It's been a long time since the last sardine was canned here; a long time since these old buildings gave John Steinbeck the inspiration for his novel, "Cannery Row."

Clustered among the empty lots and a fallen warehouse or two that line the blue waters of Monterey Bay, several buildings still stand, converted now to other uses. In one of them, however, the business is still fish -- but there's a twist.

Here at 300 Cannery Row, George Lockwood isn't canning sardines. He's farming abalone.

In the white-walled laboratories, cavernous warehouse, and watersloshed basements of this converted cannery, Mr. Lockwood has spent the last eight years and some $5 million experimenting with breeding and genetics, studying abalone nutrition and health -- learning to grow abalone the way a farmer grows corn or raises cattle.

Today, some 4 million abalone, ranging from sand-speck size to a healthy four inches long, are growing in long, narrow rows of tanks that are hooked up to a labyrinth of pipes.

This year, Lockwood says, he hopes to go into commercial production. And by 1982 -- after years of battling with nature and government bureaucracy -- he figures he should pocket his first dollar of profit as his farm swings into its half-million-pound a year capacity.

Food for a hungry world? Not quite. These little snails are hardly a bargain treat at the $50 a pound they fetch on the Japanese market, where they are snapped up to be used as sashimi.

But with his company, Monterey Abalone Farms, Lockwood has joined a slowly building industry that some ocean experts believe may help feed an increasingly hungry world whose population grows by the size of New York City every month.

Aquaculture -- the cultivation of fish, plants, and crustaceans in either fresh or salt water -- is nothing new. In the United States, it can be traced back 100 years to the development of salmon spawning programs. In Asia, the cultivation of oysters and carp has been a standard practice for thousands of years.

Today, approximately 6 million metric tons of fish come from "farms" -- a little less than 10 percent of the total world fish catch of 70 million metric tons and only 1 to 2 percent of total global food consumption. But as land resources are stretched to fit the needs of a world population expected to grow from a present 4.5 billion to 6.5 billion by the year 2000, ocean resources are expected to be tapped as never before.

"I believe aquaculture will increase in relative and absolute importance, in the same way that agriculture has almost totally supplanted the hunter-gatherer in our society," Roy Jackson, former deputy director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, told a recent meeting of the World Mariculture Society in Seattle.

Projections of the potential yield for aquaculture very widely --from 20 million to 60 million metric tons a year and upward -- depending on who is drawing what scenario based on which predictions. (Although there are literally tens of thousands of species of fish in the oceans, most fisheries agree that world consumption will continue to be based on a comparatively small group of fish).

Even optimists agree, however, that whatever its maximum output, aquaculture will only be one factor in staving off a global food crunch; it will not be them saving meal.

"It's a cruel joke to hold out the ocean as the answer to feeding the world's hungry," says Don Walsh, director of the Institute for Marine and Coastal Studies at the University of Southern California.

"That's not to say you shouldn't go ahead and develop aquaculture," he continues, "but you should have a very clear-eyed view of what advantages you can expect from it."

Overall, experts agree that a combination of world events is creating a rising tide of opportuntiy -- even an outright demand -- for aquaculture. Along with the pressing issue of population growth, there is a growing conviction that the world fish catch -- once believed to have unlimited potential -- is leveling off. Even with strict fisheries management policies, the fish catch total can be expected to reach only 100 million to 130 million metric tons, predicts the Joint Subcommittee on Aquaculture, which is made of representatives of 13 federal agencies.

There's also the matter of ever-rising oil prices, which mean that open sea fishing grows costlier with every OPEC nod: According to one recent estimate, the cost of oil for a gulf Coast shrimp boat has risen in recent years from 16 percent of total operating costs to 68 percent. By contrast, aquaculture -- with its emphasis on growing fish in tanks on land or in coastal waters -- allows farmers to cut energy costs dramatically.

In addition, say aquaculturists, because many species can be grown in crowded pens or tanks, farming operations are an efficient use of land. For example, at a Hawaiian-based experimental shrimp "factory," -- a joint project of the Coca Cola Company, F. H. Prince, and the University of California -- it is estimated that the eventual yield could be 100,000 pounds of shrimp tails per acre of land every year.

