Today’s Farmed Fish [TFF]: Could you talk about your role at NOAA and what your office does?
Danielle Blacklock [DB]: I am the Director of the Office of Aquaculture within NOAA Fisheries. Our office leads regulatory and policy efforts in the marine space while coordinating aquaculture science across the agency. There's also a component of our research portfolio that has to do with protected species and using aquaculture for restoration and recovery, like abalone. We also have a research component of our work, including efforts focused on helping the industry advance and those building what we call “tools for rules,” or research focused on answering questions for decision-makers. We have our own aquaculture lab capabilities focused on a broad span of research from developing new species to sorting out potential genetic impacts escapes might have on wild populations. We additionally have two other parts of NOAA, who in partnership with NOAA Fisheries comprise the full NOAA Aquaculture Program. Through the National Ocean Service, we have scientists doing spatial planning and analysis, as well as water quality monitoring work. NOAA’s National Sea Grant College Program complements this internal research capacity by executing a large aquaculture grant program and helping with tech transfer to the industry through their extension network.
TFF: What is one species of fish these labs are studying?
DB: Black cod is one of the species that's been developed for aquaculture production at our Manchester station. The Sablefish or Black Cod is ready for tech transfer and we've just started transitioning it into the commercial space with the help of partners, which is exciting.
TFF: There are several grants for technology development of aquaculture practices. Can you explain about some of the technological development stemming from these grants to make aquaculture more sustainable?
DB: One really interesting technological advancement is what we call precision aquaculture. It uses advanced technology to be precise in managing a farm. That can mean having video cameras in the net pens to study the fish's behavior and stop feeding when they exhibit behaviors indicating they're not hungry anymore - no extra feed is wasted. Technology has also been advancing to help keep farmers and their employees safe, including developments like the use of robots to clean nets rather than having divers do it. There's also technology coming in through feeds. Feeds is an area where we've seen major improvements.
TFF: What are the feed technologies you are referring to?
DB: Feed development is twofold in my mind. One is finding new ingredients to make feed from so the feed itself is low impact on the environment. There has been a lot of work done on that and feeds are very different now than they were 15-20 years ago. The other piece is in the digestibility of the feed, and that advancement helps mitigate site-specific impacts. The more digestible feed is, the less waste is coming out of the animal into the marine environment. A lot of work has been done to make feeds very absorbable, very efficient, very digestible, this ultimately means minimal waste impacts on the environment.
TFF: There's been a lot of changes internationally with aquaculture. Do you think any changes could give us confidence for sustainable aquaculture to expand in the US?
DB: Absolutely. I just came back from a six-month rotation at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. working on sustainable aquaculture. While there, I worked on two projects. One focused on the development of global sustainable aquaculture guidelines and the other was, looking at how other nations have created governance structures for aquaculture, resulting in sustainability. There are a lot of lessons the United States can learn from. I think one of the things people underestimate in terms of sustainability is the importance of siting. By proactively finding areas in the ocean where the water is right, the flow is right, and user conflicts are minimized, you can use the space to your advantage. There are so many parameters we've learned about and what it takes to make aquaculture sustainable. You have to think holistically. Some might even say we are lucky, one benefit of having an underdeveloped marine aquaculture industry is that we can build it up in the right way. We can learn from countries that have grown before us and examine their best management practices. We can do the planning up front. Some nations have sorted out that planning proactively and being ahead of it creates fewer potential conflicts. We want to be in that group of nations who look at cumulative impacts and find the right place before farms go in the water. The challenge with being behind other nations is that we are playing catch-up and we must commit to developing our industry here- that luck that I mention is fleeting. We have to start moving now to ensure we are in a position to lead globally on the sustainability of aquaculture as the industry continues to grow worldwide to meet the nutrition needs of our growing population.
TFF: Can you talk about how offshore aquaculture can work in collaboration with commercial fishermen?
DB: The nation needs both. This is not an either-or proposition; this is an and-and conversation. The global population is growing, our population is growing, and we import more than 85% of our seafood. We have to figure out how to start producing more. Seafood products, both wild and farmed, go through the same docks, processing, storage, transport, and market outlets. Many fishermen or sons and daughters of fishermen are engaged in aquaculture such as oyster farming in Maine and seaweed farming in Alaska. A group of New England fishermen visited Japan last year to examine and consider aquaculture methods to grow and enhance scallop fisheries in the US. It is these types of connections that allow the seafood industry to work together and diversify to grow our nation’s seafood portfolio.
TFF: What are some main takeaways consumers in the supermarkets should know about today's farmed fish?
DB: To seek new information. A lot of consumer perceptions are based on old information and what a farm may have looked like 20 years ago, is not what they look like today. When you look across the protein landscape, fish is one of the most resource-efficient proteins Americans eat. Whether it's farmed or wild-harvested, eating responsible seafood is good for the environment at a baseline level. If you're eating seafood you’re already eating sustainably.
TFF:: What do you believe would help inform consumer perception?
DB: Part of it is seeing a farm. A lot of credit needs to be given to the farmers who give tours and go into schools and educate their communities. Everybody grows up knowing what terrestrial farms look like with the red barn and silo. Nobody knows what seafood farms look like, making it easy to assume the worst. I've taken groups out to Hawaii to swim around the cages of Blue Ocean Mariculture and people come back on board after their snorkel and are just in awe…It's not at all what they thought. It's hard to demystify though if you don't have access to the right information. If people knew more about sustainable fish farms, then people would be more excited about eating farmed fish.
TFF: Are there resources you would suggest for people to seek out for credible information?
DB: NOAA has a lot of information available on the sustainability of aquaculture. Our “Ocean Today Team” put together a series on sustainable aquaculture that just received an Emmy nomination. We also produce a quarterly newsletter that talks about the sustainability of aquaculture which folks can sign up for at the bottom of our fisheries page. Sea Grant also has a lot of good communication material that is accessible.