Farming Future Depends on Salmon
The future of U.S. aquaculture production will greatly depend on the work being done at the National Cold Water Marine Aquaculture Center (NCWMAC), a gleaming new research facility that was officially dedicated yesterday in Franklin, Maine. For years, the United States has lagged behind other nations in developing and refining finfish culture technology due to a lack of resources and an uncertain regulatory framework. According to the speakers at yesterday's optimistic ceremony, those days are over.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, thanks to the persistence of Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), invested $22.7 million in congressional appropriations in the state-of-the-art, 44,000-square-foot lab. It took nearly 10 years from concept to completion, said Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association and one of yesterday's speakers - but the work is only just beginning.
"[The United States has] never had the kind of research and development infrastructure that our competitors have had," said Belle. "This facility shows that the tide has changed and we are on our way to a place that we only dreamed about years ago. It's now in front of us and is a reality."
Dr. Edward Knipling, administrator of the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, said the center, which actually opened last June, has already significantly improved growth rates of its salmon germplasm lines. This type of research will enable U.S. producers to become more efficient and more profitable. Initially, the lab's focus will be entirely on increasing the efficiency and sustainability of Atlantic salmon culture. Cod and char research will be conducted in the future.
For the United States to become a competitor in the global aquaculture arena, the focus should indeed be on salmon: In the grand scheme of things, it's the lynchpin seafood species. Demand for farmed and wild salmon is strong and consistent -it's the third most popular seafood among U.S. consumers at slightly more than 2 pounds per capita in 2006, behind only shrimp and canned tuna. A consistently priced salmon fillet with a "Made in the USA" tag should have no trouble finding a market.
But it's also the most controversial species. Salmon farms have long been under heavy scrutiny for the environmental impacts of their operations and for the spread of infectious salmon anemia and sea lice. If the United States is to invest in salmon farming on a scale necessary to compete with Norway, Chile and Canada - and avoid the pitfalls of pollution and disease - then the NCWMAC will have to assume a leadership role for the industry.
With the dedication of the Maine research facility and the promise of growth offered by the National Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2007, the United States is serious about chipping away at its enormous seafood trade deficit, estimated at $8 billion annually. Who knows - perhaps one day, Maine will be as well known for its salmon as it is for its lobster.