By: George B. Brooks, Jr. Ph.D.
Can aquaponics help restore the US aquaculture industry? Well yes, and it already is. Allow me to elaborate.
For years now we have watched the slow decline of the aquaculture industry in the United States. A great discourse on this challenge was recently penned by John Hargreaves, an Editor for the World Aquaculture Society. Putting it simply, with the US producing only 10 % of the seafood it eats, the American industry is a shadow of what it used to be. To quote Hargreaves:
“The stagnation of US aquaculture is obvious at many levels. The largest aquaculture sector in the country, catfish farming, peaked in 2002 and has not yet come close to recovering 15 years later… Trout production has barely budged in decades. Salmon farming in net pens in Maine and Washington, never fully developed, peaked around 2000. Shellfish production, one of the brighter lights of US aquaculture, grows modestly but faces ongoing challenges… University research programs in aquaculture have been scaled back and, in some cases, done away with altogether.”
So there you have it. Why? Well it’s pretty straightforward:
1. Challenging environmental conditions. Only certain places within the U.S. are well suited for year-round production preferred by the traditional aquaculture models.
2. Hand in hand with the environmental conditions comes regulatory oversight that in some states is considered overbearing and restrictive. Along with this comes this little thing in real estate called “Highest and Best Use.” The technical definition, taken from Google, is: “The Appraisal Institute defines highest and best use as follows: The reasonably probable and legal use of vacant land or an improved property that is physically possible, appropriately supported, financially feasible, and that results in the highest value.” In other words, what is the use that will make the most money? Too often the answer is not fish or shellfish farming. Finally (for now), come the challenges of complying with US food safety rules and regulations. These are absolutely necessary in my book but can run up the costs.
3. As we discovered all too well when seeking to develop a fledgling aquaculture industry in my home state of Arizona long ago, many nations can better leverage their social, economic and environmental resources than can the United States and thus provide a consistently available quality product at a lower price. In a market where first price and then quality rule, these realities often put local US produced fish and shellfish at a disadvantage.
The situation is not all doom and gloom, but this is a realistic overview. So do we simply pack up our farms and go home as I heard someone actually suggest? Well no. Let me give you a different vision. Imagine if there was an opportunity for a “do over”? Well we have one and it is already working today. All we need to do is pay attention and this brings us back to my opening statement. Yes, aquaponics can indeed help to restore the US aquaculture industry and it already is.
Back around the year 2000 my goal was to find some way to once again grow a competitive fish. My examination of aquaponics revealed it not to be “ready for prime time” in my opinion. Fast forward 10 years and I saw it as actually having the potential, but could it be done? Yes it can and better yet, yes it is and here is the evidence:
From NPR on Monday, June 26, 2017 the headline read: “Wisconsin Fish Farming Sees Growth After Decade Of Stagnation.” University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point biology professor Dr. Chris Hartleb has tracked the state’s aquaculture industry for some time. He told Wisconsin Public Radio that over the past three years many new farms have opened, and they are often run or owned by a younger generation and based on aquaponics.
A gracious individual, in a follow-up conversation Dr. Hartleb provided some additional details. Over a 10-year period Wisconsin’s aquaculture industry declined from approximately 2,500 farms to about 2,300. But recently he has seen a jump to 2,800 farms with the majority of the new ventures (300) using aquaponics. Most of these are on the hobby/back yard “farmer’s market” scale but 50 or so are on a commercial scale and many are owned by a new generation of farmers in the 40 year old age range as compared to the boomer-owned traditional farms. One business is projected to produce up to 160,000 pounds of Atlantic salmon and rainbow trout as well as 2 million pounds of lettuce annually.
When asked if he sees this trend continuing, where aquaponic ventures help restore the state’s aquaculture industry, his response was that it will depend on the current farms’ success. If they are successful that will encourage more to follow.
So we have empirical evidence that it is possible for aquaponic production to help restore the aquaculture industry for at least one state in the union. If the US produces only around 10 % of the seafood it consumes that is around 500 million pounds of product. So just to raise that production number to 15 % would require an additional 250 or so million pounds. That’s a lot of seafood. Thus the question now is how to understand and emulate Wisconsin’s success story so as to make a dent in this needed number of fish. This conundrum will be discussed in part II of this article.
*Dr. George Brooks, Jr. holds a Ph.D. in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences from the University of Arizona in Tucson and served as that institution’s first Aquaculture Extension Specialist. He is currently Principle at the NxT Horizon Consulting group and also teaches Aquaponics at Mesa Community College. Dr. Brooks is co-chairing the upcoming Aquaponics Association conference in Austin Texas. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org