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Modern Fish Farms Purpose to Feed the Planet, Save Jobs and Clear Up an Business’s Soiled Fame


Carter Newell owns and operates probably the most productive mussel farms within the state of Maine. One frigid spring morning I joined him and his two-person crew on a brief boat experience to the barge he calls Mumbles, a 60-by-24-foot vessel anchored that day in a quiet cove within the brackish Damariscotta River. Named for the Welsh seaside city the place Newell as soon as did analysis, Mumbles was tethered to a steel-framed raft hung with a whole bunch of 45-foot ropes, every thick with 1000’s of mussels in numerous phases of growth.

I shivered within the piercing wind as a crew member stepped from Mumbles onto the shifting raft to establish mussel ropes prepared for harvest. Newell remained on the barge to helm a 16-foot crane that hauled up the designated ropes, every heavy with a Christmas tree–formed aggregation of roughly 3,000 mussels. An outsized brush then swept the bivalves off the ropes and into an infinite chrome steel bucket. One other machine funneled them right into a heavy polyethylene bag the dimensions of a child elephant, from which they had been poured onto a conveyor-belt equipment to be scrubbed, sorted and bagged. Newell designed this ungainly Willy Wonka–esque equipment over a long time in a expensive technique of trial and error that confronted—and in the end overcame—a number of challenges, together with defending the mussels from turbulent seas and voracious eider geese.

As he oversaw the morning harvest, Newell, who has a Ph.D. in marine biology, talked some science—the dynamics of phytoplankton, why nitrate chemical concentrations improve within the winter, how chlorophyll ranges for the complete coast of Maine could be mapped with simply three satellite tv for pc photos. Principally, although, he talked about mussels: their life cycle, their geographic distribution, how you can put together them (don’t spare the garlic) and—critically—how finest to farm them with out going broke. “Fish farming is not any strategy to make a fast buck,” he instructed me.

The reality is that quickly fish farming would be the solely means for Maine’s struggling seafood staff to make any bucks in any respect. Due to overfishing, parasites and rising ocean temperatures, amongst different threats, practically all of Maine’s business fisheries are in free fall. Maine cod is crashing, as are native shrimp. The wild mussel catch declined from 25 million kilos to a mere 9 million over the previous twenty years. And lobsters, by far the state’s most worthwhile catch, are scuttling north to cooler Canadian waters. None of this bodes properly for the state’s as soon as strong seafaring economic system: the typical age of a Maine business fisher hovers above 50, suggesting that many younger folks have misplaced religion within the work.

Ropes dangling into the water from a raft.

Newell cuts a mussel open to check for health.

The ropes are hoisted onboard.
Mussel harvesting at Pemaquid Mussel Farms in Bar Harbor, Maine, is overseen by farm proprietor and marine biologist Carter Newell. The shellfish are grown on lengthy ropes dangling into the water from a raft (high). The ropes are hoisted onboard (backside), and Newell cuts a mussel open to verify for well being (center). Credit score: Peter Essick

As one wild fishery after one other falters, the way forward for Maine—and, some say, the way forward for seafood—might lie in aquaculture, the cultivation of aquatic crops and animals. Traditionally, intensive fish farms have been linked to plenty of dangerous issues: declines in biodiversity, habitat loss, the overuse of antibiotics, and animal welfare abuses, particularly in Asia and Latin America. And lately fish die-offs and different issues have plagued North American websites. However Newell represents a brand new breed of scientist with progressive approaches to rising fish which can be each economically and environmentally sustainable. His kludgy mussel-growing equipment generates 3 times as a lot seafood as conventional mussel farms. And since free-floating mussel larvae seed the ropes naturally and eat no matter phytoplankton drifts their means, Newell’s farms require no human-generated feed or vitality, a boon for the atmosphere in addition to for his backside line.

