Imagine a trip to the Chesapeake Bay without feasting on their iconic oysters. In recent years, wild oyster populations have been devastated by factors both manmade and natural. Although wild-caught oysters face restoration issues, aquaculture (which is essentially seafood farming) is a growing industry providing shellfish to the market.
After success in the Chesapeake region, entrepreneurs around the country have jumped on board over the past three decades to begin their own aquaculture businesses raising oysters, fish, and even seaweed. Sea Grant (a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) program proposed for elimination in the president’s budget request for Fiscal Year (FY) 2018) has played an instrumental role in expanding the aquaculture industry; it is nearly impossible for individuals to begin such a venture alone. This week, a panel of aquaculture farmers spoke at a briefing hosted by the Sea Grant Association and sponsored by Senators Roger Wicker (MS) and Lisa Murkowski (AK) to explain the exciting potential of the aquaculture industry and the critical role Sea Grant has played in each of their businesses.
The potential benefits of aquaculture are staggering. Since the United States is the leading importer of seafood in the world, with 91 percent of seafood eaten originating abroad, demand is clearly high. Local aquaculture generates more jobs in the U.S. and lowers the carbon footprint of seafood by reducing transportation needs. Mr. Owen Ballow (President, Indian Brook Trout Farm), who uses aquaculture to raise trout in Michigan, markets his product as fresh, local, environmentally friendly, and so safe “it can be eaten every day by pregnant women.” Mr. Beau Perry (Founder, Blue Evolution Seaweed Farming) described Alaskan watermen whose dream is to someday be the captain of their own vessel. Fishing industry catch limits regulations have made these positions much more competitive, but new opportunities in seaweed aquaculture can help them achieve this goal. Mr. Perry also sees significant room to market U.S. seaweed products internationally as demand is high in Southeast Asian countries, and U.S. food safety standards are well regarded. Mr. Frank Roberts (Founder, Lady’s Island Oysters) observed how oyster aquaculture in South Carolina has exploded into a nearly $10 million industry in just three years.
Despite the rapid growth of this market, the entire panel testified to the difficulties of getting their operations up and running. They explained how, in every state, it is expensive for individuals to begin their own aquaculture farms, but it is especially difficult to start doing aquaculture in a state where the infrastructure doesn’t yet exist. The permitting process was depicted as lengthy, confusing, and costly.
Sea Grant has played a significant role helping these pioneers navigate new waters. The program has helped draft the regulatory framework for the industry and has supported projects to help new-to-the-business aquaculture farmers. Mr. Tollef Olson (President, Ocean’s Balance Kelp Farming) shared Sea Grant assistance in advancing his seaweed project by helping create novel early technology. Mr. Perry called Sea Grant’s help with research and development, extension, and workforce “a game changer” for his Alaskan seaweed project. Mr. Roberts began a brand-new industry in his state, and Sea Grant helped him build a hatchery to create a reliable source of oyster seed. The president’s budget recommendations for FY 2018 propose a complete elimination of the Sea Grant program, which boasts leveraging nearly three dollars for every federally-appropriated dollar. “Sea Grant has a national impact through its network,” said Mr. Perry. “We need support from NOAA and Sea Grant to meet the market.”