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The Future of Fish Farming: A Q&A with Author Paula Daniels

The Future of Fish Farming: A Q&A with Author Paula Daniels

March 10, 2014 |

Paula Daniels Photo credit: Leroy Hamilton

Paula Daniels
Photo credit: Leroy Hamilton

Despite being among the top three seafood consuming countries in the world, the United States produces less than one percent of the world’s farmed fish. After becoming aware of this incredible discrepancy, Paula Daniels, former Senior Food Policy Advisor to the mayor of Los Angeles and founder of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, began asking important questions about the future of aquaculture in the United States.

Specifically, Daniels began exploring why the United States is falling behind so substantially in the production of farmed fish, and how aquaculture can be practiced sustainably so it can become an integral part of our regional food networks.

Her exploration of these questions led her on a journey of discovery that earned her the Durfee Foundation’s Stanton Fellowship and culminated in her publication of a recently released 36-page report on the current state of fish farming in the U.S. entitled “Know Your Fish Farm.”

Seedstock spoke with Daniels briefly to learn more about her research and what it means for the future of fish farming in the U.S.

SEEDSTOCK: What compelled you to write “Know Your Fish Farm”?

DANIELS: In the course of applying to the Stanton Fellowship, I began thinking about aquaculture. It just so happens that my brother is a leading scientist in aquaculture; he’s the head of the Department of Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University and was the editor of the Journal of the World Aquaculture Society at one time. While I was in the process of applying for the Stanton Fellowship with the intention of working on a food hub, I happened to be at a family reunion in Hawaii (where I’m from). My brother and I were up early one morning before everybody else, and we had a chance to catch up over coffee. He was talking to me about his field and some of the challenges that aquaculture was facing. He mentioned that aquaculture production in the U.S. was being outpaced by other countries. I thought that was interesting, and that it was a shame we were letting this happen in the United States, because it seemed like a very important source of food production.

Heading home on the plane, I thought, “I wonder if this could be part of my inquiry relative to the food hub.” So I included it in the application process. Beforehand I did some research to figure out whether this would even be a meaningful area of inquiry, and I talked to Fred Conte—a scientist at UC Davis—about it. I got a lot of encouragement, so I went ahead and put it in the application. The folks on the selection committee were fascinated by that element of it and they said, “We’d like to see an even greater focus on that in your fellowship” and I agreed to do so.

So I was awarded the fellowship. Quite frankly, what I found completely compelling was that we were falling so far behind in world production of farmed fish. This wasn’t known at the time that I applied, but since then we’ve learned that there is more farmed fish being produced in the world than wild caught seafood and beef. Sixty percent of it is coming from China and less than one percent is in the U.S. I feel like we need to address this.

SEEDSTOCK: What do you hope to accomplish through the report?

DANIELS: What I was hoping to do was to make the case to policymakers in particular, and to others interested in the sustainable food movement, that there’s a place for not only aquaculture, but for urban-based aquaculture in the regional food system. One of the things I knew, but was confirmed to me even more in the course of my inquiry, is that many folks have a misperception of aquaculture and paint it as “bad” with broad strokes.

We’ve gotten to a good place where we go into restaurants and have line item descriptions of where the potatoes and the carrots are from, but there’s not much information about where the fish is from. I wanted to show that there’s at least one interested consumer. So I would ask in a restaurant, “Where’s the fish from?” And the waiters would always say very proudly, “Oh, it’s all live caught. None of its farmed.” I would get into conversations with waiters, with chefs, with environmentalists, and with friends when we’d go to a restaurant. They’d watch me order, and they’d say, “I don’t ever eat farmed fish.” So there’s quite a bit of misperception about aquaculture, and I wanted to help address that. Now, as with any agriculture, there are good farming practices and there are bad farming practices. You can’t paint it with broad strokes. That was why I decided that I would approach it by writing a paper about getting to know your fish farmer. The more we know, the better choices we can make.

SEEDSTOCK: In your opinion, what is better, wild-caught or farm-raised fish?

DANIELS: It depends. There’s no bright line. It depends on how the fish was caught, and it depends on how the fish was raised. By and large, most folks think of aquaculture broadly as bad, because of one very well-publicized practice of net pens with salmon in the open ocean. That is the type of production that lends itself to complications. Not to say that there haven’t been efforts to improve it, from what I understand. But either way, when you’re farming in the open ocean you’re going to have a certain range of problems that you’re not going to have if you’re farming on land. Also, when you have high stocking densities in any livestock-rearing situation, you’re going to have a different set of problems that you are going to have to address. So that’s the publicized practice, but on land there’s a number of farming systems that have really strong controls on them put in place by our very important environmental regulations. Our land-based farming practices in the United States are so much better than anywhere else in the world. There are ways to grow catfish in closed-loop ponds that are environmentally sustainable. There are ways to grow all kinds of fish in recirculating tanks that are environmentally sustainable.

SEEDSTOCK: In the introduction of the report, you pose the question “What would it take to have a fish farm be part of a food hub?” After examining this question in detail, what have you found to be the answer?

DANIELS: Well, I think there are a lot of models that need to be explored, but I did find a couple of models that are emerging. These are all new things, and I think that, hopefully, they can link up with all the effort going on with produce food hubs. There’s a different set of rules obviously with fish, because there are different restrictions. If you are going to be processing and handling the fish, there’s different types of regulatory and public health issues that you have to deal with. But the basic concept of having very intentional sourcing from sustainable fish farms and distributing the product to folks who not only need it but are interested in it can be done in the same way it can be done for a food hub.