A much more controversial experiment in Maine includes cultivating finfish resembling salmon and yellowtail both in immense web pens within the ocean or, extra not too long ago, in land-based operations the place 1000’s of metric tons of fish circle gigantic tanks like felons pacing round a jail yard. Fish in these recirculating aquaculture methods (RAS) devour a gradual weight loss plan of scientifically designed feed and, if want be, infection-fighting medication. The present they swim towards is artificially generated, as is the LED gentle that bathes them as much as 24 hours a day to hasten their progress. It’s a surreal state of affairs, however proponents declare RAS are properly positioned to bolster Maine’s economic system whereas serving the nation’s rising demand. “The U.S. runs an infinite seafood deficit,” says microbiologist Deborah Bouchard, director of Maine’s Aquaculture Analysis Community, noting the nation depends closely on fish imported from different nations. “Maine is constructing on the chance to fill the hole.”

Oceanographer David Townsend, director of the Faculty of Marine Sciences on the College of Maine, says the state has two necessary attributes for fish cultivation: chilly, nutrient-rich water and very vigorous tides that distribute these vitamins all through the water column. “Our coastal waters are very productive,” he says.

However the farming of enormous, carnivorous fish makes some scientists uneasy. Recirculating tanks require large quantities of vitality to maneuver and filter tens of millions of gallons of water each day, and that water nonetheless holds waste that may pollute close by rivers and estuaries. Additionally, there’s a matter of the fish and their welfare. “Farming finfish on an industrial scale is like farming livestock on land on an industrial scale,” says economist Rosamond L. Naylor, who directs the Middle on Meals Safety and the Surroundings at Stanford College. “There are methods to reduce dangers, however they’re expensive, and never everyone seems to be taking the steps they need to be taking.”

The query of whether or not industrial aquaculture will enrich Maine’s economic system with out damaging its fragile ecosystems haunts scientists, politicians and residents. The Gulf of Maine is the least alkaline physique of water on the Atlantic coast between Mexico and Canada, and its delicate chemistry is especially susceptible to disruptions each pure and human prompted. No matter their outcomes, Maine’s experiments will set an necessary precedent for seafood manufacturing across the globe.

Area charts show global seafood supply and daily seafood consumption, with both measures increasing from 1965 to 2017.


Credit score: Accurat (Alessandro Zotta and Alessandra Facchin); Supply: FAO Yearbook of Fishery and Aquaculture Statistics 2019. FAO, 2021, accessed March 2022 (knowledge). These charts don’t embody knowledge for marine mammals, crocodiles, corals, pearls, mother-of-pearl, sponges and aquatic crops.

Charts show amounts of top three species in each group for aquaculture and wild-caught seafood used in 2017.


Credit score: Accurat (Alessandro Zotta and Alessandra Facchin); Sources: FishStatJ, Meals and Agriculture Group of the United Nations (https://www.fao.org/fishery/en/statistics/software program/fishstatj), accessed March 2022; FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Manufacturing Statistics. These charts don’t embody knowledge for marine mammals, crocodiles, corals, pearls, mother-of-pearl, sponges and aquatic crops.

Scientists agree that the meals provide should improve considerably to feed the world’s rising inhabitants and that cultivated fish, shellfish and algae will play a serious function in that growth. Aquaculture is already the world’s fastest-growing sector of meals manufacturing, churning out greater than half of all fisheries merchandise, and seafood is probably the most traded commodity on the planet. However though Individuals eat plenty of seafood, comparatively little is homegrown: an estimated 65 to 85 % of fish purchased for consumption within the U.S. is imported, most of it from China. The U.S. doesn’t export a lot farmed fish, both, as a result of it grows so little of it. In line with the latest knowledge, from 2019, the U.S. produced 490,000 tons of farmed fish, barely a rounding error in contrast with the roughly 49 million tons produced by China.

Maine’s Atlantic salmon may assist the U.S. compete. Typically known as the “king of fish,” salmon are smooth, shiny and exquisite. They’re additionally an especially widespread menu merchandise, rating second solely to shrimp as America’s favourite seafood. The cold-water fish had been as soon as plentiful in Maine, however dams, overfishing, parasites and air pollution all led to the closing of the state’s wild Atlantic salmon fishery in 1948, and as we speak it’s unlawful to catch or promote them. Right this moment greater than 95 % of Atlantic salmon bought within the U.S. is foreign-grown, most in web pens anchored slightly below the floor in coastal waters.

