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Is It Time To Move Fish Farming Into Open Waters?

Ocean temperatures off San Diego and along much of the West Coast are unusually warm — approximately 5 to 7 degrees above average.
Our ocean along the West Coast as seen her in this undated photo of Big Sur is up 5 to 7 degrees above average.
Is It Time To Move Fish Farming Into Open Waters?
A national fish farming initiative announced in Carlsbad yesterday aims to increase seafood production and create jobs -- but environmentalists are concerned it could affect the ocean's health.

A national fish farming initiative announced in Carlsbad yesterday aims to increase seafood production and create jobs -- but environmentalists are concerned it could affect the ocean's health.

Fish farming is more common in other countries than in the United States ... but as wild species are threatened by overfishing, aquaculture is an emerging industry. Hubbs Sea World in San Diego is already raising white sea bass in a Carlsbad lagoon. Could they expand off shore? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA was in town this week to talk about a possible expansion -it could create jobs. We'll explore the pros and cons

Guest: Dr. Michael Rubin, Director, Office of Aquaculture, NOAA Fisheries Service


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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

I'm Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Fish farming is is more common in other countries than it is in the United States. But as wild species are threatened by over fishing, aqua culture is an emerging industry. Hub sea world in San Diego is already raising white sea bass in a Carlsbad lagoon. Could they expand with other species off shore? The national oceanic and atmospheric administration, or NOAA, was in town this week to talk about a possible expansion. It could create jobs. We'll explore the pros and cons. Maybe you're a fisherman or an eater of fish. If you've got questions about how this might affect you, call us. We're at 1-888-895-5727. And our guest here on the phone this afternoon is doctor Michael Rubino. He's director of the office of aqua culture at NOAA fishery service. Thanks so much for being with us.

RUBINO: Thank you for having me on.

ST. JOHN: A lot of people are not very familiar with aqua culture. Explain it to us

RUBINO: Aqua culture is a tool to do a variety of things. It's really the growing of fish, shell fish like oysters, clams, and mussels, oral shrimp or algae in the Marine or fresh water aquatic environment. This can be done for food or it can be done to grow, say, oysters to replenish oyster reefs or to grow fingerling was fish as it's done with salmon on the west coast

ST. JOHN: Why is it important to open up coastal waters for fish farming?


RUBINO: As you said at the top, many of us like to eat seafood.

ST. JOHN: Yes.

RUBINO: And doctors and nutritionists are urging us to eat more seafood because of the health benefits. Some of you may have noticed that a couple of months ago, the USDA came out with its new food pyramid and actually changed it to a plate. But they're recommending that we eat twice as much seafood as we currently eat in the United States. And we only eat about one meal a week. Going from one meal a week to two meals a week, that's a lot of seafood.

ST. JOHN: That has a big impact on the ocean, yeah.

RUBINO: And tonight, we import 85% of the seafood that we consume in the United States by value, about 2/3 by weight. As we have developed an aqua culture program the at NOAA, one of the things we've heard around the country, across the spectrum, is that we need to take a bit more responsibility ourselves for where our seafood comes from. And we're working very hard to the fishing industry to rebuild wild populations. So that our U.S. wild stocks are sustainable. At the same time, we need to grow more of our seafood here at home through aqua culture under our laws in a we that wives our coastal communities.

ST. JOHN: So what is this initiative? That's an initiative that Noah's proposing, I understand. And how will hub sea world here in San Diego be involved?

RUBINO: Yes, well, the initiative is part of a new aqua culture policy that the department of commerce and NOAA issued about a month ago. And as part of that policy -- policy is, say, things like we need more seafood, we want to do this sustainably. We want to do it in concert and to compliment wild stock wild fingering and recreational fishing. But as part of that, the agency focused on a couple of initiatives. One is to increase shell fish farming and restoration in this country. So oysters, clams, and mussels. That's the largest part of marine aqua culture, which is the area that we work in. Yesterday, doctor Jane Luvchenko, our administrator of NOAA, also announced a a complimentary initiative, and that's on technology transfer innovation. We have a lot of science knowledge in this country. We have a lot of practical knowledge at the working waterfront, and we'd like to combine those two together to create what you might call blue green jobs in our coastal communities. Yesterday, hub sea world research institute there -- their hatchery up in Carlsbad was the back drop for an announcement about this national initiative of technology transfer and aqua culture.

