Aquaculture, Biotechnology Are Changing Food Industry - Part 1

by David Little

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series on the impact of biotechnology on the economies of Maryland and Baltimore. [Part 2: State, City Rank 3rd in Biotechnical Research]
     Nowadays, that fish on your dinner plate is likely never to have seen a river, lake, or ocean.

     A steadily increasing number of finfish and shellfish are being raised by commercial growers in tanks and ponds, with the result that seafood is fast becoming a kind of livestock commodity.

     At the same time, aquaculture-the intensive farming of dense populations of captive marine animals-has become the subject of considerable controversy.

     Some scientists and environmentalists complain that-fish farms produce unacceptable levels of animal wastes that are fouling the environment. Veterinarian Michael W. Fox, in his book Eating With Conscience: The Bioethics of Food1, claims that farmed fish are raised in a "pharmaceutical stew" of antibiotics and weird chemicals.

     Other industry critics worry that accidents on fish farms are likely to enable foreign species and genetically altered animals to escape into the environment, with potentially disastrous consequences for the ecology.

     On the other side of the debate are scientists and government officials who say that aquaculture is a desperately needed means to provide a hungry, growing world population with high- quality protein and take some of the pressure off badly over-fished wild ocean stocks, while providing a safe, clean alternative to seafood that is hauled from increasingly polluted seas.

     Who's right? It's clear that the stakes are high in this debate. Now a group of Baltimore-based University of Maryland scientists is using the tools of biotechnology to try to solve aquaculture's problems. They believe that increased technical sophistication can result in an industry that is both more profitable and more environmentally friendly. A successful outcome for their efforts at the Aquaculture Research Center (ARC), a nondescript former warehouse in Fells Point, could have a considerable impact on our future diet and the environment, as well as on Maryland's economy.

     They also claim it's possible their research will spawn a new urban aquaculture industry in the heart of Baltimore.

     The Aquaculture Research Center is an outpost of the University of Maryland's Center of Marine Biotechnology (COMB), which occupies 127,000 square feet of research space in the Inner Harbor's Columbus Center.

     In a recent interview, Dr. Yonathon Zohar, an ARC researcher who is also director of COMB, explained why he believes aquaculture is a vital industry that must be supported and expanded.

     "All around the world," he said, "the fishing industry is collapsing. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that right now 70% of the world's fisheries are depleted, becoming rapidly depleted, or are recovering from serious depletion.

     "Meanwhile, the world's human population derives 60 percent of its protein from seafood, and by the year 2025 demand will have grown to double our present supply. To meet this challenge, aquaculture needs to become much more cost-efficient and reliable, and we need to produce seven times as much farmed fish as we do now."

     Another factor that concerns officials is the large and growing yearly U.S. trade deficit in seafood products. According to Roy Castle, a project manager with the Maryland State Aquaculture Office, that deficit was $4.6 billion in 1997, up from $3.8 billion in 1996. The U.S. now imports more seafood than any other country except Japan, and health-conscious Americans are unlikely to stop reaching for fish sticks in the supermarket any time soon.

     To make aquaculture more efficient, more profitable, and less controversial, scientists must find new approaches to old problems, such as the reluctance of certain valuable species, like salmon and striped bass, to breed in captivity, the vulnerability of dense populations of animals to disease, and the slow rate at which fish mature to market size compared to some other animals like chickens.

     One proposed solution of ARC scientists involves enclosing the entire life cycle of the animal in a sealed indoor aquatic environment within which every possible factor is zealously examined and controlled. No substance should enter or leave this environment unless the scientists intend it to do so. The water is triple-filtered and reused. In this sealed environment, micro-organisms break down many of the animals' waste products into benign substances. Scientists examine the muscles and stomachs of wild fish in order to design feeds for maximum growth.

     By controlling water temperature and salinity and the length of the fluorescent "day," and by using bioengineered hormonal implants, Dr. Zohar reports that researchers can now coax striped bass into breeding in any month of the year. Gene transplants cause the fish to grow much faster from embryos to market size.

     As yet, the critics have not been silenced. For instance, although the closed nature of the system has greatly reduced the employment of antibiotics, a few are still used. On the subject of animal wastes, Larry Bohlen, conservation chairman of the Maryland Sierra Club, says, "We are leery of big promises on the creative disposal of wastes, because of the tremendous concentrations of fish in aquaculture."

     Dr. Zohar is continuing to work on the problem of wastes and believes that altered feeds can reduce nitrogen and phosphorus levels in solid wastes.

     Some people voice a reluctance to eat genetically altered (or "transgenic") seafood. Dr. Zohar's answer is that the genetic damage in a transgenic fish is minuscule compared to that in the hybrid fish already commonly used in aquaculture.

     What about the loss of foreign or genetically altered species into the environment? Most likely, no system is foolproof. The perversity of human nature can lead to pranks and sabotage. A hurricane or tornado may flatten an indoor aquafarm and spill its contents.

     However, it is difficult to see how anything could be made more secure than ARC's completely closed system. For that reason the Maryland Agriculture Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently licensed ARC to import a fish called Mediterranean sea bream for aquaculture trials.

     What about the economics of the situation? Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, says that on some days he sells his haul of rockfish for as little as one dollar a pound. "No one can afford to raise fish and sell them at anything near that low a price," he says.

     In fact, at present ARC's closed system is costly to run. But ARC's researchers are determined to solve the issue of costs along with all of the other problems that growers face. Their success would be a shot in the arm for Maryland's established aquaculture enterprises, most of which are barely profitable.

     As for starting an urban aquaculture industry in Baltimore's empty warehouses, Dr. Zohar believes that it can eventually be done successfully. "One of the advantages of a closed-loop indoor system is that it can be placed anywhere, in the city just as well as in the country," he says.

     Although he would like to see inner city residents be trained to work in such operations, the impact on Baltimore's labor market may not be very great. ARC's 10,000 square foot Fell's Point facility, which Dr. Zohar regards as the new industry prototype, operates with the help of just two 40-hour-a-week technicians.

     Over 99% of Maryland's current fish farms are tiny mom-and-pop operations, and many of them have benefited from low-interest loan programs through the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

     It is possible that one day a number of such operations may take up residence in Baltimore, providing super-fresh fare for the city's restaurants .

The next installment in this series will explore trends in biotechnical research in the City's institutions of higher learning, and will take up the question of who is likely to benefit economically from the discoveries that are made.

1NewSage Press, 1997

Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel. All rights reserved. We invite your comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on May 6, 1998.