, you could have told me that you were a fish farmer! I Googled you because you were asking some really pointed questions!’”
Marcy told Megan that The Kingfish Company were looking for someone in the U.S., and suggested she talk with them.
“So, we visited, and a month later, we were moving up to Maine," Megan smiles.
Adding new skills to the fish farming toolbox: Kingfish Maine
“It's one of those things where it's a very small community still,” Megan says. "Marcy Bemiller and also Lauren Enz in seafood marketing opened our eyes to a whole new world of connections – people that are interested in this space and in having more in-depth conversations.”
Each step along her career journey has been a valuable learning experience, Megan reflects. And Kingfish Maine brought Megan into the uncharted territory of public relations and community engagement. She understands the long term goals for The Kingfish Company, where Kingfish Maine is a critical piece of the expansion for the company in the US.
With Kingfish Maine, Megan and her partner Tom had the opportunity to work through the permitting process and add another skill to their toolbox: the front-facing job of communicating the project to a new community.
Before this, in Megan’s experience, the farmers never spoke directly to the public. “There’s this idea that as farmers, we don't talk to people, we work on the fish and stay in the background,” she smiles, but admits that setting up a new project like Kingfish Maine “forces you out of your comfort zone."
Part of the community in Jonesport, Maine
The experience of engaging with the community was a positive one, Megan says. “We found a really fantastic group of people in Jonesport. If you have the opportunity to go there and walk around and get to know people, they are just the most beautiful, welcoming, hard-working community, very engaged in the development of their town, which is just incredible."
"We were very fortunate that we landed in that spot because I think, as much as we got in the groove of doing those public meetings, I think in different communities it can go very differently.”
Megan and Tom's daughter was born during their time in Jonesport, which makes the couple’s connection to the town and local community all the fonder.
“She loves feeding fish already, and the town of Jonesport fell in love with her, I think as much as she fell in love with them. It's great to be able to have her involved. I think it's part of every farming story, that it's a family operation,” Megan smiles.
Making the jump to a new project, with an eye on long-term goals
Despite the local support, setting up a new farm is a long-term project, and Megan explains she saw the opportunity to get another farm project started, in parallel with developing Kingfish Maine.
"I sat down with community members in Jonesport when I was going to make this jump. I wanted to talk it out with them because I felt like I owed that to them. They had personally invested in the Kingfish Maine process. I wanted to tell them this is not about leaving Kingfish. I am still continuing to support that process. I'm still there in the background as the permits go through, but it is possible to shift your focus to getting something else moving so that we're not waiting five or six years between production facilities coming online.”
“We're not going to meet our seafood goals if we don't start moving the needle a little bit faster, and that's where I'm lucky that I've always worked with my partner, and we kind of can flip as needed," Megan explains.
“For all of our interests, it's imperative that Kingfish Maine continues to make progress," says Megan, noting that production and harvest continues full steam ahead.
"I think all of the pieces are there for continued positive momentum, and certainly the farm in the Netherlands is doing everything they can to continue to support that. I think it's in all of our best interests that it moves forward, and I will certainly be doing everything I can to make sure that happens.”
"I felt comfortable that the Kingfish project was in a great space in order for me to be able to come here to Florida and take this one on.”
Starting over with red drum in Florida: Pine Island Redfish
And so we come to Megan's next big challenge: Pine Island Redfish, building an entirely new project, with another new and challenging species, from the ground up.
How are things going so far?
"It's going great. I'm super happy to be here, and honestly, the industry support around it and the positive outreach from former colleagues, from complete strangers just across the sector, it's really encouraging. So I'm really, really grateful that people are just like, hey, great fish, great idea. Let's move this!” Megan smiles.
"There's positive buzz around new species and specifically marine species. I think it's exciting.”
In some ways, it feels like Megan has come full-circle with red drum and Florida, the species and location with which she began her professional aquaculture career – but instead now she’s running her own company, with a wealth of hands-on experience under her belt, and plenty of friends and supporters in the industry. How did the project come about?
"I have a couple of colleagues who are co-founders in this project, and who have worked with Tom and me in the past on different focus points, mainly around aquaculture and insurance. And they said to me, hey, if you ever come across a project that might be of interest, we would love to maybe invest.”
“So you sit there, and you start thinking: what's out there right now? Tom and I talked about our long-term goals with projects, I just said, well, why don't I start looking for an opportunity to start something? I talked to my colleagues here at Mote Marine Laboratory's Aquaculture Park, and I said, I've always wanted to go back to redfish. It follows the same trajectory, say, as Kingfish did, where for example, the Australian Government pumped so much funding into the culture process for seriola that the baseline culture process was very well established before it was ever commercialized into net pens or RAS.”
"In redfish, we've done the same thing. We closed the fishery, and we put all this money into culture for restocking purposes. So we know this process really well. Why are we not scaling this? And nobody could really answer that question.”
“It felt like an opportunity to go back to what we know how to do. This is a great species that we know how to grow. It's one that's already got an established market presence. Pairing it with the RAS can bring it to full optimization, where we shift that focus back from imports to a domestically-produced product that's in line with where we want to go.”
Finding the perfect site: Pine Island in Florida
The red drum idea started to come to life, and Megan began looking for a suitable site.
“That took a number of years in the background in my spare time,” she points out. “Working through that process in the US is difficult, and I think globally we have a challenge in that there are only going to be so many spaces that are appropriate for a farm – just the same as for terrestrial agriculture, right?”
