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New Frontiers in Aquaculture Explored at Harbor Branch
The world has an enormous appetite for seafood; we’re chowing down about twice the poundage of fish, shrimp, mollusks and crustaceans that we consumed in 1960.
Problem is, 85 percent of the fruits harvested from the seas are either over-exploited or fully exploited, foreshadowing a worldwide shortage just a few decades from now unless aquaculture fills in the gap between supply and demand.
Aquaculture, also known as mariculture or fish farming, is a booming $130 billion industry led by Asia, responsible for about 91 percent of worldwide production. The U.S. accounts for only about $1.4 billion annually while importing 90 percent of the seafood–both farmed and wild-caught– that Americans consume.
As the U.S. celebrates National Seafood Month in October, at least one Florida aquaculture scientist is asking why we import so much of what we eat and why we don’t invest more in growing seafood ourselves.
“Look how much shoreline we have! We should be a powerhouse of aquaculture,” said Dr. Paul Wills, research professor at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University in Fort Pierce. “An investment by taxpayers would put U.S. aquaculture where it needs to be.”
Wills and a small team of scientists and engineers work daily beside the Indian River Lagoon in a cluster of Quonset huts crowded with tanks, pumps and piping to develop techniques for growing everything from cobia to shrimp to sea asparagus while running economic models of how to produce those products on a commercial scale. The staff at Harbor Branch has been at this ever since the 1970s and they’re credited with innovations that include large-scale commercial rearing of pompano; re-training displaced Florida commercial net fishermen to farm clams; and culturing shrimp in inland tanks.
For commercial aquaculture to be profitable, it must produce as much fish as possible while conserving water and electricity and maintaining water quality. Most U.S. aquaculture operations use re-circulation systems that filter out pollutants while avoiding discharges into the local aquifer and water bodies. Just about everybody is looking for the cleanest and most economical way to feed fish– minimizing the use of fish oil and fish meal in favor of more sustainable plant-based foods.
Wills and his team have pioneered a next-generation system called “integrated multi-trophic aquaculture” (IMTA) that aims to use every product and by-product produced along the food chain from algae up to mature fish.
“It converts waste into resources, then uses these resources to grow alternative crops,” Wills explained.
The system is modeled like a hub and spokes– producing fish, shrimp, urchins, oysters and seaweed that are all grown apart but connected by a system of filters and piping that circulates water and waste products. Each species feeds on something the others left behind; even fish feces is turned into bacterial protein to be fed back to fish or other animals.
“We’ve got animals and plants at each level in the food chain,” Wills said. “We’re constructing an ecosystem where each one of these trophic levels is a potential product for a farm.”
It could be decades before the IMTA system makes it into the commercial sector, but Wills says it’s one step at a time.
“We’re exploring the bleeding edge of technology. It’s a really exciting project,” he said. “We hope that it brings large-scale sustainable aquaculture to the U.S.”
Meantime, consumers should pay careful attention to the seafood they’re buying in order to maintain the health and sustainability of the world’s oceans, says Dr. Megan Davis, interim executive director at Harbor Branch. To help seafood lovers make good choices, the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation has produced a seafood sustainability guide. Similar to the Monterrey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guide, it’s based on federal guidelines and research conducted by the Foundation.
“Don’t just buy whatever,” Davis advised. “Study where your seafood comes from. If we don’t take care of our oceans, how are we going to survive the next 40 years?”
Need advice on what seafood is sustainable and what isn’t? Click HERE for the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation Seafood Guide!