Salmon skins glisten in the waters below as three men wait, nets in hand, for the right catch to swim near the surface. The fish, grouped into one corner of an expansive pool, flop against its surface as the nets swoop in, splashing water that’s conspicuously salt-free onto the metal platform. This, of course, isn’t the wild, where 2-year-old Atlantic salmon like this rarely venture south of the Connecticut River and have seldom been spotted in the Chesapeake Bay.
This is The Conservation Fund’s Freshwater Institute, located nearly 80 miles inland in Shepherdstown, WV. It’s currently the only place in the United States that’s growing Atlantic salmon on land with the use of recirculating aquaculture or closed containment systems — and it’s a window into the fast-approaching future.
This research facility has been chipping away at the factors that keep farmed fish, and salmon in particular, from being environmentally and economically sustainable. Its director, Joseph Hankins, said one goal is to provide a “proof of concept” to the broader industry that it can be done.
Elsewhere in the watershed, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future are growing fish and plants together in a lab that has learned firsthand the challenges that can accompany an aquaponics venture.
And a growing amount of research is being conducted by the industry itself, which is still a fledgling inside the United States. New technology is making it possible to grow fish on land with less water, less food and less pollution, but aquaculture ventures are still figuring out how to make the costly facilities financially sustainable.
In the Chesapeake Bay region, fish farms have the potential to relieve pressure on wild sources of seafood by providing locally grown alternatives, but only if they can do so in a way that doesn’t further pollute the region’s water supply.
“Farmed aquaculture product is a necessity,” said Connor Boney, marketing manager for the Jessup, MD-based seafood supplier J. J. McDonnell.
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