ST. JOHN: This is something that would affect the whole nation. But could affect us here in San Diego. And of course, I think the -- the issue that's on the top of a lot of people's minds these days is jobs. Can you tell us how many and what kind of jobs that might create if it were to start happening more here in San Diego?

RUBINO: That's difficult to say. I think we're more at the level of -- we have a lot of anecdotal evidence around the country that aqua culture is creating jobs. If you go to Maine and new England, a number of fishermen who have been limited by days at sea are now growing mussels and oysters. And so that's the kind of experience we'd like to see as it can be represented in other parts of the country. And NOAA fisheries science center in La Jolla as well as institutes like hub sea world research institution have been working on the technology behind fin fish aqua culture, so the rearing of the lar vie, what kind of seed can you use, and how might you grow them in cages in California state waters or further off shore, or growing them on land in tanks and ponds. So the next step is to go from the research or hatchery stage to actual commercial stage

ST. JOHN: I do have a question about whether this would affect commercial fisheries. But we have somebody on the line with a question who is -- has some experience at that. So I'd like to go straight to Mike from Bonsall. Go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: Great subject. And I put myself through school as the captain of a shrimp boat in the gulf of Mexico. When I came out to California, I did try to do some commercial fishing here. But it's lobsters or local bottom fish. But what they had there at the lagoon with their aqua culture is awesome. And why not have that model all up and down our coast? The only -- I mean, your guest of course is much more versed than I am, but it looks like the biggest difficulties to over come would be site accusation that's suitable that won't impact local habitat.

ST. JOHN: That an issue doctor?

RUBINO: That is an issue in this country. And that's one of the reasons why aqua culture has not increased very much in the United States in the past ten years. We have a lot of coastal uses. Maintaining and conserving our valuable coastal resources has been very important. People like tourism, they like view scapes, second homes and so on. So we need to figure out how to make room for aqua culture, and how to continue to make room for working waterfronts

ST. JOHN: Mike, I just wanted to quickly go back to you and say that you are someone who's been a captain of a shrimp boat. You've been fishing out in the wild. You're not concerned that perhaps if hatcheries become the norm that fishing will be restricted in some way? Mike, are you still there? Okay.

NEW SPEAKER: In the gulf of Mexico, you have this seasonal fresh water influx that's oxygen depleted, you have this gigantic dead zone. All of the shrimp are coming out of -- they originate in estuaries, once again the south and east coast of the United States is rich with them, but over the last hundred and 50†years, they have been seriously impacted by development, run off, pollution. So there are many places where you can go find lots of oysters. You can't sell them because they're contaminated. Our west coast is relatively clean. I don't think -- if you could get a guy who's making a marginal living wild figuring in a depleted area, and you give him the opportunity to do aqua culture and give him a leg up with some grants or education combination, they're gonna jump all over that.

ST. JOHN: Interesting. So doctor Rubino, by the way, we're speaking with doctor Michael Rubino who's director of the office of aquaculature with NOAA fishery service of the when you have an aqua culture farm, it's not like you're releasing those fish into the ocean for wild fishermen. Automore like you're distributing them immediately to the farm from the marketplace.

RUBINO: That's correct. Although the salmon hatcheries on the west coast which do release fish that then come back is a form of aqua culture. But the aqua culture we more typically think about closes the cycle from hatchery through sending the fish or the oyster to market. But in response to Mike, the fisherman's comment, and I think you mentioned you were from Scotland where they're doing some salmon farming

ST. JOHN: Yes.

