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The Aquafarmers

When we think about aquaculture, most of us associate it with the waterfront fish farming industry we’ve been hearing so much about lately. It’s that and more – it also includes the breeding, rearing and harvesting of plants and animals in water environments. The definition of aquaculture has expanded to incorporate pearl culture and inland fish farms where the only water comes from the local aquifer Although the Chinese have raised carp in their ponds since the Fifth Century B.C., it wasn’t until 1969 that a National Fisherman headline noted that Florida had become the first state to pass a law promoting experimental and commercial aquaculture. Brendan Breen is an example of the expansion of the parameters of aquaculture. He took an aquaculture class at the University of Rhode Island after working as a commercial fisherman with his own boat and working at a Massachusetts aquaculture business. He saw himself becoming an entrepreneur in some aspect of the fishing industry. His focus narrowed to concentrate on the production of pearls in quahogs after a class on how oysters make pearls. He knew clams could make pearls but it’s unusual to find one because clams can so easily expel any foreign object. All he had to do was learn how to artificially trigger clams to produce pearls without expelling them. He hit the books, put a lot of time into lab work, studied pearl culture and biology. He consulted with his professor and developed a plan that, after a period of trial and error, worked. In his first crop, most of Brendan’s clams developed and kept their pearls. The pearls created by clams range from a pure white to a dark purple color. Having graduated with a degree in Aquaculture and Fisheries, Brendan has developed a business plan and started his company, Mercenaria Pearl, applied for a patent for his process and received a grant to acquire space to begin pearl production. He expects the first crop that he can market to jewelers and other buyers to be harvested in 2022. Grace Nelson was on her way to becoming a teacher at Iowa State University when her father saw a diagram of a food dispenser over a pool of fish in a booth at the annual Iowa Pork Congress that he attended as a farmer. He had an empty barn and thought he could retrofit the barn and put in fish tanks. Luckily, he had a good water supply – his farm is close to Iowa’s most productive aquifer. His water usage is about 15,000 gallons a day, most of which is reused to water the cornfields. Grace’s father and uncle ran the family farm. When her father found, after a lot of research, a unique recirculating water system that cuts the cost of energy and overhead, they bought it and their fish farm operation started in 2012. It was so successful it attracted Canadian investors who bought the fish farm and kept the Nelson family in charge of operations. The investors are looking to grow their company by acquiring more farm property. The investors’ company, VeroBlue Farms, bought the local Electrolux factory that closed in 2011 to use as a warehouse and are working on starting their own hatchery to grow the barramundi they now import from Australia. Their goal is to become big enough to become economically competitive and have enough fish to attract the large grocery chains that won’t talk to them unless they can provide thousands of pounds of fish weekly. The owner of Peconic Escargot, the first certified snail farm in the country, is Taylor Knapp. He started as a chef in Greenport who used farm fresh ingredients and wanted to add snails to the menu. Not being able to find fresh snails was his “AhHa!” moment – he saw a need to fill and went through the red tape of getting certified to grow what is considered an invasive species in New York. His snail house, actually a greenhouse, has a protective barrier system to prevent the escape of any of his snails. Along the way to opening Peconic Escargot, Taylor has had help from Peconic Land Trust and the Stony Brook University Small Business Incubator in Calverton. From his startup in 2016, Taylor has taken a few hundred breeder snails to a weekly production of thousands of snails. His price list for snails and snail caviar appear online on his website, Peconic Escargot.com. On the south fork of Long Island Donna Lanzetti , founder and CEO of Manna Fish Farms, has been working with marine biologists from Stony Brook University and aquaculture experts from the University of New Hampshire. Her goal is to locate Aquapods off the coast of Southampton , stocking them with fingerling wild striped bass that will be 12 to 13 months old and genetically matched to the local striped bass population. The Aquapod has been developed as a unique container for growing fish. Tethered to the ocean floor offshore, the pod was inspired by naturally occurring schools of fish and Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. The enclosed fish swim the way they would outside the pod and get their food from the feeder buoy. The pods will be constructed of stainless steel with copper mesh panels that will keep the fish inside and allow the water to flow through freely. She plans to start with one pod stocked with 28,000 striped bass fingerlings and will add more pods and more fish until they reach their goal of 24 pods. The fingerlings will be provided by Multi-Aquaculture Systems Fish Farm in Napeague. The whole operation will be automated and can be run by remote control including giant feeder buoy towed from New Hampshire to Long Island. Each pod will have access to the feeder buoy. With commercial fishermen very much in mind, Donna plans to time her harvest so she does not flood the market. Multi-Aquaculture Systems Fish Farm started after Bob and Marie Valenti bought the East Hampton property in an area known to locals as the “Promised Land.” Although she has a Ph.D. in marine biology from New York University, Marie Valenti is in charge of the food preparation for take-out and the small store where they sell seafood, chicken and goose eggs and baked goods. Bob Valenti runs the aquaculture business. They currently grow fingerling striped bass in their offshore net pens. The fingerlings eat squid, shrimp and baitfish. They reach their offshore location with their workboat, the “Seastainable.” They are currently the only offshore marine finfish aquaculture site in net pens in the open ocean in US coastal waters. There are challenges and opportunities in aquaculture. Some of the challenges are the red tape and time delays of government regulation. There are also climate related problems like the massive algae bloom that has moved eight million farmed salmon in Norway from profit center to the dumps. Salmon swimming in pens can’t get away from the algae, which suffocates the fish. There are also opportunities for startups like Brendan Breen, Taylor Knapp, Donna Lanzetti, Grace Nelson’s family and the Valentis. Through the startups we create employment. Help is available for startups. Sea Grant can provide funding, Cornell Cooperative Extension has an active program teaching adults on the north fork of Long Island about stewardship of the bays through the SPAT program, where some of the oyster farmers that lease space from the Town of Islip learned how to grow oysters. The Peconic Land Trust works with the Farm Bureau, Cornell Cooperative Extension, the Suffolk County Planning Commission and others to maintain farmland accessibility and has developed its Farmland Leasing Program which enables small startups to grow by leasing property they can afford. Stony Brook University sponsors the Small Business Incubator in Calverton and provides space where entrepreneurs can work without the high cost of renting office space. We need to give new aquafarmers all the help they need if we want to continue to eat fish. We have overfished our waters. We have allowed boats from other countries to catch our fish. Aquaculture can fill the gap between the need and our supply of fish. Filling that need is making aquaculture the fastest growing form of food production in the world.

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