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Fishing for a solution

As stocks dwindle, a team of researchers pioneers new ways to 'farm' fish - miles offshore in the ocean's depths.

By Jennifer WolcottStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 29, 2003



PORTSMOUTH, N.H.

On the surface, fish farms seem like a brilliant solution to the problem of too few fish in the sea. Instead of further depleting threatened populations of wild fish with traditional fishing methods, simply hatch thousands of fish from eggs, cultivate them in pens, and when they grow big and strong, sell them off.

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But a deeper look reveals that it's not always that easy. Negative reports on the impact of some forms of aquaculture - especially salmon - have flooded the media in recent months.

Claims from conservationists and environmentalists are familiar to followers of the farmed-salmon saga: Pens are overcrowded and polluted with waste, males often escape and weaken the gene pool of wild fish, and many farmed fish are fed fishmeal, which depletes stocks of smaller wild fish.

Still, the news isn't all bad on the fish-farming front. At the University of New Hampshire (UNH), an innovative program is showing that these problems can be overcome - at least for some types of fish and shellfish.

The Open Ocean Aquaculture (OOA) demonstration project at UNH is experimenting with cultivating halibut, haddock, cod, and mussels up to 8 miles offshore and deep below the ocean's surface. A big advantage of this - as opposed to the current practice of farming fish close to shore and near the surface of the ocean - is that sealife is protected from harbor pollution and turbulence caused by storms or passing boats. And because farming far offshore doesn't obstruct views from expensive oceanfront houses, it doesn't raise the ire of coastal property owners.

Richard Langan, an aquaculturist and researcher at UNH, started the demonstration project, which is part of the Cooperative Institute for New England Mariculture and Fisheries (CINEMAR). He and his crew are pioneers in the United States and North America in farming cod offshore. They are also the first in the world to cultivate mussels in exposed open-ocean conditions.

Dr. Langan has chosen not to farm salmon, but he isn't doing this simply to dodge potential flak. The fish and shellfish he farms are, for various reasons, easier to cultivate in an offshore, submerged environment.

Unlike salmon, for example, heartier cod and halibut like the dark and don't need regular access to the surface, so their cages can be submerged.

There's also a historic precedent for farming cod in waters off the coast of Portsmouth, N.H. As early as the 1630s, the first settlers on the Isles of Shoals, including those on Star Island and White Island, would fish cod and then dry it and salt it.

And mussels are generally considered ideal for farming for a host of reasons: They filter tiny plankton for their food instead of eating small wild fish. They improve water quality by consuming the plankton, of which there's an overabundance in the sea. And lastly, because mussels require clean water to qualify them for the dinner table, their cultivation often spurs efforts to keep coastal waters clean.

Mussels are also attractive as a demonstration project because they take less time to mature than other shellfish - about one year versus about three for other types, so the researchers can more quickly evaluate the success of their experiment.

And it doesn't hurt that there's a robust market for cod, halibut, and mussels, making them worth the hassles of farming.

The drawbacks

Indeed, open-ocean aquaculture, however revolutionary, is not without its hassles. Access can be hampered by storms, high winds, or frigid temperatures, and it's costly in any weather to shuttle back and forth eight miles out to sea.

All of this adds up to potential for negligence, says Sebastian Belle, director of the Maine Aquaculture Association. "The farther offshore you go," he explains, "the fewer days you can get to the site, and the fewer opportunities you, as a shepherd, have to check on your flock. It becomes an issue of animal welfare, which is important for financial reasons as well as one's craft, one's artistry, and one's personal pride."

Feeding fish by remote control

But when conditions get too dicey to make the trip, the fish "shepherds" at UNH tend their flock remotely. Thanks to funding from the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, which backs the UNH project, Langan's team of five engineers has rigged up a wireless, ethernet communications system that facilitates observation and feeding in any weather.

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