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Opinion Profiles
The Blue Wave…Revisited


April 30, 2015
By John Nickum

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Discussions with exhibitors, speakers, and visitors at the recent Aquaculture America 2015 conference and trade show in New Orleans reminded me of discussions I had with aquaculture enthusiasts forty years ago.  After the conference I reflected again on the similarities in attitude and enthusiasm that I had observed at the conference and that I had been part of 40 years ago.  Are we on the cusp of another “Blue Wave”?  If so, will this one be more successful in North America than the previous one.

“The Blue Wave” was a popular theme for aquaculture development in the 1970s and 1980s.  It was a logical follow up to agricultural developments on terrestrial croplands.  Just as the “Green Revolution” (sometimes called the “Green Wave”) had brought hope for abundant grains to feed the starving masses, the “Blue Wave” promised to meet the animal protein needs of a hungry human population with seafood produced by aquaculture.  Farmed fish had been shown to be the most efficient animals available for converting feedstuffs into desirable animal protein.  It took little more than a pound of feed to produce a pound of fish.  Most livestock produced for human food are much less efficient; only chickens are even close.  Enthusiasm for the “Blue Wave” ran high and strong.

Back then it was interesting to many of us who were already involved with fish culture that the greatest enthusiasm for the “blue wave” came from people outside the world of fish and fisheries.  Fisheries managers and aquatic ecologists were not as enthusiastic; apparently, because they had been focused on wild fish populations and feared the potential effects of aquaculture on the “natural”, “wild” populations of aquatic animals.  Commercial, capture fisheries often saw fish farming as competition for their products and conducted advertising efforts against aquaculture.  (The fact that most of those fears were based on misperceptions, misinformation, and personal biases did little to squelch them.)  Never-the-less, there was a wave of enthusiasm, predictions for success, and rapid investment in the “blue wave”.

The expectations from 40 years ago have been realized in many parts of the world; although it still is not easy to get rich in aquaculture.  Aquaculture has been, and continues to be, the fastest growing form of animal agriculture in the world… except in North America.

Why?  What is holding aquaculture back in the United States, Canada, and Mexico?  The answer is different for each nation, but there are general problems in common.  The lack of growth and diversification in North American aquaculture has been caused primarily by economic factors, including a lack of venture capital.  Lack of government support, especially in the United States, combined with regulations focused on environmental concerns and sport fishery management has hindered the promise of aquaculture expansion.  Land costs, access to clean water, construction costs, and labor costs have been problems in the United States and Canada.  The historical connection of fish culture in the United States to resource management has hindered understanding of aquaculture as an agricultural enterprise and subjected aquaculture to myriad regulations designed for resource management issues and not pertinent to aquaculture as an agricultural enterprise.

Will things be different over the next 40 years?  Will the enormous potential of aquaculture be realized in North America, as well as, the rest of the world?  I want to say “yes”, but, it’s far easier to look back and describe problems than it is to look forward and claim with certainty that the problems have been solved.

Technological advances show definite potential for successful aquaculture, even in areas where water, land, labor, and energy can be limiting factors.  Up until now, aquaculture enterprises have had to be located close to appropriate water supplies, whether or not that was close to markets for the products, or land for development, or competitive sources of energy or labor.  Perhaps the limits caused by these constraints are diminishing; as examples from the conference seem to indicate.

A major development already under way in north-central Iowa will produce large quantities of barramundi, a fish native to Australia.  A somewhat similar operation began production of barramundi in Massachusetts in 2010.  Neither of these areas have been traditional aquaculture centers.  An exhibitor whose current job is in the electrical power industry hopes to utilize the abundant wind energy that is being developed on the central plains of Iowa to provide the power for aquaculture operations in northeast Iowa.   Advances in recirculation systems make these plans feasible.  As aquaculture develops in new locations, non-traditional suppliers see opportunities for their products, as demonstrated by a producer of specialized forms of nets and screens who had detailed marketing plans for his products in aquaculture.

So… a skeptic might ask, “How is this burst of enthusiasm really different from the 1970s and 1980s?”   “Are our grand expectations going to be realized this time?”  The answer to those questions remains to be seen, but I think there are reasons to be optimistic.  The success of aquaculture at the international level provides an example confirming that aquaculture can overcome obstacles and realize its potential.

Countries that have cheap land and labor will continue to have a built-in advantage; however, the locavore trend and the expectations of consumers for fresh, high quality, locally grown food counter balances that advantage.  Recirculation systems reduce the amount of land and water needed.  Development of clean, sustainable energy will reduce the costs of energy required by these recirculation systems.  Advances in fish nutrition and feed technology “open the door” for cheaper, more reliable sources of feeds than traditional fish meal and fish oil. Production facilities located near markets gain an advantage by meeting consumer’s demands for fresher, higher quality products.  Species, such as, barramundi and tilapia that are adaptable to recirculation systems, and also provide the food quality preferred in North America, may be the answer for success.

I am an aquaculture optimist… and I think that I observed evidence at the Aquaculture America 2015 conference that supports my optimism.

— John Nickum


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