Open fish pens have been utilized in Norway because the Sixties and are nonetheless in use in Canada and Chile, however environmental considerations have led to bans in most U.S. coastal states. A ban in Washington, which works into impact in 2025, will go away Maine as the one state that also sanctions their use. Regardless of rigorous laws, yearly net-pen operations are cited for environmental and labor-related malfeasance, infestation by sea lice and different parasites, and infectious illness. Scientists say an equally vexing problem is posed by renegade fish that escape the pens and mate with wild salmon to supply offspring which can be genetically ill-equipped to outlive. This final menace is particularly regarding in Maine, residence of the nation’s final remaining wild Atlantic salmon inhabitants.

Feed is one other main downside. Salmon farmers generally inadvertently overfeed their inventory, and the uneaten feed promotes the expansion of algal blooms that deoxygenate the water as they decompose. This may result in “useless zones,” vast swaths of ocean that may now not maintain life. One other typically cited concern is that till fairly not too long ago, a excessive proportion of fish feed consisted of small wild-caught “forage fish” resembling anchovies, herring and sardines, all wealthy within the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids needed for the expansion of bigger fish. From 1950 to 2010 roughly 27 % of all wild-caught fish was utilized in fish meal. Many observers noticed this as a horrible waste: they argued that feeding edible fish to edible fish is unsustainable and in the end makes little financial or ecological sense.

Meals scientists have sought alternate options, nevertheless it has not been simple. Carnivorous fish have issue digesting carbohydrates, so researchers tried numerous combos of plant fat and proteins, together with these present in soybeans. “It’s like Unimaginable Burger for fish,” Townsend says. Sadly, like people, not all salmon can tolerate soy, which in massive portions can harm their intestine and immune system.

Experimental fish feeds purpose to resolve this downside and handle yet one more concern: that waste from fish pens will pollute pure waterways. New “low-polluting” feeds include far much less nitrogen and phosphorus and supply vitamins in a kind that’s simply digested and absorbed to reduce the quantity of those components excreted by fish. Rising feeds embody algae oil, yeast protein and black soldier fly larvae, generally often known as maggots. Scientists are additionally designing proteins with amino acid compositions much like these in feed manufactured from fish however created from sawdust and different forest residue plentiful within the sylvan state of Maine. Whether or not algae, maggots or reconstituted sawdust will in the end change fish within the aquaculture meals chain is unclear, however scientists agree that these experimental feeds present substantial promise. Nonetheless, rising fish in pens within the open sea poses dangers that some consider outweigh the profit.

Oysters.

Two white huts.

Bill Mook standing in a lab surrounded by tanks.
Invoice Mook, founding father of Mook Sea Farm in Walpole, Maine (backside), grows algae in particular tanks as oyster meals. The small-scale operation is housed in two huts (center), and oysters are generally moved to land (high) from a close-by river to allow them to be shielded from the water’s rising acid ranges. Credit score: Peter Essick

Big RAS tanks are supposed to decrease a number of of the environmental threats posed by web pens. The strategy dates again to the Nineteen Fifties, however not too long ago scientists and engineers have supercharged the know-how right into a mind-bogglingly environment friendly protein-generation machine able to rising extra fish in much less time and area than is feasible in nature. In distinction to offshore web pens, land-based RAS are designed to keep up tight management over water high quality, temperature, circulation and different environmental variables. Micro organism convert ammonia excreted by the fish into usually innocent nitrate; gas-exchange methods add oxygen and take away dissolved carbon dioxide; and wastewater is microfiltered and zapped with ultraviolet gentle to take away phosphorus, lingering micro organism and viruses. Among the latest methods function machine-vision sensors and synthetic intelligence to optimize feeding by monitoring fish biomass and habits in actual time.

