Leading Question

By Kim Cartlidge  June 30, 2010

It’s hard to find any silver lining in the catastrophic oil spill, but some fish farmers are wondering if worries about the safety of Gulf seafood could increase public interest—and funding—for aquaculture. In Sarasota, Mote Marine’s Center for Aquaculture Research and Development will produce 40 to 50 metric tons of sturgeon meat this year for restaurants around the country. The prize harvest, up to one metric ton of Siberian sturgeon roe, will be processed, shipped to caviar houses and repacked into smaller tins. Florida farm-raised caviar sells online for $45 an ounce.

But the operation does not expect to begin turning a profit until 2011, which will be 10 years after its startup. A fire in 2006 damaged the east Sarasota County facilities and destroyed five years of cultivated sturgeon, about 2.4 metric tons of fish (54,000 pounds).

Dr. Kevan Main, director of Mote’s aquaculture program, says the oil spill has already had an enormous impact on both recreational and commercial fishing and she predicts “substantial” long-term effects, since the oil and disperants will be hitting during peak spawning.”

Even before the oil spill, overfishing and environmental regulation had reduced the amount of wild-caught fish on the market. At the same time, our demand for seafood is growing. The U.S. seafood trade deficit is $10 billion a year and is projected to increase. Domestic aquaculture production or imports will need to increase six fold to keep up with demand over the next 25 years, according to Mote.

The oil spill may result in consumers becoming more selective about where their fish is coming from, Main says. “The oil spill and cold kills [due to Florida’s chilly winter] show how critical it is that we learn how to produce fish. We know the price is going to go up and there will be less product available. We also need to rapidly be looking at restoration technologies.”

To date, Florida and United States aquaculture have faced competition from overseas fish farmers. More than 80 percent of the fish consumed in the U.S. is imported from countries with fewer government restrictions on fish farming and lower operating costs. It’s nearly impossible to compete with the shrimp farms in Southeast Asia or tilapia farms in South America.

And Florida is at a disadvantage in the United States as well. Feed, labor and energy costs are higher here. We don’t have a low-cost processing plant, or many processing plants at all.

We also don’t have access to excess freshwater, says Jim Michaels, Mote’s sturgeon program manager, so to produce freshwater species, farmers will need affordable recirculating filtration systems. These are the very systems Mote is developing and funding with its cash flow from caviar. The idea is to “drive down the cost of this technology so more mainstream species can adopt it,” Michaels says.

Mote’s caviar sales are down due to the U.S. recession, and that could slow freshwater farming efforts. In the wake of the oil spill, the federal government could help by revisiting some of the rules and restrictions that have prohibited growth in domestic aquaculture.

What Michaels would most like to see is fewer regulations so he could export Mote’s product and open a worldwide market for the sturgeon and the caviar. As of June, he had been working through “a very cumbersome process” for a year. “There are markets in Asia we could sell to right now,” Michaels says, adding that he could double export sales if Mote could get its export license. “We need cash flow to move this technology forward.”

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