What is more, aquaculturists have learned that by regulating the growing environment of their "crops" with water temperature, nutrients, and lights, they can trim the amount of time nature needs to grow a mature fish (three years for an oyster) by 50 percent or more.

Perhaps even more importantly, ocean farmers have found that domesticating fish has allowed them to take advantage of one of nature's crucial survival guarantees: because only a few eggs survive the tempestuous ocean environment, most fish and shellfish spawn thousands of eggs -- as many as half a billion for an abalone. But in the controlled operations of many aquaculture farms, the majority of these eggs wind up not as a snack for a hungry fish but as an adult that can be sent to market.

Finally, there's the simple economics of rising grocery bills. Continuing beef and poultry price hikes are expected to nudge Americans --per year -- into becoming, if not seafood gourmands, at least more enthusiastic fisheaters.

So far, however, aquaculture in the United States -- with the exception of Hawaii -- has remained a minor operation. Although 40 percent of the oysters grown in the US are cultured, and 25 percent of the salmon caught originate in hatcheries, aquaculture accounts for a mere 3 percent of the nation's fish catch. Of that total, a substantial portion is accounted for by crops of such freshwater species as catfish and trout, rather than saltwater fish.

"Business-wise you couldn't get an investor to take a flier on mullet because it doesn't sell for very much," explains Richard Fassler, information specialist with Hawaii's Aquaculture Development Program.

"You're going to get people going into grocery stores, seeing what sells at high prices, and then trying to see if there's a way to use aquaculture to grow it," he continues. "But that doesn't mean aquaculture will turn its back on the developing countries."

On the contrary, argue entrepreneurs and researchers, once investors are attracted to a product like oysters, which is in high demand on the world market -- in Paris alone, some 98,000 tons of oysters are consumed yearly -- aquaculture technology can be developed and eventually transferred, with modifications, to farming low-cost fish that are most likely to play a role in feeding the developing nations.

In addition, these experts contend that, because aquaculture means that fish can be farmed more abundantly at a cheaper cost, even prices for such delicacies as lobster and abalone eventually will drop, just as poultry prices dropped when mass production cut costs.

"They [aquaculture skeptics] are way off base," says Tap Pryor, who is preparing to bring a $12 million oyster farm into commercial production this summer on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. "I hear constantly that we're not going to feed the world. That's baloney," he adds.

"It's a matter of learning as much as we can, and of the world finance community investing in it," says Mr. Pryor, who estimates that his land-based farm will produce at least 100 tons of oysters a month. "These technologies, they're repeatable. It just depends on the will of the world as to how many repetitions occur in the next 20 years."

Elsewhere though, it's a different story. In countries such as Japan, Israel , and India, aquaculture already accounts for anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of each country's total fish catch. And in China, where carp have been raised for centuries, government officials are reportedly "hungry for mariculture technology," as one ocean expert, Dr. Kenneth Chu of the University of Washington, a recent visitor to China, puts it. In the past year alone, the Chinese government reportedly funded 16 new shrimp farms.

Worldwide production is expected to continue growing -- up to as much as 12 million metric tons a year by 1985 and perhaps 30 million metric tons by 2000. Although seaweed is expected to account for some growth in aquaculture production, experts say farming of the plants will most likely continue to be concentrated in such countries as Japan and Korea, where seaweed has been a traditional part of the national diet.

Meanwhile, a sharp debate flows around the development of aquaculture. Will fish farming really mean more protein for the hungry poor or will it simply provide high-priced delicacies for the already-laden tables of the rich?

"Let's get is straight," says Dr. William Nierenberg, director of Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., "you can talk about making money or you can talk about feeding people. . . . Oysters don't feed many people."

Many ocean scientists argue that most newly developing aquaculture ventures, particularly in the United States, are aimed solely at the luxury market. They provide such high-priced species as oysters, shrimp, lobsters, and abalone, which are well beyond them means of the world's needy.

