Aquaculture in NC: North Carolina Aquaculture Development Conference

This past Friday on the banks of the Neuse in New Bern, NC, people interested in aquaculture in the region gathered to discuss the future. The group packed the ballroom in the Hilton with scientists, extension agents, interested citizens, and of course – producers. The afternoon before some attendees had the chance to visit farms in the area firsthand, one of which I’ve previously written about (White Rock Fish Farm). Friday held talks on the science, economics, and policies of aquaculture. Saturday morning wrapped up with freshwater and saltwater workshops tackling the details of growing fish. Parallel to the whole event was a trade show exhibiting the myriad food options available, water quality testing technology, cages and nets, greenhouses, and contacts for state programs. Friday night, there was proper celebration of aquaculture in the form of the Aquafood festival showcasing products from around the state. Take home message from the event? I left wanting to put a tank in my small Beaufort yard alongside the goats, chickens, and vegetable garden.

The conference lent me appreciation of the men and women who produce an increasingly large portion of the national and global seafood supply. The speakers and attendees shared a language that blended ecology, economics, and food policy. Conversations in the hallways shifted quickly from stress hormones in fish to desired changes in the upcoming Farm Bill reauthorization. Aquaculturists sit on the divide between agriculture and fisheries as well as between new science and practiced expertise – and like many interdisciplinary topics, participants are expected to be experts in all of the above.

Aquaculture in North Carolina is very much still in its infancy when compared to capture fisheries or salmon programs and the message of the conference was very much one of research and development. All kinds of people are trying new things and this was the place to share successes and failures – mostly successes. As the keynote speaker, Travis Larkin, said in his lunchtime talk – the global marketplace, poised to bring more out of this country than in – creates a demand for both reliable supplies of fish for the growing global middle class and fresh, local, and sustainable seafood for the domestic market. There’s options for people to jump in the production line at all scales.

A few consistent themes emerged out of both the talks and the trade show indicating hurdles to development of aquaculture both in North Carolina and for the country:

Consumer demand for fish-meal free feed. Most of the fish we like having for dinner are carnivores by nature and therefore require animal proteins derived largely from wild-caught fish while growing – especially in the juvenile stages. Although some studies show that hybrid striped bass and catfish can eat soy-derived food for most of their lives, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are still critical in the early stages, usually in the form of brine shrimp and copepods supplemented with the necessary nutrients. This is one of the biggest ethical dilemmas in the aquaculture world right now, so for the moment we can sum up the trade show representatives’ take on this by the need to think about which species we cultivate. Some do much better than others at eating down the food chain.

Disease. The keynote speaker mentioned this as one of the biggest challenges facing the growing aquaculture industry and I head many comments later expressing appreciation that someone had finally included disease in that list. Each species grown has its own set of worries that is also dependent on climate and connectivity to other populations, but most every kind of aquacultured species has its threat. And as researchers at NC State have recently become well aware of, vaccinating thousands of fingerling trout through injections is  not a feasible way to protect a crop, but there’s often no better answer.

Risk Mitigation. This came as no surprise as many of the growers were still repairing their farms after Hurricane Irene last August. One researcher put a satellite photo of Irene in his presentation – with his research station in Aurora, NC, visible through the eye of the hurricane while the rest of the state was covered with Irene’s clouds. The region stayed underwater for months after. Row-crop farmers in the area could cash in on crop insurance, but seafood is not an insurable crop. Though weather is the most recent example, the relatively recent droughts of 2007 and 2008, diseases migrating down from the Chesapeake Bay, and snap cold freezes have all led to similar disastrous results. A few cooperatives are banding together to support one another in times of hardship through market-share and the main discussion at the North Carolina Aquaculture Association business meeting at the end of the day reviewed federal assistance programs of all sorts.

Perhaps the most exciting to see at the conference, however, was not the talks themselves. A group of three contractors out of Miami traveled to the conference hoping to “take a class in 3 days” as they considered moving out of the suffering contracting business and into aquaculture development in South Florida’s estuaries. Students from Carteret and Brunswick community colleges were also there absorbing ideas and networking. A man at my lunch table was hoping to learn a few tricks of the trade before starting a small tilapia operation, joining Durham’s booming local food movement. There were lots of familiar faces from the industry and academia, but it’s these faces you don’t often find at conferences like this. The hope that aquaculture can move out of its infancy into a prominent feature of North Carolina’s landscape and economy.

For the rest of this week, I will write about a few of the issues I learned about at the conference in more detail. For now, I will leave you with the same  mouth-watering experience I left the conference with: the tastes and smells of the Aquafood festival. Conference organizers bribed us away from the setup with a keg of beer and some networking opportunities, but around the designated time, the crowd started to slowly move toward the ballroom, where we were met immediately with the smell of roasted oysters and clams. Should you not be distracted by those, there were four other tables boasting options from around the state. “Gone fishing” held flounder and pasta, “Catfish Four Ways” included 2 types of fried, 2 broiled, and delicious hushpuppies, the cajun station had crawfish gumbo, beans and rice, and spiced broiled tilapia, and the “Fresh Catch” table offered chili prawns and smoked trout. The applause offered to the chefs and the empty serving trays said it all.