The proverb about giving a man a fish and he will eat for a day, or teaching a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime may be due for an update. In the new millennium it could be said,“Teach a man to fish and he’ll deplete his resources.Teach a man to farm fish and he’ll provide an environmentally sound, economically viable source of protein for a ravenous world market addicted to seafood.” Or something like that.
The verbiage could be tightened up, but the facts support this new bit of seafood consumption wisdom. A recent report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) says that aquaculture – the farming of fish and other aquatic species—already accounts for nearly half of the seafood consumed around the globe. Statistically speaking, that means of the 115 million tons of seafood consumed worldwide, every other bite of seafood eaten by humans does not come from an ocean, river, or lake but from a pond, tank, or cage. In addition, if current population trends continue, the FAO predicts the world will need an additional 40 million tons of seafood by the year 2030. Given that many experts agree the world’s oceans are already being fished near or exceeding levels of sustainability, significantly boosting aquaculture becomes an obvious part of the solution to feeding the future.
Such intense global demand has already made aquaculture one of the fastest growing forms of food production in the world.The modern aquaculture industry includes fish, mollusks, and plant life raised for any number of purposes, including human consumption, the aquarium trade, research purposes, and wild fish restocking programs.When it comes to seafood targeted for restaurant menus and grocery stores, the market is massive and globally integrated.Today’s popular menu and grocery items like salmon, catfish, and tilapia are nearly all farmed. Much of it is shipped around the world, and the U.S. is a big consumer.
According to statistics released by NOAA’s Aquaculture Program, Americans are responsible for eating nearly 7 million tons of seafood each year.The vast majority of this, up to 84%, is imported. In economic terms, that leaves the U.S. with a whopping seafood trade deficit of $9 billion. Where does all that money go? Much of it goes to Asia, where China dominates aquaculture production, along with Thailand,Vietnam, and others in the region, where they produce mass amounts of shrimp and tilapia. In fact, 80% of the farmed shrimp in the world come from this area.
In comparison, U.S. aquaculture is scant. Of the $70 billion worth of farm-raised seafood sold each year, only $1.2 billion is produced in the U.S. The vast majority is freshwater production, with catfish reigning supreme and holding about 40% of the market.The southern states of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas dominate catfish production, thanks to low costs and an established infrastructure of feed supply and processing plants. Elsewhere around the country, there is notable production of trout, salmon, tilapia, sturgeon, walleye, and yellow perch, but marine (saltwater) aquaculture accounts for less than 20%, or only about $200 million of U.S. production.This includes some fish, but is largely made up of clams, oysters, and other mollusks grown in coastal areas.
So, what does this mean to an average couple on a Friday night looking for a nice seafood dinner? It means unless they are content with catfish, tilapia, or salmon fillets – and many are not – whatever fish they eat is likely coming from the ocean. So, while aquaculture is supplying half of the seafood consumed globally, it is still not alleviating some of the greatest pressures on wild fish stocks, and the issue is species discrimination. Catfish and tilapia are tolerant of fresh water and crowded quarters – conditions easy to come by in aquaculture operations – and are relatively easy and profitable to farm. Most marine fish are not so agreeable, yet it is high-quality marine fish that bring the best prices per pound in restaurants and seafood markets, and this demand puts pressure on fisheries.
But interest in farming marine species is on the rise. In fact, so much interest has been building that at the time of this writing, NOAA just closed the public comment period on a newly refurbished set of aquaculture policies aimed at managing the impacts of aquaculture on marine and coastal environments. NOAA’s work includes not only structuring regulations for federal waters, but also funding research and partnering with other agencies.This activity is also being mirrored at the state level, especially in Florida, where all kinds of groups are on the move, from government agencies to private business associations to university research facilities. In fact, Florida’s aquaculture industry might stand to gain the most from increased farming of marine finfish and is an interesting test case for expanding aquaculture generally. Success could not only ease pressure on the state’s fishing grounds, but could likely be reproduced in other regions.
This would be good news for the state. Like many coastal areas, Florida has seen success in farming shellfish. Apalachicola is renowned for oysters, producing 90% of the state’s output and a full 10% for the nation. A bit further south, Cedar Key hosts a strong clam farming operation. Cedar Key Littlenecks clams, also known as “Cedar Key Sweets” get packed in ice and shipped all over the country as fresh seafood product. But when it comes to typical fish farming operations, such as producing catfish and tilapia, the state has largely missed out.
