Carlsbad Aquafarm Finds Success With Farm Tours, Tasting Experiences

December 21, 2021

From Carlsbad Strawberry Company to The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch, Carlsbad is home to iconic farms that have become tourist destinations. Another is Carlsbad Aquafarm, a staple in the coastal city for decades.

 “The history of Carlsbad is agriculture and there’s still a lot of agriculture going on in Carlsbad, which is kind of unusual for a beach town these days,” said Matthew Steinke, operations manager of Carlsbad Aquafarm, Southern California’s only shellfish farm. “This is special and unique. This is something really neat for the city to have.” 

Carlsbad Aquafarm is nestled between the Pacific Ocean and Interstate 5, in the waters of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon. The lagoon was dredged and reopened to a continuous tidal flow in 1954, when the now decommissioned Encina Power Station was constructed on the land. 

“In that process, they dredged out the muddy mess that had become of the lagoon,” explained Steinke, who has worked at the Aquafarm for 15 years. “That’s what created the waterway that the farm operates in.”

Carlsbad Aquafarm is nestled between the Pacific Ocean and Interstate 5, in the waters of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon. (Credit: Jackson Fleming)

In the early 1960s, researchers from San Diego State University used the site to study the feasibility of farming in the ocean.

“They looked at lobster and abalone and sea urchin and all kinds of stuff before they settled on mussels, which tested phenomenally,” Steinke said.

The research facility turned into a commercial business in the 1980s, which was rebranded as Carlsbad Aquafarm in 1990, Steinke said. That’s also when the aquafarm started growing Pacific oysters.

 Today, Carlsbad Aquafarm produces between one to two million pounds of local and sustainable seafood annually. The aquafarm is committed to producing high-quality seafood, while conserving the ocean’s resources.

“Everyone is here because they have a passion about the environment,” Steinke said. “The process of farming mussels and oysters actually improves the environment.”

Carlsbad Aquafarm grows mussels and oysters. (Credit: Jackson Fleming)

Shellfish are filter-feeders, so they eat algae and other small, organic particles filtered from the water. The process keeps the water healthy and clear, allowing the lagoon’s eelgrass beds to expand and its diversity of wildlife to flourish.

“Those beds of endangered eelgrass are amazing habitats for baby fish and that’s made an unbelievable ecosystem,” Steinke said. “If you pull the mussels and oysters out of that ecosystem, the water starts to become murky with a surplus of algae. That blocks the sunlight, the eelgrass dies, and all those baby fish lose their habitat. 

“So, there’s a direct correlation between the farming of mussels and oysters and having this rich, thriving environment.” 

Carlsbad Aquafarm, at 4600 Carlsbad Blvd,. raises millions of mussels and oysters each year. It has a hatchery with adult mussels and oysters, which a team of biologists encourage to spawn. The farmers help raise the baby mussels and oysters until they are about a quarter-inch in size and transferred from onshore tanks to the water.

 It takes about eight months for oysters to grow to full size and a year for mussels.

“It’s really rewarding growing food and feeding people,” Steinke said.

Carlsbad Aquafarm raises millions of muscles and oysters each year. (Credit: Jackson Fleming)

Carlsbad Aquafarm opened to the public in April, after receiving permission from NRG Energy, which owns the land. The Aquafarm was previously closed to the public because of security concerns with the former power plant. 

“With the power plant onsite being decommissioned, it changed the security requirements for the property,” Steinke said. “We’re really excited about being able to bring in the people and show them where their food comes from, and all the steps involved.”

Since Earth Day 2021, the Aquafarm has hosted the Carlsbad Aquafarmers Market, as well as farm tours and tasting experiences.

Carlsbad Aquafarm offers farm tours and tasting experiences. (Credit: Jackson Fleming)

Carlsbad Aquafarm now sells about half of the mussels and all of the oysters grown directly to the public. The remaining mussels are supplied to Whole Foods stores in Southern California, Las Vegas and Hawaii.

 “It’s been incredibly successful,” Steinke said. “The people in Carlsbad feel tied to the ocean. In Oceanside, you have a harbor and a pier. Carlsbad doesn’t have that. Having a farm where people can come in and get food out of our local ocean, out of our pure waters, it really helps to tie the people to the ocean and give Carlsbad that feel.”