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Massachusetts, Rhode Island Fish Farm Friendly

Elsewhere in the U.S. However, Aquiculture Ventures Face Greater Skepticism, Regulatory Hurdles

Across America, since the 1970s and the first catfish production industry in the South, aquaculture activity has been met with much public skepticism and strict regulatory oversight, favoring to limit rather than grow. Primarily, the skepticism and current state regulating structure stem from three arching factors that come “built-in” to the nature of aquaculture; they are Environmental, Social, and Economic concerns.

Environmental concerns: For aquaculture using natural water sources, concerns include water quality degradation, genetic pollution/bottle-necking, eutrophication (excessive nutrients), drug and antibiotic pollution and disease transmission from hatchery raised stocks. Environmental groups such as EarthJustice continuously lobby for bans and restrictions on foreign and domestic aquaculture operations, labeling the activity as some of the most environmentally degrading in the world, and a meager use of the most important resource, water.

Social concerns: Industry-wide include the use/leasing of water area otherwise used for recreational fishing and boating activities, diverse permitting and regulatory approval processes, and general public opposition to the practice for many reasons including land-use and cultural conflicts. Much like wind farms that can be visually unpleasing for adjacent land and homeowners, aquaculture operations might fair the same for those adjacent to the water.

Economic concerns: Include heavy initial capital investment with uncertainties in return margin, unstable demand and distribution, threats of disease spoilage, investment shortages, competition with foreign sources, and limits on permits for easy sale opportunities.

Despite the concerns that the industry faces there are ways around the difficulties and stringent legal formalities in place state-to-state, the goal being to establish some type of aquaculture activity for commercial, recreational, or research purposes. Culture of any individual species is limited according to the allowance of state governments and the leasing and permitting structure. For example, one could possibly obtain a permit to farm catfish in earthen ponds in Alabama but would not be able to in Vermont, because of regulatory decisions made previously and adopted into the aquaculture management scheme of the state.

This discrepancy is caused by how far the state is willing to take the practice, meaning local agriculture departments and fish councils who provide the framework of what’s permitted and what’s not, or what resources can be used and why. These decision making organizations take into account the three major factors of concern (environmental, social, and economic) deciding regulatory management according to the risk of the endeavor and the opportunity it may present.

A notable example, in 1998, when the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (RICRMC) decided rather than quell shellfish (oyster, clam, scallop) aquaculture, they would manage it in a sustainable manner, allowing limited access to a few well-qualified individuals to submerged land and estuary space. In turn, because of RICRMC decisions, shellfish aquaculture has become a major contributor to the Rhode Island economy, establishing over 600 well-paying jobs and giving college graduates an opportunity to work within the marine sector, many of whom went to school for just that. The point being, the casual progression, sustainable in nature, involving careful decision making by experts, will lead the aquaculture industry to where it “should” be rather than where it “can” be, depending on which state you’re in.

Massachusetts Department of Agriculture is one of the best management agencies for aquaculture activity in the country. In Mass., 15 species of fish and 10 species of shellfish are farmed either for commercial or scientific purposes. The shellfish aquaculture sector alone is responsible for generating over $7 million in 2012. If the entrepreneur puts together a solid proposal of how, where, what, when, and why they are farming, the Mass. aquaculture department will review it, formalize, decide, and choose to implement and permit your proposal, or not. Being one of the more liberal state government agencies, aquaculture in Massachusetts has grown substantially over the past 10 years, attributing success to the local trade agency that lobbies for the sector, the Massachusetts Aquaculture Association. Trade and co-operative agencies play an important role in the commercial success of the state’s culture programs, helping the venture increase access to distribution, wholesalers, and transferring knowledge of aquaculture principles and the best management practices associated, all-in-all attributing to a diverse, well-managed, and sustainable aquaculture industry.

Why focus on the way Massachusetts runs the show?

In 2011, a friend of mine, David Barr, was teaching chemistry at Cranston High School West in Cranston, Rhode Island. Within the year, Dave decided he wanted to quit his teaching position and start a tilapia Aquaponics operation on his step-father’s farmland in Rehoboth, Massachusetts. Dave was solid in his conviction to begin the farm, so eager in-fact that he cashed out his $80,000 pension, from teaching close to 12 years, and used this money to fund the operation.

I knew Dave in High School; I went to West and played on the track team for two years. Dave was the coach. I took a vocational aquaculture program that Dave was aware of; naturally, as our relationship grew as friends, when he made the decision to start the farm, I was the first person he went to for some technical advice.

Aquaponics is the cultivation of plants (vegetables) using nutrient-rich water from the accompanying cultivation of fish in the same system. Dave knew he wanted to grow tilapia because the hardy, disease resistant, omnivorous fish has been grown in recirculating aquaculture systems for well over 20 years, and grow well in containment.

