A visit to Mote's Aquaculture Park
Last week, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit The Mote Aquaculture Research Park in eastern Sarasota, FL. The 200-acre aquaculture and research facility sits on a vast expanse of farmland in order to facilitate several buildings and greenhouses for various areas of research. Aquaculture is becoming an increasingly popular topic because as our world population is rapidly growing, scientists and farmers are expressing concern over how to produce enough protein and food for our world. Additionally, the demand for seafood has skyrocketed in the past few decades. Many fisheries around the world do not have- or do not enforce- regulations on fishing and the practices can do harm to the environment as well as catch billions of tons of bycatch. The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) estimates that over 2 million sharks are accidentally caught as bycatch in the tuna industry every year since the mid-1990s. When done in an environmentally friendly way, farmed fish can be a great seafood alternative to other wild caught fish and land based protein.
Mote is currently focusing on three main species- The Common Snook (Centropomus undecimalis), Red Fish (Sciaenops ocellatus) and Florida Pompano (Trachinotus carolinus). The snook are being raised purely for stock enhancement. Once the young reach 6 inches (15.24 cm) long, they are sent to Mote Marine Aquarium to be tagged and released. The red drum and pompano are involved in two separate sets of studies. The primary reason these fishes are being produced is for us to eat them! The second set is being studied to determine the long-term impact of oil exposure. In addition to learning about the advances in studying these three fish species, I was very fortunate to see the most recent addition to the studies- the Almaco Jacks (Seriola rivoliana). These fish have a very encouraging potential to be used as a food source since they are active spawners but we still have a lot to learn about them. Therefore, the researchers started with wild caught juveniles. They were placed in quarantine for 40 days with low salinity to remove and any diseases or parasites and just towards the end of the 40 days they took the researchers by surprise and started spawning! Since then, the researches have come into work to find more eggs nearly every other day. This is partly because jacks do not wait for the whole group to spawn, they just go whenever they are ready! In addition to fish, the facility is also researching aquaponics. Aquaponics typically refers to fresh water because most plants cannot tolerate salt. But Mote has been able to successfully grow two types of plants using water with a salinity of 10 PPT (parts per thousand). For reference, the ocean is around 35PPT. The fish involved in this system are baby Red Drums and as the water is filtered it is also used to grow the plants. If you’re interested in trying these plants, one of them- The Sea Purse Lilly- is actually sold at the Sarasota Farmer’s Market. I tried both plants and Dr. Main (pictured below) lamented that her vender refuses to sell the second plant because it is too salty for his own personal taste. But she respected the fact that he did not want to sell a product he didn’t like. However, she noted that several chefs have favored the saltier plant. I liked both but favored the Sea Purse Lilly as well. Fish farming is not an easy task. Every fish has its own set of specific conditions that will cause them to reproduce including temperature, water quality, light, nutrients, environment and even chemical signals. For example, researchers were unable to get Red Drum to breed until they discovered that the fish needed to be placed in a deep-water tank. Pictured to the left is a tank around 10-15 feet (3-4.5 meters) deep that housed the fish. Another delicate example is the Pompano. They need water that is exactly 80.6° F (27° C) in order to spawn. If there is even a 1° deviation, the fish will not release their eggs. It takes researches many years and hundreds to thousands of trials to understand how to effectively raise fish. Once a fish’s reproductive secrets are revealed, the next challenge is to determine how it can be economically sustainable. Many of these systems have advanced filtration that is essential and expensive. Most farmers do not have the budget, time, or specific skill sets to run these complicated systems. Mote is researching this challenge as well! They are investigating cost effective ways to filter the water. Some of these methods include culturing bacteria to breakdown the nitrogen while other methods include fish poop! The photo below is a new method of filtration that is being studied using fish waste. The mangroves get the fish waste water as a fertilizer which is then filtered by the plants and circulated back to the fish.
When done correctly, aquaculture and aquaponics have great potential to meet the needs of our growing world population and restore wild fish populations. Not all farming practices are done with the good of the environment in mind but the same can be said for fisheries. Some have no regulations and some have great regulations that make them far more sustainable than even the current farming practices. This makes things a bit confusing when you’re picking out your seafood. If you start spending hours researching every fish that you like to eat and all the fish farms and fisheries in the world, you’ll drive yourself a little nuts. So I recommend doing three simple things that will make a HUGE difference or our oceans.
1. Download “Seafood Watch” on your smart phone. This app allows you to type in your favorite seafood and it’s done all the research for you! Pick your favorite seafood and get to know it. Also, this app will even tell you where you can find sustainable seafood near you! 2. Let people know you care about sustainable seafood. Ask a chef where their seafood comes from. If their customers care, they’ll care. Or ask the manager and your local seafood market or grocery store. Again, if you (their customer) cares, then they will too. 3. Tell your friends. Spread the word about sustainable seafood. People often view either farming or fisheries as bad but explore both and then pick the best option.