RUBINO: We have a range of technologies to produce seafood. And in some ways everything competes with everything else. But I think where the world is going is to think about a range of technologies from wild capture all the way through completely closing the cycle of aqua culture, and things in between to produce seed. And they all have advantages and disadvantages, all have challenges. But I think the message is we need to roll up our sleeves and figure out an American way of doing this that works for us

ST. JOHN: Okay. 1-888-895-5727 if you have a question or a comment for doctor Rubino. And I have seen helicopters carrying great buckets full of salmon spawn over the mountains to be implanted in hatcheries over Scottish lochs. It happens a lot. Why hasn't that evolved that rapidly here in the United States in

RUBINO: For a variety of reasons. Most of our aqua qualitiure in the United States is fresh water, catfish and trout. And until recently, we have had relatively healthy wild stocks for marine fish. And we still have healthy wild stocks in many parts of the country, and we're rebuilding them. Because of increased population and because of increased population in other parts of the world, demanding more seafood, we now have an opportunity to grow some of this seafood in an aqua culture. So we're trying to figure out from a regulatory perspective how this can be done in the marine environment

ST. JOHN: I understand that environmentalists do have concerns about this. And one of them is that introducing farm fish into the wild could change the genetic makeup of wild fish or damage them. How do you respond to that?

RUBINO: Well, these are legitimate concerns. These are concerns that we as a natural resource management and conservation agency take very seriously. The protection of wild stock in the Marine environment for us in terms of our jobs is paramount. And I think the aqua culture industry is very conscious as well of making sure because they depend on a healthy marine environment to grow things. And as I said, we have had a lot of lessons learned over the past 20†years about what to do is what not to do, and one of them is on the genetic side, to be very careful with what does grow in aqua culture doesn't affect the wild stock and vice versa.

ST. JOHN: What kind of things have you decided are not such a good idea to grow in aqua culture and which ones are in fact, ideally suited?

RUBINO: One of the things we've tried to focus on in this country is to grow local species and indigenous species in the United States, and to focus on those, at least if it's going to be in the Marine environment

ST. JOHN: So for people who are fish lovers, what kind of fish are we talking about here?

RUBINO: In the Marine environment, tonight, as I said we focus on oysters, clams, and mussels. We have some salmon farming up in the northwest and in Maine. And we have an opportunity here in the southwest and in Hawaii and perhaps in the gulf to grow some of the warm water species like California yellow tail for example

ST. JOHN: Yellow tail. That's very popular with fishermen, I know. And hub sea world is already breeding white sea bass. Is that something that might be generated on a larger scale or -- help us visualize how that might man test off the coast.

RUBINO: Well, I think this is all going to happen relatively slow.

ST. JOHN: Okay.

RUBINO: And we're not going to see a large number of fish farms off our coast any time soon. I think what we'll see is a period of ten years of experimentation of careful site selection, of monitoring and evaluation, to make sure that we're doing this in a way that is compatible with our marine environment protection, and also works in compliment with wild stock fishing.

ST. JOHN: So the fishing industry didn't have to worry that all of a sudden, there's gonna be this new source of fish that will usurp their business.

RUBINO: I think the idea here is to grow the market together

ST. JOHN: Ah, ha. Okay. And in terms of the kinds of fish that -- I know salmon is one of the species which do seem to do well in hatcheries. Are there certain kinds of fish that don't really thrive in this environment?

RUBINO: Well, yes, there are. Because aqua culture is really a form of agriculture, things like cost and efficiency and being able to make a profit are very important. So like agriculture, fish farmers are concerned about the efficiency of the use of the feed or the food. And they're concerned about how fast the fish grows. Of and they're concerned about having a healthy fish. So some species are much better at a farming situation than others

ST. JOHN: For example?

RUBINO: Well, in this case, you mentioned salmon, but some of the Marine species like the yellow tail or the jacks, the grouper family, in the gulf of Mexico red fish, for example, are all candidate species for warm water situations

ST. JOHN: Interesting, interesting. Well, it sounds like there's still a lot of questions, but also a lot of possibly. I'd like to thank you very much for joining us

RUBINO: Thank you.

ST. JOHN: That's doctor Michael Rubino who's director of the office of aqua culture with the NOAA fishery service.