Aquaculture. Is it what's for dinner?

aquaculture.jpg Dr. Martin Schreibman thinks urban aquaculture could be a $1.5 billion-a-year industry in New York alone.  David S. Allee

From the SEPTEMBER 2006 issue of Seed:

In a grand social and entrepreneurial plan to turn New York City into a fish farm, Martin Schreibman is cultivating thousands of tilapia in gurgling tubs in a Brooklyn warehouse. And counterintuitive though it may seem, growing fish in the inner city could ameliorate some of the issues confronting both traditional fish farming and the wild-catch industry.

Fish stocks are dwindling while demand is rising: In 2004, the US Commission on Ocean Policy estimated that one-sixth of the world’s population relies on fish as its primary source of protein. As a result, the fishing industry is constantly trawling deeper to replace the stocks it’s depleted (witness the appearance of the bottom-dwelling orange roughy on restaurant menus in recent years). But the UN is considering a worldwide ban on deep-sea trawling and the US Congress is currently
rewriting the law that governs commercial fishing in American waters.

Given these trajectories, it seems inevitable that something will take the place of—or at least supplement—wild-catch fishing, especially since conventional fish farming can create problems as serious as the one it solves.

Take disease. Fish raised in buoyed ocean pens are fed antibiotics—but Schreibman’s controlled environment minimizes the stresses on fish, reducing the need. (Farmers can maximize fish growth the same way.) Then there’s the poo factor: Outdoor farms release waste into surrounding ecosystems, but Recirculating Aquaculture Systems use bacteria to break it down, increasing the amount of recyclable water. Schreibman likes to point out that multi-species aquaculture—which is easier to practice where there are no predators—can improve efficiency. Unlike in nature, there’s no mercury pollution in Schreibman’s tanks. And—paradoxically—urban aquaculture provides a more accurate simulation of the natural environment than do outdoor fish farms, so the system sustains itself better.

So far, most urban aquaculture ventures have flopped in the US, though a few—including one, ahem, subsidized operation at a New Jersey prison—persevere.

Schreibman claims that this new application of a 2,500-year-old practice could turn abandoned lots into farms (of a sort), helping to restore declining fish populations in the process. “The recirculating technology, which is a water re-use system,” he explains, “enables you to grow fish in large numbers, in a limited area.” He thinks urban aquaculture could be a $1.5 billion-a-year industry—in New York alone. There’s a social component to Professor Schreibman’s master plan, as well; he hopes to remedy urban ills by providing jobs and food for the poor.

But consumers in the US don’t currently eat enough fish to make Schreibman’s project profitable. He says getting into the black could take “four or five million pounds of fish a year,” way too much for a single operation to realistically produce.

Dr. Barry Costa-Pierce, professor of fisheries and aquaculture at the University of Rhode Island, thinks city fish, which are local, organic and sustainable, could appeal to the Whole Foods crowd. But generally “we as Americans are not willing to buy things just because they are sustainably grown,” his colleague Alan Desbonnet, program manager at the Rhode Island Sea Grant College Program, points out. “It’s not our culture at this point.”

A government boost, in the form of R&D investment or tax breaks, might be necessary. Integrated applications could also bring down costs: Schreibman recently started cultivating vegetables with the nitrogen-rich wastewater. To the surprise of no one familiar with the 10,000-year history of cultivating plants, they grow like weeds.

So far, most urban aquaculture ventures have flopped in the US, though a few—including one, ahem, subsidized operation at a New Jersey prison—persevere. In China, meanwhile, “indoor recirculating aquaculture is all the rage,” says Costa-Pierce. So as the market for fish expands—and if avian flu or mad cow disease makes it to North America to a worrisome degree—it may not matter whether urban aquaculture skews as politically correct: As the future darkens for wild fish stocks, it could brighten for Martin Schreibman and his colony of Brooklyn tilapia.

Originally published September 7, 2006

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