Florida has fewer than 60 of the more than 1,300 catfish farms in the country.The majority are located Mississippi,Alabama,Arkansas, and Louisiana. Cheap land and an established infrastructure of feed providers and processing facilities has kept production costs low in these other southern states, and Florida farmers are not able to compete. Likewise, Florida’s tilapia farmers are equally hard-pressed.Their battle is often against mass imports from Asian producers that flood supermarket and restaurants with low-cost products.
“They really put your backs against the wall,” says David Boozer, of the Florida Aquaculture Association, which seeks to promote and encourage aquaculture businesses.“Foreign producers can bring in tilapia at such a low price, it’s hard to compete with,” he says. He says Florida farmers also deal with rising commodity prices, such as base materials for feed. “Corn gets diverted to ethanol and the price goes up. I’m sure it has affected others, too, but it’s hit us pretty hard.”
These challenges have molded Florida’s present aquaculture industry, and mean that successful operations are functioning on unique business models or cater to high-profit, niche markets. One example is found in Escambia County, at the western tip of the panhandle. Here, tilapia farming is gaining a strong foothold, but the operation is unique, to say the least. It is part of the county’s Corrections Bureau, and has been developed in the Road Prison, a work camp where qualifying inmates can work to earn time off their sentences.The force behind the fish farm is Delton Boswell, a 20-year corrections veteran and sergeant in charge of maintenance and farming at the facility.
“We have a five-acre farm here and grow our own vegetables,” he says.“And the reason for farming tilapia is to help us become more self-sufficient and cut costs. Really, the whole idea is about saving money.”
Boswell says his goal is to make the farm completely self-sufficient, even profitable, and farming tilapia is becoming a big part of that. He got the idea three years ago from another facility in Menifee County, but he first had to sell it to his superiors. He started with a swimming pool and 120 fish provided by a local resident. Once he demonstrated he could keep fish alive — and growing — he was able to start construction on a larger concrete tank.Today, his crew grows out 13,000 fish at a time in a tank that measures 8 feet wide, 4 feet deep, and 90 feet long.
“They go from one gram to one pound in six months,” says Boswell. “We really chose tilapia because they grow so fast. And, until now, we’ve been buying brood stock, but we just successfully hatched our first batch of brood stock, so that will save us even more money.”
Of course, what also makes the operation work is free labor. Boswell has a crew of 10 inmates that maintain the tanks and feed the fish. And, all the fish that are raised are used as food at the farm, being cleaned and prepared by the kitchen staff. If he had to pay these workers, as in the private sector, the math would not work. However, here it does, and it offsets government expenses, saving taxpayer dollars. Boswell also has an eye toward increased production. He wants to build more tanks, grow from 13,000 fish every six months to 60,000 fish, and begin to sell what the farm does not need. His first customer might be Florida’s state prison system, which is not only interested in buying tilapia to feed inmates, but is eyeing the operation as a potential pilot program and expanding it to their own facilities.
While Boswell’s fish farm meets a unique need in a unique system, other models exist. One is being developed by Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota, and the key is having a higher-priced, high-profit product. Home to a wide range of research initiatives, Mote’s Aquaculture Research Park in eastern Sarasota County is raising and selling sturgeon. It is part of Mote’s Sturgeon Commercial Demonstration Program, which is not only developing the technology and techniques for farming and harvesting Siberian sturgeon as a high-end aquaculture product, it is also seeking to establish Florida as “one of the world centers of sturgeon and caviar production.” Today, it delivers meat and caviar to more than a dozen Florida restaurants and to an equal number of national purveyors in Florida, New York, California, and Washington.
“The program is directly focused on supplying sustainable seafood to consumer markets,” says Mote’s Haley Rutger, who also notes that the farming process itself is designed to produce minimal waste and maximum environmental benefit.“It raises freshwater Siberian sturgeon while recycling a large portion of the water, and using wastewater to grow wetland plants.”
It is this kind of synergistic, multi-faceted approach that Mote researchers want to see take hold on a widespread level, where aquaculture becomes increasingly viable on both economic and environmental fronts. A huge part of this has been the refinement of recirculating tank systems, allowing fish farmers to operate without producing mass quantities of wastewater that is then discharged into the environment.The wetland plants grown as part of the process are both a source of income and environmental renewal, used to help restore damaged wetlands. And, the recirculating tanks themselves give farmers the ability to locate their operations in nearly any locale, so they are not restricted to areas with high land prices or higher priced commodities. In fact, it is the ability to grow fish in tanks that may hold the most promise for increasing aquaculture of high-value saltwater species.
