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Serious About Seafood

November 9, 2013
By: Rhonda Brooks, Farm Journal Seeds & Production Editor

Fish and shrimp make a splash on the farm 

Iowa Aquaculture 2

Making good use of their empty hog barns, Mark (above) and cousin Jeff Nelson raise striped bass for high-end restaurants in the Midwest.

Mark and Jeff Nelson have reeled in and landed an unlikely new opportunity on their grain and hog operation in Webster City, Iowa: fish farming.

The two cousins first started kicking around the idea of getting into aquaculture when profits in the pork industry turned soft and several of their sow farrowing barns sat empty.

That was three years ago. Today, their aquaculture enterprise, Iowa’s First, is netting interest from other farmers and strong demand from customers.

"We think there’s a really good future in aquaculture, given the growing demand globally for food," Jeff says.

The Nelsons produce hybrid striped bass for high-end restaurants in the Midwest, using opposing flows technology, a system that creates a continual current and oxygen in their eighteen 10,000-gal. tanks. The cousins are in the process of transitioning their production to a different fish species, barramundi, also called Asian sea bass, which is native to Australia.

Both of the fish species are anadromous, meaning they can move back and forth between salt water and fresh water. The Nelsons use fresh water for production.

"Long-term, we believe the barramundi will be a better fit for our system," Jeff says. "They’re growing very well, a bit faster than the striped bass, but it’s hard to tell how well they’ll do until we go through a complete marketing cycle."

Going mainstream. Allen Pattillo, Iowa State University fisheries and aquaculture

Extension specialist, says that U.S. aquaculture is gaining momentum but still has a long way to go before it becomes mainstream. While the U.S. ranks second worldwide for total pounds of seafood consumed annually, the country ranks only 15th in production.

"Seafood products are our second-largest trade deficit behind oil coming into the U.S.," he adds.

The National Oceanic and Atmos­pheric Administration (NOAA) says the annual U.S. seafood trade deficit  more than $11.2 billion. The U.S. imports 91% of its seafood—50% of which is farm raised abroad—primarily from China, as well as other southeast Asia countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. Even so, much of the imported seafood is turned away by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Pattillo notes.

"About half of the seafood FDA inspects it rejects because of contamination problems," he says. Furthermore, consumers can no longer expect the world’s oceans to meet the demand for seafood. "Our oceans are maxed out at 90 million metric tons, which is about what we’re harvesting each year, and that’s leveled off in the past couple of decades," Pattillo says.

Despite growing demand, the U.S. aquaculture industry has only sputtered along. NOAA cites several reasons: a lack of technology to support industry development, production

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - Mid-November 2013

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