A number of multinational RAS firms are presently vying for a stake in Maine. Notable amongst these is Nordic Aquafarms, a Norwegian agency that has proposed a serious tank facility within the small coastal metropolis of Belfast. Nordic’s $500-million plan to generate practically 73 million kilos a yr of Atlantic salmon would make it the second-largest RAS salmon farm on the earth. The most important is an operation run by Atlantic Sapphire, one other Norwegian-owned agency primarily based within the unlikely location of Homestead, Fla. That facility has suffered a collection of crises, together with an enormous “mortality occasion”—elevated fuel ranges that worn out 500 tons of salmon. Within the first half of 2021, the corporate reported losses of greater than $50 million and confronted accusations of felony animal cruelty.

Nordic Aquafarms founder and president Erik Heim insists that his firm will keep away from these issues, however researchers are cautious. Jon Lewis labored for 23 years as a scientist and diver, and he not too long ago retired as director of the Division of Aquaculture in Maine’s Division of Marine Assets. “Land-based methods have actual benefits in that they don’t depend on Mom Nature for water remedy,” he says. However even when the filtration methods take away many of the discharged waste, he provides, some nonetheless flows to the bay. “Given the dimensions of those methods, that’s important.”

On the Belfast facility, salmon eggs might be incubated in specifically designed hatching cupboards, and the rising child fish, often known as fry, will spend the primary few weeks of their lives consuming their yolk sacs earlier than coming into a quarantine tank. The younger fish will then transfer to a collection of tanks that simulate the pure life cycle of salmon—swimming from recent water to more and more salty water over a interval of 18 to twenty months, once they attain market measurement. The system circulates 5,200 gallons of water a minute: 4,700 gallons of salt water sucked from the Gulf of Maine and 800 gallons of recent water pumped from groundwater wells and aquifers. Filtered waste might be transformed into animal feed or fertilizer—in idea sufficient to fertilize about seven and a half kilos of greens per pound of fish produced.

Sadly, pumping and filtering all that water requires plenty of energy, as does heating the water in winter and cooling it in summer season—all of which might contribute to the local weather disaster. “We actually don’t have knowledge on the vitality use in these methods in comparison with different approaches, nevertheless it’s clearly very excessive,” Lewis says. A assessment sponsored by Maine’s Division of Environmental Safety concluded that the plant will launch as a lot as 759,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents into the ambiance yearly, roughly equal to the annual CO2 contributions of 47,000 Individuals.

There are additionally basic objections to elevating free-ranging creatures resembling salmon in crowded captivity. The animals we lump collectively and name “fish” signify a staggeringly numerous array of species, a few of which have extremely complicated social constructions and navigation skills, says Becca Franks of New York College, a psychologist who researches animal habits and welfare. Atlantic salmon are a working example: they migrate 2,000 nautical miles to and from their spawning grounds guided solely by Earth’s magnetic fields and an acute sense of scent. “Farming salmon is the ethical equal to farming hawks,” Franks says. “We’d like to consider the stress and struggling of those animals … about how they dwell their pure lives.”

Not all sea animals are the aquatic equal of a hawk, nonetheless, and a few take properly to domestication. Sandra Shumway, a marine scientist on the College of Connecticut, is an internationally acknowledged skilled on the cultivation of sea life. “I do assume it’s crucial that we develop extra micronutrients and protein for human consumption,” she says. “However let’s take into consideration bivalves.”

Bivalves require little area, and a few—resembling mussels and oysters—barely display an inclination to maneuver. “They’re extra like potatoes or avocados than salmon,” Franks says. Even higher, in contrast to potatoes and avocados, bivalves could be grown with out human-supplied fertilizer, water or meals. Farmed oysters usually begin as larvae, which shortly mature into tiny “seed” oysters that connect to a tough floor resembling shell or limestone and are then transferred into estuarine our bodies of brackish water to feed on no matter vitamins naturally float their means. These “filter feeders” siphon water via their gills to extract phytoplankton, of which Maine harbors not less than 300 species. Waterways inhabited by bivalves are sometimes so clear that daylight penetrates far under the floor, additional selling the expansion of phytoplankton. Some scientists and farmers are hoping to construct on this “virtuous cycle” by intentionally planting kelp and different seaweed in shut proximity to bivalves. Underneath this association, the animal waste would supply vitamins for the crops, and the crops would take away CO2 and generate oxygen for the animals.