The search took some time, but the wait was definitely worth it. When Megan first set foot on Pine Island, Florida, she knew she had found the perfect spot.
"Pine Island is really an interesting place. When you step on the island, it's like going back in time. You have what is a very agriculturally focused community on the coast, there's traditional fishing, and a very strong community. They're not only very caring and receptive to communication, but they're also a very resilient community. They want to keep their island the way it is. They want to encourage agriculture. They don't want it to become synonymous with the rest of the Florida coastline – high-rise buildings and resort towns.”
“They want it to still be a full-time inhabited community, which I think is really special, and they've worked hard to maintain that," Megan says.
Initially, Megan says, the question was how well the local community would accept the new fish farm. However, a local shrimp farmer had already pioneered a land-based aquaculture project in the community: Robin Pearl’s American Penaeid and “Sun Shrimp”.
“Robin Pearl has done a fantastic job inspiring confidence in sustainable aquaculture and making people realize, hey, this is not some big factory that is sitting here and being a disturbance to our town,” Megan says.
"The tremendous amount of work he's done to put his farm there and to continue to do community outreach is something to really be acknowledged and admired, and it has gone a long way in making people accepting of a new farm.”
Good communication and a supportive experience in Florida
“We took some time looking around the island. We had a public meeting when we were looking at one site. The feedback from a few people in the room was, well, it's largely residential around there, can you not look elsewhere? So we said, OK, let's see what else is available,” Megan recalls.
“Low and behold, a gentleman at the back of the room said, well, I have this site, I was going to do shellfish and shrimp, but I'm too old now. And we said, OK, let's go look. And when we walked on the site, we just kind of knew.”
It took some time to communicate the project plans with the various regulatory agencies, Megan explains.
"There was some history on the site with respect to previous agriculture activity, so we had to have a conversation about what we did and didn't want to do. We have this beautiful, lush mangrove habitat on the west side of our site, and we wanted to show we could do this project as well as maintain that habitat and all of its environmental value. And I think once that came across, all of a sudden, it was like, 'Okay, go ahead!'"
“The nice thing about Florida is that they treat aquaculture as what it is, which is an agricultural entity. They have a specific division of the Department of Agriculture, the Division of Aquaculture, and to be able to speak to a group of people that know your process, even though everybody's a little bit different, but they speak the same language, is a tremendous advantage.
“It helps facilitate the conversation with other regulatory agencies as needed - you're no longer out there on your own. You still have to meet all of their standards and best management practices, and they're very stringent and extremely detailed. But just to be able to speak the same language is a head start. So that process went very smoothly, and once we got to the point where they were happy with everything, they issued us permits, and it felt like now is the time; we're ready.”
Next steps for Pine Island Redfish
Currently, Megan is based in Sarasota at Mote's Aquaculture Park, where the team are housing some broodstock and working on small-scale production to prepare for a larger facility.
“We have broodstock that's ready to supply the number of eggs we need, all farm generation, and simultaneously working with the engineering and design firm on finalizing those pieces, ironing out all costs, and making sure that we're ready for the next round of investment,” Megan says.
The turnaround on the project so far has been quite fast, she says. “From the time we started speaking with the Division of Aquaculture about what we wanted to do until the point where we had permits and were ready to start taking the next steps and engaging the design team, it was about eight or nine months. The preparatory work leading up to that was lengthy but happened in the background. The founding members of the project were integral to its success.”
“Looking ahead, our ambition is to have a startup phase with a modest level of production, somewhere between 600 and 800 tons, scaling up to around 1,000 to 1,500 tons. We believe this is the sweet spot for what a single site can support. With our timeline and goals, it's a pretty ambitious plan.”
As for breaking ground, it's a bit early to say, but the sooner, the better, Megan believes.
"We have all the key pieces to make it sooner rather than later. I'm so excited to have my focus here as well as continue to be a support to other developments like Kingfish Maine. We need all these projects to succeed to meet our seafood goals here in the U.S."
Aquaculture: a sustainable solution to many problems
“If I could put a fish farm everywhere I would. I truly think what I get to do every day is so cool," Megan smiles.
“I really think that for most people in food production of various types, when you're working with growing something, whether that be corn or a yellowtail or a redfish, it's still something pretty magical, there’s still something that captivates us about it.”
However, Megan stresses the importance of developing home-grown aquaculture production in the U.S.
“I think in the U.S., we're just falling behind, and I hate to see that. And I know that the know-how is here; we have the supporting infrastructure in terms of the education programs to support workforce development, which is key, and multiple projects that we've worked with. It's all there. We just need some people to come together and put it together, and we need the investment sector to stay positive about RAS facilities and the potential that they have. And so far they have, they've continued to support it, they see the growth.”
"We're witnessing the domestication of fish species - none of us has been alive to witness that with any of our proteins. So the level of scrutiny that we have right now is pretty high, but it's making us develop faster. It's making us develop more responsibly, and that in itself is something pretty powerful," Megan says.
"We just won an award with Acme Smoked Fish Company and TD and Builders, which is the Seafood Climate Award for 2023. We were mostly talking about our waste and not about the fish, but the fact that we're now finding solutions to utilize nutrients from wastewater to grow salt-tolerant plants that help us accomplish our climate goals, that’s pretty special. So we're excited that they were excited about our story," she smiles.
“So I hope that we continue pushing through, and people continue to see aquaculture for what it is, which is a solution to many problems.”