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| Human World on Feb 16, 2012

Should we help expand aquaculture in the United States?

The fastest growing food commodity is aquaculture. The growth rate is nearly 10% per year since 1985. But aquaculture in the U.S. has not grown as fast. Why?

In early 2012, we live in a world with 7 billion inhabitants (the 7 billionth human arrived on October 31, 2011, according to estimates from population experts). Human population continues to increase at a rate that makes food production a critical need for future generations. The fastest growing food commodity is aquaculture, which has grown at a rate of nearly 10% per year since 1985. However, aquaculture in the United States has not shared the growth shown in other countries. Why does the U.S. lag in aquaculture? Should the U.S. try to produce more products from aquaculture? The issue is clearly not the market in the U.S., as we import very large quantities of seafood, including aquaculture products, every year.

Shrimp farm in Thailand with production pond in the background and water treatment canal in foreground. Image Credit: J. Diana.

Comparing the Thai and American aquaculture industries might help put different aquaculture growth trajectories in perspective. Beginning in the 1990s, the government of Thailand tried to facilitate marine shrimp culture as a way to improve their economy and foreign trade. The government became very involved in extension through the Ministry of Fisheries, as well as offering financial assistance for new aquaculture businesses. Private industry also joined in. Charoen Pokhpand (CP) Group became one of the world’s largest agro-industry feed and product companies. As the shrimp industry expanded, CP began to offer extension, financial assistance, and products to small-scale shrimp farmers, again to expand the industry. As a result, between 1989 and 2009 the production of white-legged shrimp in Thailand increased from essentially zero in 1989 to about 590,000 U.S. tons in 2009. This increase resulted in a value of $1.6 billion (USD) for the marine shrimp produced, created millions of jobs, and helped revitalize the rural economy.

The increase in aquaculture in Thailand was not only for the heavily favored marine shrimp. Even freshwater prawns — which are a local favorite but not exported — showed dramatic growth. Freshwater prawn production in 1989 was about 8,700 tons, and by 2009 reached 35,000 tons, with a value of $131 million.

This dramatic growth in aquaculture production and value had a significant effect on the Thai economy. It also affected the Thai environment. Some aquaculture systems were damaging to the environment and caused both ecological and social difficulties, while others have been relatively sustainable in place and have produced a better quality of life for local Thai citizens. Clearly, aquaculture can — and probably will — expand. The question is: can it expand in a more sustainable manner?

Rainbow trout farm in Michigan, with production done in raceway. Image Credit: D. Vogler.

Compared to Thailand, the U.S. aquaculture industry is very small, with a value of all species in all states combined at about $1 billion per year. Leading states producing aquaculture crops include Mississippi, Arkansas, and Alabama, all of which grow channel catfish. When one evaluates how expansion might occur, it is important to look at what currently exists and what potential there is for future growth.

Since I am from Michigan, we will use that state as an example, but this example could be from a number of states. In Michigan, in 1998, there were 47 farms, which produced about $2 million worth of total aquaculture product, or $1.6 million of edible seafood. By 2005, that had declined to 34 farms, producing about $2.4 million total, or about $1.4 million in edible seafood. It is obvious that over this nearly 10-year period there was no growth for aquaculture in the state. This trend was also true for catfish production in the entire U.S., which declined from 2004 to 2010. The trend in Michigan occurred in spite of the fact that Michigan has ample water, space, economic need, and a history of seafood production from the Great Lakes. The main food species grown in the state remains rainbow trout.

Image Credit: Billbeee

Why the dramatic difference between aquaculture in Thailand and in the U.S. state of Michigan? There are some historic precedents, as Asia was one of the originators of aquaculture, and even in past millennia there were good aquaculture production systems for local consumption.

Probably a stronger driver was the regulatory agencies and governments. In Michigan, most regulations have tried to limit the growth of aquaculture because of its potentially negative environmental influence, while in Thailand most regulations were geared toward trying to promote aquaculture as a means to sustain a better economy.

Also in Thailand, there is a very large industrial complex supporting aquaculture of virtually all species, but particularly shrimp, with CP being but one example. This industrial and governmental involvement results in a large-scale outreach program by the Thailand Ministry of Fisheries, veterinarians to test for and treat fish and shrimp diseases, loans and assistance to farmers starting their businesses, hatcheries for seed stock, and a well-established market that promotes the crops and takes care of the marketing and processing.

The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2010, Image Credit: FAO

In comparison, a typical farm in Michigan would most likely purchase their fry or young fish from another state, then grow them in their own system and sell them there. Any need for veterinarian services, business planning, or financial assistance would have to be handled by the aquaculture farm itself, and the farm would most likely process its own fish and market them, mainly at local farm markets or to people visiting the farm. In Thailand, aquaculture is an industry; in Michigan, it is simply a mom-and-pop operation.

When agriculture grew dramatically in the U.S., we developed a massive training and research capacity to enable its expansion, devoted billions of dollars into farm subsidies, crop insurance, etc. In contrast, little government investment has been made in aquaculture, and the agriculture community has generally not considered aquaculture as part of this agricultural complex. As a result, aquaculture tends to lie somewhere between agriculture and natural resource management in most states, which then leads to some states promoting and others limiting its growth.

A clear regulatory structure for aquaculture needs to be framed in order to allow for economic expansion while also establishing standards that limit environmental damage. The growth of aquaculture will require training of a talented workforce so that it can move beyond its current mom-and-pop characterization. This training could use demonstration farms or other facilities and function much like the agriculture extension system commonly found in states as the Land Grant College system. Once a program is initiated, it would also be necessary to develop business plans on how aquaculture farms should succeed. These plans would be based on experience and would need to be suitably detailed so financial institutions would be willing to consider aquaculture as an investment, including its potential risks and benefits.

So, the final question is: should Michigan and other states promote aquaculture? There will be a larger need for seafood into the future, as populations continue to grow. Aquaculture has the greatest growth potential of all agriculture systems, particularly in those states that have a seafood history and adequate water resources. There are aquaculture systems and species that could be grown to minimize environmental impacts experienced in other locations. Finally, the local food movement would be a major player, as food produced locally might gain some market advantage, compared to food imported from overseas. At least we know that fresh seafood would be more readily available. All told, given the current status of most U.S. states in terms of employment and the need for many different types of job-generating systems, aquaculture should have an important role in the future. Whether or not it does, depends to a large degree on how we understand and develop this system as a major commercial enterprise, rather than a small-scale, mom-and-pop operation.