We recently had the opportunity to attend the National Agriculture in the Classroom conference, this year held in Portland, Maine. While there we learned about all of the unique agriculture that Maine has to offer including blueberries, potatoes, and….aquaculture!
For a long time and still today, fishermen use the ocean to harvest wild species of seafood. We learned about how they regulate and maintain populations of wild species. For example, lobster are only harvested when their carapace (body shell length) is between 3.25 and 5 inches in length. The idea behind this is that there will be sufficient enough breeding animals to ensure the maintenance of wild populations if only lobsters of a certain size are harvested. Lobster traps are designed so that big lobsters can’t get in. Smaller lobsters might get in and feed on the bait, but then are easily able to get out. Only lobsters of the correct size are caught. But each lobster is measured once the traps are hauled in, and if they don’t meet the size requirements they are released back into the water. It takes about seven years for a lobster to grow to a size that can be harvested.
But throughout history, fishermen have had a hard time regulating natural and wild fisheries. Environmental conditions can make populations boom and so harvest increases. But when populations fall, harvest doesn’t always react as quickly because there is now a consumer demand that has been built. Sometimes this has led to species loss or at least significant population loss so the fish is no longer economically viable to harvest.
Enter aquaculture or fish farming. Fish farms can take advantage of ocean water, currents, and habitats. But the fish and seafood are cordoned off so that they can be monitored, controlled, cared for, and ultimately harvested easier. Maine aquaculture has 10 different types of farms including baitfish, halibut, hatcheries, mussels, oysters, salmon, scallops, seaweed, trout, and urchin.
One of my favorite of these types of farms is seaweed or kelp. Through this type of farming, the ecosystem of the ocean can actually be improved. Kelp is ‘seeded’ near the surface of the ocean on lines and takes advantage of the sunlight it receives. Farmers can then practice vertical farming with scallop lanterns and mussel socks suspended below the kelp lines. On the sea floor, oyster and clam cages can be installed. The kelp helps increase oxygen levels in the fishery. It can pull out excess nitrogen and carbon (up to 5x more than land-based plants) in the water helping ‘clean’ the water and rebuild a degraded ecosystem.
The oceans offer an incredible resource that if managed correctly can continue to grow food to feed our hungry world. But more and more fisheries are moving inland which presents a new opportunity. Places like Iowa don’t need a coastline to potentially get into the seafood industry! While there are some negative considerations, there are many advantages to inland aquaculture systems. Iowa might make sense to house aquaculture systems because Iowa grows a lot of corn and soybeans which could be used as food for the fish being raised.
Some Iowa farmers have already started to produce fish, shrimp, and other seafood products. By raising seafood in an inland system, farmers can better monitor the growth and health of the fish and shellfish. Managing water quality, feeding schedules, effluents, etc. can all be challenging. But once an effective system is in place aquaculture in Iowa can really make sense.
As Iowa looks for ways to continue to grow and expand the agriculture industry, aquaculture represents a real opportunity. Nearly all of the beef, poultry, and pork that is consumed in the U.S. is also produced in the U.S. The domestic market is saturated and so farmers need to seek international markets if they want to raise more cattle, pigs, chickens, or turkeys. However, less than 10% of the seafood eaten in the U.S. is raised here. The rest is imported from other countries including China, Canada, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Chile. Some of these countries have high standards of food quality and safety, but not all. Raising more seafood domestically in the U.S. could help ensure food security, but could also help ensure food safety and farmers would adhere to high standards and regulations.
In addition to being a leader in producing corn, soybeans, pork and eggs, maybe someday Iowa could be a leader in producing fish as well!