Maine’s shoreline, crenellated with deep estuaries and bays fed by rivers mixing with chilly ocean water that pumps vitamins up from under, might look like a bivalve paradise. However frigid water is a double-edged sword. Oceans retailer as much as 30 % of the world’s output of CO2, and chilly water, by which the fuel is most soluble, absorbs way over its share, making it extra acidic. The rising acidity of Maine’s rivers and estuaries threatens to erode the shells of soft-bodied invertebrates resembling bivalves left to their very own units.

Invoice Mook has had painful expertise with this downside. Founding proprietor of Mook Sea Farm and Hatchery on Maine’s Damariscotta River, one of many two largest oyster producers within the state, he grows each mature and seed oysters. A number of years in the past he seen that his oyster larvae weren’t growing usually, an issue he traced to elevated acidity of the river water flowing via his hatchery. The water additionally softened the shells of mature oysters, particularly throughout onerous rains, when the river ran highest. Mook discovered a strategy to buffer seawater to guard the oysters rising within the indoor hatchery, a outstanding innovation that—although extremely labor-intensive—might properly catch on with different Maine bivalve farmers if acid ranges proceed to rise.

Housed in a pair of Quonset huts, Mook’s oyster-growing facility seems to be extra like a laboratory than a farm. Within the spring of 2021 Meredith White, director of analysis and growth on the firm, ushered me into the hatchery, a moist, cavernous area that reeked of the ocean. White first met Mook whereas she was a analysis scientist at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, Maine, and her information of bivalves is exhaustive. Mook’s oysters, she says, are bred for sure traits—measurement, form, illness resistance—in shellfish labs in Virginia and New Jersey and shipped to Mook’s as brood inventory. “Some are male, some are feminine, however you possibly can’t inform which with out opening them, and that might kill them,” she says.

Employees want to attend for the oysters to declare their very own intercourse: each females and males clap their shells earlier than a spawning session, throughout which females launch a cloud of as many as 20 million eggs and males emit a stream of sperm. Technicians rigorously mix the eggs and sperm in small white bowls to start a technique of in vitro fertilization. The ensuing embryos are transferred to tanks holding 3,000 to six,000 liters of water, which is steadily warmed to optimize progress. “We verify them beneath a microscope every single day,” White says. “We will see the cells divide, and in 24 hours, they’ve a shell.”

In about two weeks the oysters kind a pigmented eyespot (apparently, mature oysters have eyes throughout their our bodies), an indication that they’re approaching the pediveliger stage, when they may sprout the bivalve equal of a foot. White pulled out trays of floor oyster shell on which tiny oysters “set” this foot, glomming on to the onerous floor with a sort of pure glue, a lot as they might within the wild. “We promote 140 million seed oysters a yr,” she says. These oysters, bought to oyster farmers across the state, will finally develop into mature oysters that go for about $15 a dozen in native markets or $25 a dozen at eating places.

In Maine the oyster-growing season lasts solely 5 months, from April to October. However Mook’s success derives partly from his skill to increase this era by rising them indoors within the colder months, starting in January. Like cats and canines and chickens, indoor oysters must be fed. Mook has developed proprietary progress and processing methods for algae, and the main points are an organization secret. He notes the minute organisms are heterotrophic, that means they will extract vitality from sugar, and they don’t require gentle, which helps to scale back his electrical energy prices. This money-saving innovation was a recreation changer.

“Invoice’s system is ingenious and completely scalable,” Lewis says. It’s the first time meals has been created particularly for bivalves with this know-how, he says, and “it may revolutionize the business.” It additionally calls for a really exacting manufacturing course of. “We feed the algae glucose and develop it in a clear room beneath unfavorable stress to keep away from contamination,” Mook tells me as I watched a technician scrub and go well with up like a surgeon in paper cap and booties earlier than coming into the pristine area. “We harvest the cells each seven days, spin them down in a particular centrifuge to protect their construction, squeeze out the water and freeze the paste in one-kilogram blocks.” Mook opened a freezer and pulled out a Ziploc plastic bag of icy inexperienced slime. “It took us 10 years to develop this,” he stated, then hustled us off to the “rising room” full of lab beakers, every containing a special number of algae in shades of inexperienced, yellow and orange.

