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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 doubled in the past generation, people have extracted so much food from the oceans that catches are plummeting. At the same time, health concerns are pushing demand up. To fill the gap, markets are turning to fish farmers. Last year, almost a half a billion pounds of fish were farmed in the US alone. But like other livestock operations, fish farming can foul waterways with manure. In Amherst, Massachusetts, one small businessman thinks he's found a solution to the 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 tilapia. 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 tilapia, 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. 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 flowering tropical plants. And those plants produce the pollen that the beneficial insects need to live on when the pest insects are not around.

ROSS: 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 tilapia are weighed and loaded onto ice to be shipped to a local supermarket, Reed says this limitation presents a problem. Tilapia 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, 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 another few hundred others that are hanging out.

ROSS: Reed's current goal is to increase his tilapia 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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