However, I made it clear to him that they are a tropical species and it will be a considerable cost in the winter to heat the water, stressing the importance of fish metabolism, telling him fish will not grow unless the temperature of the water is optimal. Also, because tilapia species are nonnative to New England, shipping and holding them in containment is only allowed with a Mass. Permit to carry invasive species. This permit is only given after inspection of the farm by the aquaculture specialist Sean Bowen from the Mass. Dept. of Agriculture. With his approval, we were granted the invasive species permit, just one of the permits we needed from the department to begin our farm. These along with countless other warnings were given to Dave from me and others before we began; like most entrepreneurs, Dave listened to us, but always made his own decisions.

With one permit down, all we needed now was a ‘Class 2’ aquaculture license to purchase the fingerling (young) tilapia for the already set-up greenhouse growing system. A formal application was drafted by Dave and myself and submitted to the department. About a month later, our permit was sent to us, accepting the terms of our operation and legalizing the tilapia culture operation.

To date, no other Class 2 license has been given to a recirculating tilapia aquaculture operation in the state of Massachusetts; we became the first one to have such permission. The reason this happened is because of the nature of farm, Aquaponics calls for the constant re-use of the water to eliminate any discharge into the surrounding environment and watershed (also a very well written application). Aquaculture of tilapia without the use of hydroponic systems to grow vegetables, results in tremendous amounts of discharged water back into the environment, loaded with nutrients from waste and feed; thus the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture is reluctant to permit such activity for an invasive species like tilapia. If some fish or eggs were to escape with some of the discharged water, native water bodies could be devastated long-term; because this could never happen within our greenhouse operation, we were given permission to grow the fish.

This experience further exemplifies the willingness of the state department and how far they will go in regards to aquaculture development, also the type of concern that must be dealt with within the agency in making licensing decisions.

Today, Raising the Barr Farms is still operating and growing tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers, peas, and a host of other veggies at different times of the year, as well as tilapia year-round. Perhaps the most intriguing and scientifically inspiring aspect of the operation is the wintering of the tilapia within large tanks using low cost wood-fire heating methods.

A common misconception about growing tilapia in the North is that, because they are a tropical species, they could not live in containment during the brutal winter months. Unless the investor is willing to spend more than he’s making to heat the water, low cost methods need to be further researched before investors would even hint at the notion. For me, the main goal was to prove that tilapia can be over-wintered in containment while still fetching a profit, and yes, I did it. While I no longer consult for the company, Dave and company still set up stands at local farmers markets where all produce and fish are sold. The Class 2 license allows the sale of both fish and veggies as long as they are not altered from their original shapes, meaning, as long as the vegetables are not sliced and the fish is not filleted or dead when sold. Further licenses are needed with the Department of Health and Sanitation in order to “process” any of the farmed product. These licenses tend to run on the outrageously expensive side, so some time is needed before Raising the Barr can start filleting fish and selling the more marketable fillets to the public.

The ‘green movement’ contributes to success

We can attribute the success of this operation and others similar in nature to the current “green movement” that started about five years ago and spread from the West coast to East coast essentially overnight.

I can also say that the courage set forth by Dave to start this small farm was backed by the success of other small farms in the region. What this movement has done is encourage people to become more aware and conscious about what they are actually eating, meaning, where did this meat or fish come from? Was it raised sustainably? (Sustainability has become a powerful world in society.) Was it fed drugs or antibiotics?

These are among other issues and questions about food that influence markets and retail outlets. Closer to home, the general public has assumed that “organic” foods are better for you; well, while some may spend a lot more for the “organic” label, this aspect is not so black and white, in-fact, technically the USDA owns the rights to the term “organic.” I always get a shocked reaction when I tell people that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) legally owns “organic” rights. What this means is that any farm (agriculture) that the government incentivized (80%) can market the product as “organic” but in-fact could be genetically modified, grown using non-conventional methods, and not even from the U.S. –– just packaged and labeled here.

What s more acceptable for us middle-classers is simply to buy more locally-grown foods supporting the local economy and farmers alike. Where do you get this locally grown food? Well, the local farmers market is a good start. And even some of the “whole-food” grocery stores, big or small. If you don’t know where your food comes from, then you don’t know the process under which it was farmed; therefore you don’t know what you re-putting in your body. There are some questionable farms here in the U.S. using some questionable methods, and genetically engineering questionable super-crops. If we eat food from different countries, how much less do we know about this food source?

If the USDA doesn’t need to label where the food is from, then how will we know if the food is from a foreign country? These questions, at least to me, are stressful to contemplate –– think about all the food consumed in the world. Is there really enough time to inspect every last grain, every last fillet, every last farm? If you’d like to know when, where, how, what, when, and why your food was farmed, do yourself a favor, and buy local, and don’t be scared of the fish either.•