A fish story without exaggeration!

Does locavore salmon raised in the American Midwest sound counterintuitive?  If so, does the potential for farm-raised fish contributing to the heartland's economy and agriculture sound equally far-fetched?

Both possibilities are not just fanciful, but are beginning to happen, especially as our oceans become over-fished and more polluted. The science and technology of aquaculture—cultivating freshwater and saltwater populations under controlled conditions—is getting a much closer look—from everyone from consumers to retailers to investors. 

At the Freshwater Institute (FWI) in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, aquaculture experts are improving the efficiency and sustainability of raising fish as well as reducing the cost.  As part of The Conservation Fund, FWI pursues the complementary goals of environmental sustainability, human health and economic vitality.  

This is why we are focusing on water efficiency and new models for how to provide food for a planet projected to have 8 billion protein-consuming people sometime in the next decade. FWI is pioneering a way to raise fish on land with multiple benefits: quality, safety, freshness, and nutrition.  As a non-advocacy organization, FWI openly shares what it learns about the potential of growing salmon and other fish for food in tanks - on growth rates, survival, diet, fish quality, handling waste and market research. In the Midwest, its emblematic science and technology is being applied at Bell Aquaculture in Indiana, where they are raising trout, salmon and perch.   

Comparisons to meat, poultry and other mass-farming industries - which often have waste, efficiency and humane issues—do not hold up.  Fish can be raised in a manner that is healthy for the fish, with clean water, ample containment tanks and responsible capture and re-use of waste, often as agricultural fertilizer.  With the lack of pathogens found in the wild, and the absence of the use of antibiotics or hormones, fish can grow in fresh water, of which 99 percent is re-circulated.

FWI has also proven its point in the marketplace. Recently 40,000 pounds of our land-based farmed salmon were test marketed in grocery stores and restaurants throughout the mid-Atlantic , gaining positive reviews and earning a premium price point.  Farmed fish are the most efficient source of protein per unit of feed input. High fat fish like farmed salmon are the best source of essential Omega-3 fatty acids that are critical for heart and brain health.

Consumer acceptance and potential demand is high for fish that is just as healthy—if not healthier—than wild fish.  

The next step is scaling up aquaculture here in America.  Domestically the U.S. is the leading global importer of fish and fishery products at $18 billion in 2013, up 8% over 2012’s record value. Stunningly, over 92% of the edible seafood supply enjoyed by American consumers is imported. Imported seafood is the largest contributor to the U.S. balance of trade deficit amongst food items, larger than coffee, larger than wine, and is inarguably a significant problem for our national food security.

The U.S. could have dozens more aquaculture centers in places far from the oceans—in counties and states where people need good jobs, and where investors are willing to provide capital.  By raising fish locally, transportation costs can be reduced and facilities sited where the cost of power is lower.  These centers would generate direct and indirect jobs and bring additional benefits to nearby agriculture.

When so many benefits are clear—economic development, food security, human health, conservation of natural resources, and a sustainable business model—the time is ripe for greater scale, public receptivity and far-sighted investment. FWI's science and findings give us a clear and evidence-based sense of what's possible.  We can allow our oceans to recover and renew their fish stocks while promoting healthier human diets on land.  

We need to find solutions for salmon and other fish to thrive both in freshwater environments as well as in our oceans and seas.  After all, Earth is essentially a water planet—and it's fitting that one of the Mitchell Foundation's primary areas of focus is water.  Water on our planet—whether it's the 97% that's salt water in our oceans, or the 0.3% that is freshwater in our rivers and lakes - is under enormous stress from pollution, increased demand, climate change and other forces.  (You may wonder about the remaining 2.7% of freshwater: it is locked up in glaciers and ice caps, or flows deep down in aquifers).  

Water is a vital aspect of many other aspects of our work at The Conservation Fund.  While we're technically called a "land trust," much of the land we've protected—over 7.5 million acres in all 50 states—has riparian systems, wetlands and lakes and ponds.   We've protected historic waterways such as the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.  At our core, we work at the intersection of conservation communities—we believe environment and economics are inextricable.  

FWI's scientific leadership can have profound changes in ensuring a robust food supply with responsible agricultural practices and efficient use of water in the face of increasing global demand and fluctuating weather. There are many "wins" in this innovative approach—now is the time to scale it so that America's breadbasket might also become a 'fishbasket.'


Larry Selzer is President and CEO of The Conservation Fund. Follow The Conservation Fund on Twitter @ConservationFun.

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