Fish in a barrel

A high-tech fish farm outside of Shepherdstown has become a world innovator in the development of new techniques and technologies for the commercial production of fish.

The Conservation Fund’s Freshwater Institute is host to 12 full-time research scientists and engineers working to make fish farming economically viable and environmentally friendly. With support from the Atlantic Salmon Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, researchers have developed a system in which a wide variety of fish can be raised from hatch to harvest in large cylindrical tanks.

Says Stephen Summerfelt, director of aquaculture systems research at the Freshwater Institute in Shepherdstown: “It’s good for the environment. It’s good for the economy. It’s good for jobs.”

Stephen Summerfelt, the director of aquaculture systems research at the Freshwater Institute, said the new system could help clean up the environment, create jobs and reduce the U.S. trade deficit.

“It’s good for the environment. It’s good for the economy. It’s good for jobs,” Summerfelt said, adding the system is already beginning to create domestic investment and jobs. He says $50 million has already been invested in new commercial fish production facilities in North America, and he suspects that number might rise to as high as $100 million by the end of the year.

The Bell Aquiculture facility in Albany, Ind., constructed using Freshwater Institute technology, will produce 1,000 metric tons of yellow perch each year, Summerfelt said. The facility already employs 40 people and plans to expand to 160 by the end of the year. Summerfelt said similar facilities are opening in Virginia and Washington.

He hopes the system will also pave the way for reducing the $10 billion American trade deficit in seafood.

“The United States imports almost all of its seafood – 85 percent of it. We’re the world’s best terrestrial agriculture farmers with animals. Eighty-three billion pounds of animals we produce a year,” he said. “We produce less than a billion pounds of fish.”

Summerfelt says fish farming in the U.S. has not matched other countries because many of them do not have equivalent environmental protections.

“The reason is that we have very strict environmental standards in the U.S. because we don’t want to degrade and pollute our environment. So we import our fish from other countries that don’t have those standards,” he said. “The pollution is happening – in someone else’s backyard.”

The Freshwater Institute’s system solves the problems of environmental degradation by using water recycling systems. Waste byproducts are filtered out of the water, and can then be turned into valuable fertilizer or used to grow hydroponic fruits and vegetables.

“Instead of having pollution problems, we have revenue streams,” Summerfelt said.

The system requires very little water input and releases very little water back into the environment.

It is also unique because ocean-going fish like Atlantic salmon can be raised all the way to harvest weight inside tanks, rather than by using large cylindrical “net pens” placed into the ocean, as is the common practice in salmon farming.

A parliamentary committee from the Canadian government recently visited the institute, hoping it could provide it with an alternative to the use of net pens, which environmental groups in British Columbia claim are harming wild salmon populations by introducing parasites like sea lice and various fish diseases.

“We can raise salmon where we capture the waste; we prevent them from escaping; we prevent them from interacting with wildlife,” Summerfelt said. “It is a more environmentally friendly way to produce fish.”

The ideal conditions created in the tanks are capable of producing enormous fish. The center’s website showcases a monster 23-pound rainbow trout that was raised in 2010 – without the use of hormones, antibiotics or other artificial chemicals.

“They’re normal fish … there’s no genetic modification. We give them the ideal conditions – ideal feed, ideal oxygen levels, low solids, low ammonia, low carbon dioxide, ideal swimming speeds – and they grow very well,” Summerfelt said.

The system is capable of raising a large commercial crop of three-pound rainbows within a year or of 10-pound Atlantic salmon within two years.

Summerfelt said the system also seems to be very economically competitive at large scales.

“We did an economic model on a 3,000 ton (Atlantic salmon) farm – that’s 1 percent of (the total yearly Atlantic salmon imported). At 3,000 tons, with the technology we have developed, we think you can produce fish for the same price you do in Norway, which is the most cost-effective salmon farming country in the world. We think that if we do it right here, within a six-hour drive of metro areas … we can do it cost-effectively,” Summerfelt said.

“You wouldn’t have the (carbon dioxide) footprint to fly the salmon here from Norway, and it would be fresh. It would be at the processor the same day it is slaughtered and at the market within two days. And the Norwegian fish are generally seven days old by the time they are hitting the market,” he said.

Summerfelt said the one barrier to implementating this system is its upfront costs, which make it better suited to large farming operations rather than for small farming operations.

“It is better for agribusinesses than it is for small farmers, because a small farmer can’t kick in a million dollars,” Summerfelt said.

U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito visited the Freshwater Institute earlier this month because of her interest the economic development of fish farming.

“I think it’s really great that we’re doing the research out here,” Capito said. “I think West Virginia is really well suited for something like this because we have a lot of water.”

“And it’s green. I think we’re all looking for more ways to keep the water clean, especially over here with the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.”

Summerfelt hopes the technology will finally make aquaculture a larger part of American agriculture.

“It is better if we produce our own fish. It works better for our economy if we produce our own fish. We have the technology to produce our own fish, and now the agribusinesses are starting to do this.”

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