Typical marine farming operations for finfish involve the use of pens or cages along coastal areas, which presents a number of economic and environmental challenges.Whether it’s farming cobia in Belize or kampachi in Hawaii, operators must balance a number of issues, including: cost of coastal land or just the expense of operating in an offshore environment; concerns of concentrated amounts of waste and uneaten feed released into open water; the potential for spreading disease to wild fish; and the chance for genetically altered fish to be released and impact local populations.
While these issues can be managed, the ability to farm saltwater species in recirculating tanks can drastically mitigate them.Tanks can be set up anywhere, and do not need to be located on expensive coastal properties. Fish are not in danger of escaping into the environment. All waste is contained and can often be recycled for another purpose. Over the last decade, Mote and other research facilities have been working on saltwater systems to raise marine species. One of the prime candidates for farming is the pompano, a popular game fish adored for its succulent meat and attractive to researchers because it has a high tolerance for crowded conditions and low-salinity water.
Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI), part of Florida Atlantic University in Ft. Pierce, has also been at the forefront of pompano research, working for the last 10 years on a USDA Agricultural Research Service- sponsored program studying marine fish in low salinity water. Lower salt content makes the recirculating systems easier and less costly to manage for inland farms, and studies have shown that pompano can handle salinity rates of 5 to 8 ppm instead of the 30 to 35 ppm found in the ocean.
“The technology is pretty well there,” says Dr. Paul Wills, an associate research professor at HBOI, who notes that significant progress has been made on a number of fronts, such as getting control of the fish’s life cycle to manage breeding and developing sustainable feed. “We’ve discovered the pompano can handle a diet with 34% soy-based meal and 25% corn gluten meal, which really reduces the amount of fishmeal required for producing feed.This is important because that is part of sustainability.We don’t want to have to take one kind of fish out of the ocean to support the farming of another.” The next step, he says, is making the system profitable. “What we’ve really been working on for the last few years is how to make the system more efficient and reduce the energy needed to run it. We’ve also started to look at ways to use the nutrient rich water to produce secondary crops and provide for diversification of the crops.”
The push for profitability is more urgent than ever.The USDA-ARS program funding HBOI’s research program has fallen victim to budget cuts and is in the process of closing down. Dr. Wills says the research will continue for a time, running on a small surplus, but that hope for continuation will really require developing some public-private partnerships.
“We don’t want to lose what the public funds have supported, but we want to get this technology to the industry,” he says.“We’re at the threshold of the industry really getting moving. Losing the funding is going to hinder the development.That is the fiscal reality of where the United States is right now. But, if the private sector can step up, we can move forward.”
Indeed, even as the researchers at Mote, HBOI, and other facilities are developing these “zero-waste” aquaculture systems and adapting them to marine species, at least one company is getting a foothold in this unique field. Just this year,Virginia Cobia Farms, in Saltville,Virginia, began regular shipments of cobia raised in their recirculating tanks to their customer base of high-end restaurants and a few retail outlets in the Washington, D.C. area. Their current production capacity is 300,000 lbs. And plans for the next five years could see that reach 5 million pounds.
Tracy Mitchell, director of business development for the farm, says the company picked cobia because it was so fast growing. Additionally, the company’s owners have discovered a way to increase the fish’s tolerance for low-salinity water by maintaining a particular ratio of ions in the tanks, since that is what the fish are sensitive to rather than the salt itself. “There’s nothing special in our water,” says Mitchell.“We just constitute our water in a way that keeps this ion ratio where it needs to be.”
In addition to this proprietary technology, their business model seems to be pulling all the right factors together, allowing them to compete with cobia being imported from cage farms in Vietnam and Belize. In both cases, those fish are larger and the meat from Vietnam is frozen.Virginia Cobia Farms customers — primarily chefs at high-end restaurants — appreciate the smaller size (4-5 lbs.), better texture, and fresh quality of their local product. Moreover, they are willing to pay for it.
“There are a lot of differences between our fish and their fish,” says Mitchell, zeroing in on another significant factor that helps Virginia Farms’ cobia compete.“One is our sustainability rating.We’re the only ones that have a Best Choice rating.We’re producing them in a sustainable way.”
And that, really, is the key. Farming high-value marine species in a sustainable way holds great promise for the future of aquaculture. Not just for Virginia Cobia Farms, but for chefs and seafood markets and diners and fishermen of all types.The fact that consumers are willing to pay a premium for fish such as cobia and pompano is a potential boon for the seafood business. It also raises the possibility of easing pressure on wild fish stocks.The more marine fish that are farmed, the more market demand can be met and the more fish that sportsman love to catch can be left in the sea. Aquaculture has been feeding humans for thousands of years, and today, meets half the global demand for seafood. In the near future, it promises to feed much more.