Such arguments irk aquaculturists, many of whom are small-time entrepreneurs struggling to start a business. Although some institutions such as the International Center for Aquaculture at Auburn University have done extensive work on developing low-cost fish like mullet and milkfish for use in the developing countries, many fish farmers contend it would not be worth their while to invest millions of dollars in developing a product that would net them only minimal profits.

"This is a very sophisticated industry in a production sense," Dr. Nierenberg says. "My two criteria are, can you breed them? Can you sell them."

Meeting those criteria is not expected to be as easy as it may sound. Aquaculturists still have long years of research ahead of them in learning the complexities of such critical factors as fish health and genetics.

In addition, they face serious problems with water quality. Clean sea water is crucial for the cultivation of a healthy stock. Aquaculturists rank polluted waters as an increasingly serious constraint. Fish farmers also say they have run into some opposition from commercial fishermen, who have voiced concerns that extensive fish farming will lead to a decrease in the value of commercial catches.

Other problems, particularly for US aquaculturists, include:

* Financial: Unlike modern agriculture, which has had the benefit of many billions of dollars worth of research and capital investment over the past 100 years, aquaculture has attracted relatively few investment or research dollars.

As a new technology, aquaculture still is considered a risky venture, particularly for farms based in the tough environment of the sea. Some projects have failed in recent years. Despite the confident projections of some entrepreneurs, aquaculturists have yet to prove they can reap substantial profits along with their fish.

Nonetheless, individuals such as Tap Pryor insist that money will flow once some of the near-ready commercial projects actually begin production.

"It's time and the industry's track record" that will open the investment market, he says. "It's the success of a few large projects that's really going to change the situation. . . ."

* Political: "Fish don't vote." This one-liner attributed to a wise-cracking congressman and ruefully repeated by ocean experts, may best highlights the lack of cooperation and leadership many aquaculturists say they find in dealing with government bureaucracies and with many elected officials.

Although Hawaii has developed an aquaculture plan for interested farmers and investors, no other state has a comprehensive aquaculture program. Policy is equally nebulous at the federal level. It wasn't until last year that the nation's first piece of aquaculture legislation was passed -- an act some observers say is more symbolic than substantial.

The resulting policy vacuum means that some two dozen federal agencies have a say in aquaculture -- and that hundreds of governmental regulations apply to its operations.

For Mr. Lockwood, president of Monterey Abalone Farms, the confusion has meant dealing with 45 local, state, and federal agencies and coping with endless public hearings and court actions during his nearly nine-year battle to farm abalone.

Mr. Lockwood says the bureaucratic thicket, which he claims still consumes 60 percent of his time, has proved so hampering that although he's interested in expanding his business, it probably won't be in the US. Most likely, Lockwood says, he'll move to Chile, Australia, New Zeland, South Africa, or Mexico -- countries that he says already have approached him about relocating to their less-regulated shores.

Still, even entrepreneurs such as Lockwood, who are weary of their bureaucratic battles, agree that environmental and coastal management regulations are necessary. But because aquaculturists are late comers to the already intense battles for coastal access and protection, industry experts say it will take a federal effort to win fish farmers a place by the sea.

Such a federal helping hand, they say, won't be forthcoming under the Reagan administration, which is not expected to move aquaculture anywhere near the top of its list of priorities. In fact, aquaculture programs have already suffered heavily under the President's revised 1982 budget proposals. And despite the passage last year of the National Aquaculture Act, aquaculturists say they don't expect any new national policy developments soon.

Although the Joint Subcommittee on Aquaculture has spent months drawing up a two-inch-thick draft of a National Aquaculture Plan, a lack of money means that none of the programs proposed by the plan or authorized by the act are expected to be carried out for at least the next few years.

"What the act does do is put on record a statement which says that aquaculture is important to the United States," explains Dr. Clarence Idyll, senior marine analyst for the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere, a presidentially appointed group.

"The act is a statement of policy," he says, "that in theory means something. . . ."

"But if you don't get the money to carry it out, you're denying what you've just said," he continues. "You're saying it's important, but not really.

Tomorrow: Energy from the sea

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