The disastrous feedback of what happens when fisheries funding dries up

Last week I had the good fortune of attending the NC Oyster Summit, hosted  by the NC Coastal Federation in the Museum of Natural Sciences. We talked about the wonders that oyster restoration and aquaculture development can do for water quality, economic development, and taste buds. We enjoyed the demonstration of ‘merriore’, or the taste of the sea that lends a particular flavor to each oyster that captures the ecosystem it grew in. Yet, the fact that stuck with me most is that despite all of these wonderful celebrations of the oyster for the health and well-being of NC’s coastal communities, funding cuts of around 40% to the Department of Marine Fisheries mean that a large portion of the Albemarle Sound remains closed to harvest or aquaculture because there are no staff to check those oysters for public health risks.

The “Administrative Closure” of the most northern stretches of the state’s prized Albemarle-Pamlico estuary system is a worrying precedent in many ways that highlight how leadership withdrawal of support for science can trickle down to real economic, environmental, and cultural harm.

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Aquaculture in NC: Millpoint Aquaculture

Jimmy Morris is the only hatchery in North Carolina, serving aquaculture operations all along the East Coast and the state’s oyster restoration program. The process would he easy, he says, except that crops of larvae die periodically – for a variety of unknown reasons. Figuring out how to cater to the sensitivities of these shelly babies is a skill few-and-far between in the world of aquaculture and that makes his operation one of the most important businesses in both the region and the industry.

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Aquaculture in NC: Carolina Mariculture Co.

Jay onto his boat, photo by author

Though oyster mariculture isn’t new to places like the Chesapeake Bay, Jay Styron’s Carolina Mariculture Company, based in Cedar Island, NC, is a shining vision of the future in North Carolina. Much of the state’s efforts in aquaculture are directed at tilapia, catfish, and hybrid striped bass, which are grown in ponds on traditional farm land. These are often grown as a means of diversifying an existing farm economy. Mariculture, though, blends this type of aquaculture with commercial fishing to grow seafood in estuaries and inshore regions, creating a saltier crop. In many ways mariculture should be embraced by both farming and fishing communities but is often instead viewed as the strange uncle of the food production family. Enter pioneer Jay Styron, who grows oysters not only for food but also demonstration purposes – and he proudly creates delicious oysters.

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Aquaculture in NC: Providing for the rich or the masses?

What do you think of when you picture  a fish dinner? A fancy anniversary meal atop a seaside bluff at sunset? Or a staple food, eaten daily as part of the subsistence diet of coastal community members? Seafood is a strange commodity because depending on how you answered that question, you’re right. Seafood occupies multiple rungs of the economic ladder. But the most common consumer is the middle-class, which is shrinking in the US but growing worldwide. So what does a changing seafood consumer base mean for which types of seafood we should increase through aquaculture? Here’s a few thoughts from the keynote speaker at the NC Aquaculture Development Conference, Travis Larkin from Seafood Exchange. Read More

Aquaculture in NC: Urban Aquaculture

Not everyone who wants to start an aquaculture farm has the privilege of picking up their family, leaving their job, and moving to a rural area. Note I didn’t say small town – many of the same rules apply to small towns as large cities. I mean at least a few miles from Main St. Not to mention, there’s lots of vacant lots right now in the sluggish real estate market that could be put to good use. That’s exactly what Rob Ellis decided when he opened Astor Farms in Charlotte, his hometown. He grows tilapia in an abandoned DHL warehouse near the Charlotte airport. And he shared his story at the NC Aquaculture Development Conference last week in New Bern, NC.

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Aquaculture in NC: The Global Connection

“We just sold a much bigger one to Denmark, but couldn’t be this style”, said the trade show representative as if he had traveled to the town next door. Aquaculture has its roots in northern Europe in many ways, mainly through connections to the beginnings of domesticating Atlantic salmon. So many American companies are making good money selling their technology and feed to customers around the world that have already made the step into large-scale aquacultural production.

A few countries in particular made their influence known several times: Denmark, Chile, and Canada. Though these have prominent roles in the global capture fisheries as well, their particular geology gave them a head start on salmon that is expanding over into other types of aquaculture.

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Aquaculture in NC: Designed Ecosystems

Lest you think aquaculture is like your childhood fish tank on a larger scale, let me remind you of the plecostomus in that tank. You know, the thing that sat stuck to the back of the tank behind the plant so that the family could never quite find it. Yet somehow, despite the fact that you could swear it never moved and could have been a stone decoration rather than an organism, this little helper kept every surface of that tank sparkly clean. Algae-free glass, gravel, and plants. But what if you have large, outdoor ponds and each mouth to feed costs you money if it doesn’t eventually end up as dinner?

This is exactly when you have to stop thinking of these operations as just a tank of fish. They are nestled in the surrounding ecosystem, full of naturally occuring algae – some good and some bad. For eastern North Carolina, both the wind and the tide might carry in some future algae blooms to your tanks, which are well-stocked with nutrient-rich fish poop to feed it. Instead, as NC Aquaculture Conference speaker DE Brune puts it, you have to think of your tanks and ponds as “designed ecosystems”.

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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.

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Aquaculture in North Carolina: White Rock Fish Farm

“It’s a mom and pop operation, you could say”, described Ted Davis, owner of White Rock Fish Farm in Vanceboro NC. His smile extended ear to ear as he talked about his farm – and the length he goes to ensure his fish are never stressed on their way to the market. The trick? The farm’s small size – 8 ponds – allow the fish to be harvested by hand, each one receiving individual attention on their way to a shipping container. Another thing that makes his farm special? The hybrid striped bass have personality. They’re scared of tractors, eat more when there’s algae in their pond, and elicit hugs from visiting children.

Mr. Davis takes a whole day, with a helper, in harvesting his hybrid striped bass before they begin their frozen journey to Canada. Other growers, including his neighbors down the road, will spend just hours handling even more fish. Hybrid striped bass, however, bleed when they’re stressed. This turns their flesh and fins red, muddling the prized stripes for the marketplace. Plus, stressed fish release stress hormones and other chemicals that consumers can taste. So the White Rock way is to remove as much stress from the fish’s life as possible. Read More

Aquaculture in North Carolina: NC State’s Marine Aquaculture Research Center

This year we’re starting a new series highlighting the many faces of aquaculture in eastern North Carolina. From research facilities to new species under domestication to large facilities to feed the masses, there’s a lot going on in the state’s low-lying coast. Periodically, we’ll visit one and bring you pictures and stories from the operation. Stay tuned for more.

The entrance to the MARC facility. Scenic. Photo by Andrew David Thaler

The entrance to the MARC facility. Scenic. Photo by Andrew David Thaler

Tucked on the banks of Sleepy Creek between the two small towns of Marshallberg and Smyrna, NC, a world of new aquaculture ideas grows – NC State’s Marine Aquaculture Research Center.  A single building with large tanks behind emerged from the landscape as we drove down the dirt farm road that connects the property to the main road. Originally planned as a three-building complex, recent budget cuts  felt throughout the state have made the operation smaller – but no less important. The facility houses projects for anyone with an idea for how to forward aquaculture in the 21st century – be they local researchers, students, or people already in the industry. The two major projects happening during our visit are a comparison of hybrid and striped bass feeding efficiencies at a variety of temperatures and continuing development of a waste-management strategy for tank effluent water. There was also a red porgy mating effort and mud minnow spawning setup.

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