Lobster farms claw their way to profits

It's been a long time coming, but commercial lobster farming may finally be ready to take off. Researchers have brought experimental lobster "farms" on line in Maine, California, and Prince Edward Island, Canada, with yet another due to begin pumping water this summer in utah.

"What we've done is experiment for four years to see if the system we developed can raise lobster and turn a dollar," says Roger Mickelsen, a research associate at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

Mr. Mickelsen, along with fellow researcher Rex Infanger, is working out design details for an inland lobster farm which would be built on an eight-acre parcel in Springville, Utah. If all goes according to plan, the farm will be ready by mid-August.

Located far from either coast, the farm will use a "good facsimile of ocean water," made with salt and other chemicals, and eventually produce about 27,000 pounds of lobster a year. A patented caging system has been developed to keep the cannibalistic lobster separated.

"Most of our research space has been used for diet experiments," says Mickelsen, who contends that finding an inexpensive lobster food is one of the keys to commercial success. The Utah researchers tried out more than 40 recipes before hitting on a concoction of cheap cereal grains, yeast, and distilling byproducts that they believe will do the job.

Growing the lobsters to market size as quickly and efficiently as possible is a major challenge for the would-be lobster ranchers. Many factors, such as water temperature, diet, and genetic makeup of the individual animals affect how fast a lobster will grow.

Mickelsen says they hope to raise lobsters to the half-pound size in 21 months. "We designed the system to make money on that basis, and if we improve on that -- and it looks like we can -- it's just that much the better."

But while Mickelsen plans his farm, a West Coast firm is already raising 1, 000 lobsters in the heated water from a California Edison power plant 65 miles north of Los Angeles.The California researchers are using heated effluent for their demonstration project, because warmer water spurs the growth of the coveted crustaceans.

At the same time, the project shaves a hefty chunk off its energy bills by not having to pay to heat the water. The Utah project will depend on solar heating.

"Systemwise and technically, we're ready" to increase the scale of production , says Phil Wilson of Aquaculture Enterprises in California. "We're looking at the capital right now -- how much it will take to build a facility."

But investors won't open their wallets in a big way until the new technology is completely proved. And that could still take several years, according to scientists.

Paul Chapman, manager of aqualculture programs at Sanders Associates Inc. in Nashua, N.H., says his firm expects to have commercial lobster farming technology ready for use no earlier than 1982.

Sanders Associates now is raising lobsters in a pilot facility beside an estuary in Kittery, Maine. But even with the technology developed at this farm, Mr. Chapman says, it will still take years before large-scale lobster farming is a reality.

"You're talking about potential industrialized production of lobsters in five to 10 years from now -- at any significant level," says Chapman.

Meanwhile, a Canadian firm is also testing commercial lobster farming on Prince Edward Island. Marine Lobster Farms Ltd. has built a pilot-scale farm that takes small lobsters and coddles them to market size, as well as raises lobsters from the egg.

Although experts tend to agree that it will take at least five years for a commercial farm to get started in the US, it's not clear what the impact of the farms will be on the average consumer.

Mr. Wilson of Aquaculture Enterprises cautions that cultivated lobsters won't cost less or be more plentiful than their captured cousins. With demand on the upswing, the new lobsters will be filling a gap left by fishermen.

"But it's a step toward the future of aquaculture and we'll learn along the way," says Wilson. "Who knows what will become of it?"

The ripple effect of the new technology is being touted by researchers who are sometimes criticized for putting so much effort into a luxury food when more basic foodstuffs are needed.

"Even though lobster culture won't feed the starving people of the earth," says Brigham Young's Mickelsen, "the technology will be able to be transferred to some less exotic species that can be used to feed lower-income people."

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