Fishing for Answers

Why aquaculture has stalled in the Chesapeake Bay

Broodstock of Mediterranean seabream
Broodstock of Mediterranean seabream (Sparus aurata), which is not native to the Chesapeake, could be an excellent aquaculture species. It's growing well at IMET. Photograph, Nicole Lehming

More than a decade ago, Mark Luckenbach of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science said that aquaculture wasn't the future for fisheries worldwide — it was the present.

Since Luckenbach uttered those words in an interview with the Baltimore Sun, Virginia has become the U.S. East Coast's largest supplier of farm-raised oysters, producing a crop worth $18 million a year; its farm-raised clams are worth more than double that. In the decade since it legalized aquaculture statewide, Maryland's farmed oyster industry has topped $5 million. The farm-raised oyster harvest is expected to eclipse the wild fishery in Maryland in a few years. In Virginia it already has.

But for most other species in the Chesapeake Bay and coastal bays, the present for aquaculture has been a long time coming.

Other states, including Mississippi, Texas, Kentucky, Maine, North Carolina, Washington, California, and Florida, have robust industries for finfish, kelp, and shrimp. Not Maryland, though, where researchers were brought in three decades ago to build up those industries.

Why hasn't aquaculture taken off in Maryland? Why didn't the state capitalize on the striped bass research and technical expertise it developed in the 1980s during the moratorium on striped bass fishing? Why, when states from Alaska to Massachusetts are experimenting with scallops and seaweed aquaculture, is Maryland slow to follow in their footsteps?

Asked about the lack of aquaculture growth in Maryland, some researchers are at a loss to identify one culprit.

"I can't tell you why it happened, but it did happen," said Yonathan Zohar, who came to build a program 26 years ago, and is now the chair of the marine biotechnology department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. "With fish, there is this idea that wild is better. Which is strange, because you don't hunt and gather for chickens, or bovines, so why should there be this idea that a wild fish is better?"

The Seafood Deficit

One thing is certain: Wild is not sustainable. Nearly 90 percent of the world's seafood stocks are overfished. Some, like bluefin tuna, are in such dire straits that they are considered endangered. Meanwhile, demand for fish has surged, and world agriculture now produces more fish than beef.

Image of IMET scientist John Stubblefield standing over an aquaculture tank
IMET scientist John Stubblefield checks on 1-year-old bronzini at the Aquaculture Research Center in Baltimore. IMET scientists were able to close the life cycle of this fish in captivity; spawning it, producing eggs and larvae, growing the fish to juveniles, to harvest, and then again to broodstock. In doing so, they have begun to solve a vexing problem of how to grow fish in captivity. It could have implications for the aquaculture industry. Photograph, David Harp

In the United States, demand outstrips the domestic supply, in large part because fish is considered part of a heart-healthy diet. The country's seafood trade deficit totaled more than $14 billion in 2016, the largest amount among agriculture products. (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA] and the Food and Drug Administration largely regulate aquaculture, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates meat and poultry products.)

The question of why Maryland hasn't done more to build an aquaculture industry is complicated, but several researchers and business professionals pointed to a few key reasons: A lack of investment by the federal government; sometimes opaque permitting requirements; expensive land prices; environmental considerations; and the challenge of taking technology developed in a laboratory and scaling it up for commercial use.

"People ask, 'Why aren't we doing more?'" said David O'Brien, deputy director of NOAA's aquaculture office. "And partly, it's because we have a very challenging permitting process. It's not for the faint of heart. It can take years, and even after several years, there's no guarantee the permit will be issued."

O'Brien said the Trump administration supports aquaculture and is "very much in a listening mode" as to how permitting processes can be made easier and NOAA requirements integrated with those of states and other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Federal funding for pilot programs, including oysters, increased from $6.3 million in 2016 to $9.3 million in 2017.

It's a staggeringly small amount compared to other countries where stricter environmental guidelines have led to more investment and innovations in controlling the waste often associated with aquaculture. In the European Union alone, the Maritime and Fisheries Fund will invest 6.4 billion euros ($7.9 billion) in seafood marketing, data collection, and aquaculture over the next few years. The bulk of the investment — 4.3 billion euros ($5.3 billion) — will go to making aquaculture more sustainable and profitable.

Image of Marvesta shrimp
Shrimp grows at Marvesta's new home in North Carolina after the company left Maryland. The species, Litopenaeus vannamei, is commonly called both whiteleg shrimp and Pacific white shrimp. Though native to the Pacific Ocean, the shrimp in Maryland were raised in closed recirculating systems on land, posing no risk of an introduction in Maryland waters. Raising Atlantic salmon in open Pacific waters, on the other hand, has been problematic. Photograph, courtesy of Marvesta

In this country, a number of states, particularly in the South, have multimillion-dollar fish industries, and generally less stringent state environmental regulations. Maryland, in contrast, lost its last hybrid striped bass aquaculture operation a decade ago. (See "Striped Bass," page 11). A promising shrimp farm in Hurlock also closed, relocating to North Carolina.

Over the years, entrepreneurs have floated proposals to raise fish indoors in Baltimore warehouses, using technologies developed at the Aquaculture Research Center at the Columbus Center in the city's Inner Harbor. The aquaculture center is part of the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET), a partnership including the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore. At IMET, scientists work on techniques to sequence fish, crab, and oyster genes; synchronize the molting of crabs; sterilize fish for aquaculture growth; raise bluefin tuna juveniles; develop environmentally-responsible fish feeds; and reduce pollution from feed waste buildup in aquaculture tanks by converting it to biofuel.

