An experimental fish farm complex is cleared to be constructed 10 to 12 kilometers off the coast of Ashdod, now that the necessary planning, maritime and environmental permits have been approved, the Agriculture Ministry said Thursday. Though the initial pilot phase of the project will produce roughly 300 tons yearly of sea bream (denis), and perhaps some sea bass (labrak) later on, production could expand to 3,000 tons within two years, provided the complex is found to be profitable and environmentally sound, ministry fish industry specialist Chaim Anjioni said. The complex will consist of about six cages pivoting around a central anchor, free to float along with the current instead of fighting the tide. Its most significant innovation, however, is the inclusion of a mechanism allowing the cages to automatically drop to a peaceful depth of 40 meters beneath the surface of the sea, once sensors indicate that a storm is on the way. In such a way, the complex could provide a solution to the Israeli coast's shallow sea floor and complete exposure to storms, which have prevented past efforts to develop offshore fish farming from succeeding. "Everyone is looking for technologies to allow offshore fish breeding, because of competition with tourism in the areas closer to the coast and [for reasons of] environmental quality," said Anjioni. "If this technology succeeds, it will break in to other places in the world, such as the US and Norway," he predicted. Floating just under the surface of the sea during good weather, each cage will be between 20 meters and 40 meters in diameter, and about 3 meters from top to bottom. The fish farm as a whole will occupy about 1,000 dunams of sea surface within a marine industry park covering 10,000 dunams, Anjioni said. Israeli fish producer Crystal Fish is providing the entire $1.2 million investment necessary to fund the project. Construction of the offshore fish farm will be completed by the end of the year or beginning of 2006, the ministry said. An earlier pilot project about 3.5 km off the coast of Michmoret was used to raise small amounts of sea bream. Currently, 19,000 to 20,000 tons of fish are produced in ponds around the country, while only 3,000 tons are produced in cages off the Israeli coast - mostly in Eilat but with a smaller facility near Ashdod, said Yoav Horin, chairman of the Fish Breeders Association of Israel. Horin said he was "skeptical" about the project's chance for economic success, based on the higher costs of raising fish with even existing higher-end technologies. "We are not expecting it to provide a solution for breeding the more common fish," which cannot be economically raised in treated and mechanically oxygenated tanks, he said, let alone in high-tech offshore complexes. "The technology [involved] is not simple, and it is very hard to make a commercially viable farm." Prices paid for musht (also called amnon or St. Peter's fish), carp and mullet (buri) only allow farmers to grow them in regular tanks, that are naturally oxygenated. Oxygenated tanks allowing for more crowding paradoxically require more expensive fish, such as corvina (musar), tilapia (admonit), trout, sea bream and sea bass, he said. Anjioni was more optimistic. "Raising [the fish] at sea has several advantages over growing them [in ponds] on land," he said. "The sea gives water and energy free of charge, since the waves provide the oxygen [instead of machinery requiring power]. What will determine [the success of the project] is biology." If the fish are disease-free and disturbance caused by waves and storms is successfully prevented, then "the sky's the limit," Anjioni said.