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Opportunities, challenges in US aquacultures future

Dan Hansen

Correspondent, Wisconsin State Farmer


Wisconsin Rapids

There are two radically different views regarding the future of aquaculture in the United States, according to Ron Johnson, an aquaculture outreach specialist with the University of Wisconsin Extension Service.


“The late economist Peter Drucker said that aquaculture represents one of the most promising investment opportunities of the 21st Century,” Johnson related. The other diverging thought is that aquaculture in the US is being stymied by a regulatory framework resulting in a lengthy, painful bureaucratic permitting process.


Johnson, who spoke during the 2012 Wisconsin Aquaculture Association conference March 9 at the Hotel Mead and Conference Center, said there’s no doubt demand for seafood will increase significantly in the coming years. 


“The wild capture fishery is decreasing while world population is increasing,” he affirmed. “China’s middle class is expected to reach 375 million by 2025, which is greater than the entire US population, and these are the people who buy the seafood we raise.”


Asia Dominates the Market

He noted that yearly global seafood consumption averages 35 pounds per person. “Total world production is about 58 million tons with a value of $100 billion. Aquaculture worldwide is a tremendous industry, with almost 90 percent of the production coming from Asia.


“Asia gets aquaculture,” Johnson emphasized. “They’ve been doing it for centuries, and they do it well. The commit the necessary resources to it but that isn’t happening in the US which does very little in the way of aquaculture compared to the rest of the world.”


China currently has 60 percent of the world aquaculture production. “US production was at $1.1 billion in 2007 and we’ve declined since then,” Johnson remarked. “We’re only generating 1 percent of global production. Even with limited US production, the industry is still creating 181,000 full-time jobs. if we were to increase our production by 1 percent, we could double the number of jobs.”


He reported that catfish comprise 45 percent of the US aquaculture production but there’s been a 41 percent decline in production over the past five years. “Our seafood deficit is almost $11 billion, and that’s important because when we buy fish about 85-90 percent is imported,” Johnson stated. “That means those dollars are going overseas to Asia. Vietnam expects to export over $36 million worth of catfish to the US this year, up 26 percent from two years ago.”


Wisconsin Leads the Midwest

The 2,500 aquaculture farms registered in Wisconsin generate $14 million in sales, according to Johnson. “Of those 2,500 only 130-150 are what we consider commercial farms,” he explained. “Wisconsin ranks 20th in US aquaculture production and is the largest in the Midwest. We’re second in baitfish, which is our largest sector; we’re 6th in gamefish and 9th in trout. We produce only 2.3 percent of the total seafood consumed in Wisconsin.”


Despite the growing demand, there are several obstacles to growth in aquaculture production. “We’re working with state agencies to overcome regulatory hurdles. We’re trying to discover if new technologies will prove to be cost effective. Financial institutions still don’t understand aquaculture, and we’re facing stiff global competition,” he said.


However, Johnson points to aquaponics as a bright spot for the future of Wisconsin aquaculture because of its efficient year-round operation. “We have two commercial farms that are currently up and running, and we have several others that are in the process of being built,” he said. “The Buy Fresh, Buy Local program from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture is another great tool to help market our products.”


 Aquaponics In Wisconsin

Bethany Reinholz, an agriculture energy advisor with Focus on Energy, has special expertise related greenhouses and aquaponics. She stressed that building efficiency is key to a successful aquaponics enterprise because heating accounts for 70-80 percent of the energy costs.


She noted that Focus on Energy is a statewide program that offers energy-saving advice along with financial assistance. “We help people make decisions regarding energy efficient projects that make sense and have a short payback, and we also have funding opportunities through incentive programs and grants.”


Financial incentives are available for energy-efficient lighting, variable-speed heating and cooling equipment, processing equipment, refrigeration equipment and greenhouse material. “If you think of something that might save energy and are wondering if there’s an incentive, give me a call,” Reinholz said.


When building a greenhouse for aquaponics, Reinholz advises looking at the big picture. “Carefully consider glazing materials for walls and roofs to achieve a balance between light transmission and heat loss,” she urged. “Also consider installing thermal curtains and perimeter insulation.”


Energy-Saving Equipment

Reinholz also recommends automated environmental controls as a means of saving energy. “For every one degree you can decrease your temperature at night, you can save 3 percent of your energy cost,” she said. “Saving energy is also important when heating water. LP and natural gas and wood are the cheapest options when combined with a high efficiency boiler or water heater.”


She recommends root-zone heating and installing larger, variable-speed motors. “Ventilation and screening are also important,” Reinholz stressed. “Right now high-intensity discharge lighting is the best choice for saving energy, and it will provide the light output in the color spectrum that plants need for best growth.”


By including energy-saving construction materials and installing the proper equipment, one aquaponics operation saved $11,000 in annual heating costs, Reinholz noted. “While their project cost increased by $30,000, with energy savings and incentives, they’re looking at a payback in just over two years,” she affirmed.


Buy Local Benefits 

Lois Federman, a senior agricultural marketing specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), assured Wisconsin fish farmers that the increasing demand for local foods can provide them with excellent opportunities for additional income.


“Consumers want to know more about where the products they buy are produced,” she remarked. “Don’t be afraid of the consumer, whether it’s a restaurant, grocery store or individual. They want to know your story, they want to have a good feeling about their food.”


She pointed out that consumers are not only looking for local food but they want to be able to purchase it throughout the year. “I think this fits into your industry really well,” Federman stressed. “You also need to understand how to add value to your products, which started with produce but is so much more than that today. Smoking trout is one way to add value to your product.”


Noting that farmers’ markets and online marketing are good ways to increase sales, Federman emphasized the need to get local aquaculture products into grocery stores. “The vast majority of consumers today shop at grocery stores, so that’s where we need to take our products.”


Federman observed that promoting locally grown foods is being done by the Wisconsin Tourism Department as well as DATCP. “ I urge you to get connected with that,” she said. “Regional food hubs, though not official cooperatives, are places where many producers can bring their products and work together in sales and distribution.


“We also have many programs that can help with marketing, and the Wisconsin Local Food Network is a great support structure to help with local and regional efforts build a food system.”


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