One system that I thought worked well for fish only, but could work well for produce also, was a software-based system used by a company called Red’s Best in Boston. They use a software tracking system to work with about 150 or more dayboat fishermen who go out in the Boston area and come back with whatever they happen to catch. The fish are line-caught, which is obviously a very sustainable way to fish. Red’s Best aggregates the fishermen’s product and sells it, and they have been more successful than most produce-based food hubs from a financial standpoint. So I say, let’s use ideas like that and bring them to the produce food hub world, and vice versa. If there’s a physical facility that’s part of a food hub, there can be a segregated area where you have the fish being handled as well, or you could just link up through software. There’s no end in sight to how you can make these things work. The key is to have the intention to serve the smaller-scale sustainable fish farming practices. And then another important piece is to have the intention of working with communities of need.

SEEDSTOCK: In the report, you place emphasis on two aquaculture modalities in particular: recirculating tank and aquaponic systems. In your opinion, what makes these systems especially promising?

DANIELS: What is really promising about recirculating tanks— and aquaponics just builds on the recirculating tank idea—is that you have near complete control of the inputs and the outputs. You know exactly what water is going into the fish in a recirculating tank system, and you know exactly what water is coming out of it.  So you can control it on both sides. It’s a closed loop system.

One of the things about it that’s really promising is that you can address the issue of high stocking levels by having a recirculating tank farm with many tanks. You don’t have to have really high stocking densities, you just have a lot of tanks. Then if there happens to be a disease outbreak in a tank, you can shut down the tank. You don’t have to shut down the whole farm, or the whole system. So it’s very promising from that standpoint.

The big issues with recirculating tanks in terms of cost are feed, energy, water. Once it’s set up, you use very little water because it’s recirculating and all the water is put back in the system. With the aquaponics model, which builds on the recirculating tank system, you take the water from the tank, run it over the hydroponic flat where the plant is being grown, and put it back into the tank. So it’s just an extension of the tank, and you’re not really using that much water. Because it’s indoors and you can control the climate, the evapotranspiration level from the plants is not that high. Energy is a cost in these recirculating tank systems because of the pumping, but there’s the potential to off-set your energy with renewable energy sources. So you can have a completely sustainable practice.

SEEDSTOCK: In the report, you offer recommendations for encouraging sustainable aquaculture practices. In your opinion, which of these recommendations, if implemented, would have the most immediate impact on the growth of sustainable aquaculture?

DANIELS: From a strategic standpoint, there are two things we could all really focus in on right away. One is to have the organic standard for aquaculture developed by the USDA. And that’s immediate. They’re working on it this year. If they are able to develop a standard and put their label on a fish that says it’s organic, it would make a huge difference for awareness and would drive the markets for this type of product.

Right now, what the USDA is looking at for the organic standard is reducing the amount of fishmeal that is used to feed farmed fish. This is an issue of sustainability, because currently there’s quite a bit of forage or wild-caught fish being ground up into pellets to feed other fish. The ratio is not a favorable one, so it’s not sustainable from a fisheries standpoint. The USDA, NOAA, and others have been working very hard to reduce it. They’re trying to figure out the right formulas, the right hybridization, and so forth to be able to reduce it. Besides being unsustainable, this practice is also expensive.

What the USDA is doing (at least in the rule that I saw proposed) is, they’re trying to prohibit the use of fishmeal in products with an organic label. If the USDA develops this standard for aquaculture, everybody interested can start working toward creating the right kind of feed formulations that wouldn’t depend on fish meal or oil.  There’s quite a bit of good work going on at the USDA right now to develop what they call “alternative feed formulas” using agricultural waste—using rice, nut meal, and barley protein. So a lot of agricultural waste could be put to use raising farmed fish. I think that would be a tremendous way to close the circle on a grand scale.

SEEDSTOCK: What do you hope to see in the future of aquaculture in the U.S.?

DANIELS: I would really hope we could increase our aquaculture production levels, particularly in sustainable means of production. It would be ideal to have widely distributed production near urban centers where the demand is, in warehouses, and in other types of facilities. If it was done at the right scale, with the right mix of approaches, it would produce an animal protein that doesn’t require too much in terms of resources, and could provide a whole lot of health benefits.

SEEDSTOCK: In the report you mention a few innovative aquaculture operations including Los Angeles-based Evo Farm. What other present-day aquaculture operations epitomize the future of aquaculture as you envision it?

DANIELS: There are a couple of others. There’s Australis Aquaculture in Turner Falls, Massachusetts, where they grow barramundi in tanks. Also, I’ve had the chance to meet a lot of promising graduate students at USC, UC Santa Barbara, at John Hopkins University—The Center for Livable Future. There’s a lot of young entrepreneurs and scientists who are going into this particular field of recirculating tank and aquaponic production. A lot of new and exciting stuff is happening and we’re only beginning to scratch the surface.

SEEDSTOCK: What advice would you give to consumers who truly want to “know their fish farm”?

DANIELS: I think that it’s important for us to start asking the question about where our fish are from and to have a dialogue. It takes time, and it takes skillful patience to let the clerk at the counter or the waiter at the restaurant know that you’re not challenging them, but that you just want to engage in a dialogue. It’s important to engage in that dialogue with the people serving and selling the food, to let them know that you care about how the fish was raised, and that there’s not just one way to do it. There’s more fish in the sea than the ones that are normally served. There’s more fish in the pond and the farms than we’re normally served. So expressing an interest in other kinds of fish, other than the ones that are completely overfished or hyper-produced, would be really important. Also, telling the people at the counter and in the restaurants that you know there are okay farming methods and that you’re open to it would be helpful too.

SEEDSTOCK: Is there anything else you feel our readers should know about your report or aquaculture in general?

DANIELS: It feels to me that this issue of paying attention to aquaculture is urgent. We are being outpaced at an unbelievable rate by countries around the world that aren’t paying as close attention to sustainable practices as we are. We can do it sustainably in the United States, and I think we absolutely must; and we should start now.

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