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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Farming Fish for the Future

Air Date: Week of

With fish stocks plummeting in oceans around the world, some entrepreneurs say "aqua-culture" can help fill the gap. Reporter Pippin Ross of WFCR visits an organic fish farm in western Massachusetts, which tries to mimic natural ecological cycles in their facility. They use fish excrement to fertilize basil plants, which in turn filter the water from the fish's tanks.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. As the world's population has swollen, people have turned more and more to the oceans for protein. But that increased pressure has dangerously depleted all the world's major fisheries. So increasingly, markets are turning to fish farmers for a reliable supply. There are now some 250 square miles of fish farms in the United States alone, producing almost a half a billion pounds of fish each year. But like other large-scale livestock operations, fish farming can foul water with manure. In Amherst, Massachusetts, though, one small businessman thinks he's found a solution to this problem by raising fish and plants together. Reporter Pippin Ross of member station WFCR has our story.

(Sounds of traffic)

ROSS: Alongside this busy highway in Amherst, Massachusetts, a quiet revolution in food production is taking place. It's happening here, under the plastic covering of a 150-foot greenhouse.

(Flowing water)

ROSS: Inside the greenhouse is a series of water tanks filled with pink fish called talapia. Suspended over the fish tanks are rows of basil plants. The plants and fish are components of a self-contained ecosystem. It was developed by John Reed, who calls his greenhouse a bioshelter. As Reed shovels grain into a tankful of talapia, the fish erupt into a feeding frenzy.

REED: So this is a mixture of whole grains, vitamins, and a little bit of vegetable oils. That's the feed that we feed them, and I'll toss the feed in and you can - (tosses feed in; tumultuous water in the tank).

ROSS: Reed makes his living selling the fish and basil. The bioshelter is designed so that the fish and plants are mutually dependent. As dirty water from the fish tanks is filtered, the water passes over the basil plants. The plants thrive off of the fish feces. They help clean the water by trapping microscopic wastes in their root systems. Again, John Reed.

REED: The fish make the food for the plants, and the plants clean the water for the fish. And it cycles from fish tank to filter to plants and back to fish tank again.

ROSS: This recycling of wastes is what differentiates Reed's bioshelter from most fish farming operations. For each pound of fish produced, there is also a pound of manure. But in the bioshelter, most of the manure is channeled back into the system as plant food. Any surplus manure is used to grow vegetables outside of the greenhouse in the summer. Every inch of the bioshelter simulates nature's balance, including a sunken garden Reed calls his biological island.

REED: We grow flower and tropical plants. And those plants produce the pollen that the beneficial insects need to live on when the pest insects are not around.

ROSS: Growing fish for harvest dates back to ancient China. But Reed is the only person in the country who is currently using a non-polluting, closed environment to raise his fish without relying on chemicals. But this attempt to mimic nature has its limits. Like nature, when the bioshelter is stressed by overproduction, diseases move in, and eventually the whole system shuts down. That means for now, Reed's got a natural cap on production.

(Fish falling out of bins, flopping)

ROSS: As 70 pounds of talapia are weighed and loaded onto ice to be shipped to a local supermarket, Reed says this limitation presents a problem. Talapia is a meaty white fish appealing to the American palate. The bioshelter's 600-pound-per-week production doesn't meet the demands of his consumers.

REED: I have someone, a phone call at least once a week, someone looking for 3- to 4,000 pounds of fish a week, or someone calling for 20 cases of basil or something else, that I just politely take their name and try and say in 6 months, when our new building is finished, we'll give you a call.

ROSS: Reed is using a million dollar emerging technologies grant from the State of Massachusetts to build a new, much larger bioshelter. While it will step up production, it poses a whole new set of environmental challenges. Reed acknowledges the larger bioshelter will generate excess manure. If not properly managed, too much manure leaches into and pollutes groundwater: a serious problem for many of the country's bigger fish and livestock farms. Reed admits that building this larger bioshelter is an experiment. Investigating the potential and limitations of his bioshelter, says Reed, is the most compelling part of his job.

REED: It will be generations before we truly understand ecosystem dynamics. The bacterial species alone that live in this system, we've been just doing analysis of that now and there's about 120 different species that we've logged so far that are going on here, sixty of which are predominantly doing something we want them to have done. And there's probably a few hundred others that are hanging out, waiting for their niche to roll around before they will start to activate themselves in some way.

ROSS: Reed's current goal is to increase his talapia production by one thousand percent. He also plans to grow higher-priced specialty produce, such as cilantro, tomatoes, and exotic salad greens. Reed says he's finally paid off the loans that went toward 8 years of research and development. And now he's ready to find out of it's possible to make a living by mass-producing food with a minimum of pollution. For Living on Earth, I'm Pippin Ross in Amherst, Massachusetts.



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