Land for Fish

Maryland and Virginia are tough states for fish aquaculture, said Reggie Harrell of the Northeast Regional Aquaculture Center at the University of Maryland. Land for creating farms that would house closed re-circulating systems is far pricier here than it is in, say, Kentucky or Tennessee.

Raising fish in net pens in the Chesapeake Bay is problematic, too, because watermen still ply those waters, and the pens also pose navigational hazards for ships passing up and down the Bay en route to ports around the world.

At NOAA's Chesapeake Bay office in Annapolis, oysters are still the main interest, and the type of aquaculture considered most viable, said Bruce Vogt, manager for ecosystem science and synthesis.

"Scale has something to do with it. You might need a lot of area to do a fish farm," said Vogt, who helped his parents set up their own commercial oyster farm in Virginia. "We run into a lot of user conflicts here as it is. Trying to get places where you are not in someone's way is difficult."

One way to overcome some problems related to fish farming is to raise species that don't compete with those that watermen are already catching.

At the Columbus Center, Zohar and his colleagues are working on European sea bass (Dicentrarchus labrax, also known as bronzini) and the Mediterranean seabream (Sparus aurata) — neither of which occur in the Chesapeake Bay or Maryland's coastal waters. To protect the environment, Zohar said, such non-native marine fish can only be cultured in fully contained, land-based, re-circulating aquaculture operations, which Zohar and his team have developed. He has, at times, sold the fish to high-end local restaurants, where the chefs have praised it. At a recent meal at McCormick and Schmick's in the Inner Harbor, Zohar was told by the chef how much customers loved the flaky white meat of his bronzini.

By working at the Aquaculture Research Center, Zohar has also circumvented a second problem: having to contend with neighbors who might not want a fish farm next door. That's an issue in Maryland, particularly when raising oysters. Several shoreline property owners have mounted legal challenges to oyster farming proposals, tying up lease agreements for years. Harrell said the same sorts of challenges could emerge if entrepreneurs applied for permits for finfish aquaculture operations.

For Marvesta, the shrimp farm that lasted about a decade in Hurlock on the Eastern Shore, the challenge was not the permitting process or town residents, who supported the endeavor. Nor was quality; the shrimp (Penaeus vannamei) were served in 20 restaurants, and chefs often noted that customers raved about the farm-raised sustainable shrimp. The company stopped growing its shrimp in Maryland because it couldn't produce enough to cover its costs, said Marvesta CEO Guy Furman. The overhead is the same for shrimp, whether raising 50,000 or 100,000 pounds, Furman said. And because of production issues, the company couldn't boost production to the levels it needed to sustain profits. In Maryland, it also had to rely on other companies' broodstocks because it didn't have a hatchery.

Image of a hand holding seaweed
Patrick Kangas of the University of Maryland, College Park, is interested in growing seaweed in the Chesapeake. Photograph, Rona Kobell

The farm has relocated to Charlotte, NC, which has cheaper land and labor costs. Furman is planning to scale it up again as a full hatchery instead of rearing the shrimp from the baby stage, as he did in Maryland, which will give him control over the whole production cycle and reduce costs. Furman has also turned his attention beyond shrimp. He now runs a Chicago business importing and selling mussels.

"There's no margin for error in this [aquaculture] industry, unfortunately." said Furman. "It's just that tight."

As a businessperson, Furman said, he's not sure turning to the government for investment is the answer. But clearly, he said, it's difficult to succeed without investors who are willing to part with large sums of money.

"There's been a ton of aquaculture failures," he said. "Getting it from research into commercialization, that's the hard part, and there's just no money for that."

Money for Scale

In 2000, then-Maryland U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski visited Zohar at the Aquaculture Research Center and asked him if he thought it would be possible to help the blue crab population. The wild crab fishery in the Chesapeake Bay fluctuates year to year, but at the turn of the last century, crabs were again in dire straits. Mikulski wondered if Zohar would be interested in starting a program to supplement the wild catch.

From 2002 until about 2008, Mikulski helped bring $15 million to the Blue Crab Advanced Research Consortium, which also included researchers at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, North Carolina State University, and the University of Southern Mississippi. The state of Maryland and Maryland businessman Steve Phillips helped, too. Watermen in Maryland and Virginia helped with the field research.

The work taught scientists much about the blue crab's life cycle, how fast it grew, where it traveled, how it got there, and its mating habits. Zohar and his colleagues were the first to comprehensively understand the life cycle of the blue crabs in captivity and produce juveniles for both aquaculture and stock enhancement research. It also helped the IMET team investigate ways to synchronize the molting cycles of crabs, which would allow soft-shell crabs to be raised in aquaculture settings. Watermen raise soft crabs in "peeler pens," outdoor facilities, often under shade, where wild crabs shed their shells. Watermen constantly tend to the tanks to ensure they do not become hard again, and thus worthless. Zohar believes that, with the ability to hatchery-produce baby crabs and to eventually synchronize the molts, soft-shell crabs can become an aquaculture product, thus taking pressure off the wild fishery.

Seaweed is a new frontier as well, taking root in Maine and California. At the University of Maryland, College Park, environmental engineer Patrick Kangas is hoping to grow seaweed in the Chesapeake in tandem with oysters in cages and floats to see if the oysters stimulate plant growth. Earlier efforts, he said, were hampered by rains that changed salinities.

For shrimp, crabs, finfish, and now seaweed, the future has still not arrived in Maryland. But Zohar and Harrell, who came here to be part of an aquaculture revolution, hope the race is still on.

"The potential of what we can do is enormous," Zohar said. "Somehow, things need to change here."

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