Mook says oysters are extra finicky than mussels, one other creature he has tinkered with. “Rising oysters versus mussels is like rising orchids versus tulips,” he tells me. “Mussels convey much less cash per pound, however when you’ve acquired the infrastructure in place, they’re quite a bit cheaper to develop as a result of, in contrast to oysters, the seed is wild and free.” Townsend agrees. “Mussels develop at very excessive density, they include plenty of protein, and they’re an excellent supply of omega-3 fatty acids and different vitamins,” he says. “If we may get the entire world to eat extra mussels, we’d be in a lot better form.”

Newell has spent a long time attempting to make that dream a actuality. Many years in the past, when he acquired his begin, mussel rafts weren’t a factor in Maine. Somewhat farmed mussels had been grown on a single lengthy line threaded via buoys bobbing on the floor of open water. In lots of locations, this technique is affordable, environment friendly and efficient. However not in Maine. The state is swimming with sea geese, together with six-pound eiders that eat their weight in mussels every single day. The duck downside foiled Maine’s would-be mussel farmers for many years, till Newell and a handful of different lovers realized a couple of Spanish technique of dropping traces into the ocean from an anchored raft, which they figured might be duck-proofed with nets. They constructed 35 rafts and anchored them in numerous waterways all through the state. And “we put in nets across the raft—60 ft deep,” Newell says.

That solved the duck downside, however they quickly confronted one other. The rafts had been constructed for calmer waters, however on Maine’s stormy coast, winds raging at 60 or 70 knots dislodged mussels and destroyed the rafts.

With the assistance of presidency grants, Newell designed and patented a submersible raft that minimized perturbations when lowered 10 to 12 ft beneath the waves, even in gale winds. The raft tethered to the barge at Newell’s Pemaquid Mussel Farms is one in every of these outstanding contraptions, and it makes rising mussels in Maine way more viable. Utilizing rafts that floated on the floor, Newell says, he harvested about 150 kilos of mussels per rope every season. “With submersibles, it’s persistently 300 to 400 kilos. That’s about 100,000 kilos of mussels a yr on each raft.” It’s additionally a much more worthwhile proposition that makes rising mussels a sexy possibility for former fishers.

Naylor, the stanford economist, thinks these shellfish may play an necessary function in a nutritious diet. “Bivalves are an extremely wealthy supply of protein,” she says, including that we don’t want an enormous quantity of it on our plates; Individuals are inclined to overconsume protein and underconsume important micronutrients. Bivalves include important portions of micronutrients, together with minerals resembling zinc, iron and magnesium, along with omega-3 fatty acids. Quick-food eateries have but so as to add mussels to their menus, however maybe they need to: a four-ounce serving incorporates practically as a lot protein as a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, with extra iron and much fewer energy and saturated fats, and at a decrease value. And though the considered mussels as quick meals would possibly sound a bit far-fetched, given the recognition of those bivalves in France, Belgium, Turkey, Thailand, China and different nations, is it not doable that they might take off within the U.S., a lot as sushi did within the Sixties?

For many years the U.S. fishing business has struggled to reap sufficient wild fish to fulfill the rising demand—we would like low-cost fish, and we would like it now. The stunning decline of Maine’s business wild fisheries reveals that this strategy now not serves us. Farmed finfish is usually cheaper than wild, and lots of restaurateurs think about farmed bivalves tastier than plenty of wild varieties. Farmed variations of all fish are typically extra extensively accessible, whatever the season.

It’s too quickly to say whether or not aquaculture can bolster Maine’s fragile seafaring sector or contribute considerably to its economic system with out disrupting the state’s iconic shoreline; massive finfish amenities, resembling RAS, create further considerations about vitality use and animal well-being. However to many scientists, economists and coverage makers, one factor is changing into clear: farming fish sustainably in live performance with different animals and crops will probably be one of the best strategy to feeding the world’s inhabitants within the years and a long time forward.

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