Investing in U.S. finfish farming


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
September 14, 2011

The joke goes like this: What’s it take to make a small fortune in aquaculture? A large fortune.

For anyone considering operating or investing in aquaculture in U.S. waters, it’s funny and also not so funny, because it’s true. It’s not that you can’t be successful farming marine fish species in the United States, where the federal government badly wants to expand aquaculture. While deep pockets and stout entrepreneurialism are prerequisites, the problem is and has always been the dearth of explicit rules to govern industry growth and steward the precious coastal and offshore ecosystems that may one day become an aquatic heartland. An economically advantageous regulatory framework for fish farming that eliminates uncertainty and also pleases environmental groups? That could take years to push through Congress — bet you’ve heard that one before.  

So on June 9, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its long-awaited Marine Aquaculture Policy, shoulders shrugged from Downeast Maine to the Hawaiian Islands. “Aquaculture is a critical component to meeting increasing global demand for seafood,” said NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco the day after the agency hosted an industry forum in Washington, D.C., titled “Demystifying Seafood.

It’s not that Lubchenco wasn’t making perfect sense — domestic marine aquaculture could, if done properly, create thousands of jobs, narrow the gap between source and store and allow for more stringent food-safety inspections; whether it could dent the nation’s annual $9 billion seafood trade deficit is up for debate. 

Marine-based producers of farmed finfish in the United States, all of which can be described as small-scale and fending for themselves, simply don’t see a clearer path to growth or stability, policy or no policy.

George Nardi, co-founder and chief technical officer of Great Bay Aquaculture in Portsmouth, N.H., believes it’s a “positive thing” that NOAA is officially supporting aquaculture after years of looking the other way. Great Bay raises cod (and other species like halibut, sea bass and flounder) from eggs to fingerlings in a New Hampshire hatchery and operates a grow-out facility a mile off the shore of Sorrento, Maine. In Frenchman Bay, within eyesight of Acadia National Park, sit 10 circular net pens that can hold approximately 40,000 cod each. All of the 2-pound cod Great Bay produces are sold to the live market in major East Coast cities. 

Nardi, who was a guest speaker at the “Demystifying” event on World Oceans Day in June, has tried to develop aquaculture sites in lots of places, including nearby Canada. He has found Maine to be the most welcoming; despite its rigorous standards, the state has a clear process for site permitting. But infrastructural issues — for instance, the dock he uses in Sorrento is removed for the winter, while the farm keeps running — need to be addressed for more companies to take on the risks of farming fish. Research funding for selective breeding, a process that has shaped nearly every food product that Americans eat, is also essential but it remains a stumbling block due to the concerns of environmentalists, who Nardi says have the ear of Lubchenco and other government officials. Fish farmers like him simply need more federal support to advance.

Click here to read the rest of the feature on U.S. finfish farming, the cover story of the September issue of SeaFood Business magazine.

Click here for photos from SeaFood Business’ visit to the Great Bay Aquaculture cod grow-out facility near Sorrento, Maine. Don’t forget to “like” SeafoodSource on Facebook.

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