Graham Young, Executive Director at the Western Regional Aquaculture Center


5 min read

Today’s Farmed Fish [TFF]: What is your role as Executive Director at the Western Regional Aquaculture Center (WRAC) and how did you get into aquaculture?

Graham Young [GY]: My main role as Executive Director is to work on behalf of WRAC’s Board of Directors, and the national RAC program’s federal partner, USDA-NIFA, to facilitate selection and funding of projects that sustain and develop commercial aquaculture in the 12-state western region of the US. WRAC is one of five regional centers established by Congress in the mid-1980s to fund research and outreach to the aquaculture industry. The Centers are unique in that they are industry-driven and industry responsive. This is seen through WRAC’s Industry Advisory Council playing a key role in identifying priority research areas, and selection of projects for funding.

My interest in aquaculture is an outcome of my career-long research focus on the endocrine and reproductive physiology of commercially important finfish. Over the years, I’ve collaborated with fish farmers in several countries to diagnose and develop therapies to overcome reproductive dysfunctions in cultured fish. Inevitably, these relationships catalyzed a wider interest into aquaculture generally.

TFF: Can you talk about your involvement with NOAAs work on culturing Sablefish, and how this will this benefit consumers down the road?

GY: My involvement is as a National Sea Grant-funded researcher in a team effort led by my NOAA collaborator, Rick Goetz that also involves the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe. Sablefish, extirpated from Puget Sound many years ago have a lot of positive attributes including high growth rates, high market value, high disease resistance, and remarkable adaptability to captive rearing. Importantly, genetic analyses allay concerns about genetic risk of interaction between culture and wild sablefish. The intent is to transfer technologies developed over many years of research by NOAA and partners to our tribal partner who regards sablefish as an appropriate native species to commercially culture.  The current demonstration grow-out project with the tribe will provide critical information on the economics of commercial-scale production and consumers will benefit from the availability of an affordable, healthy product.

TFF:How will the works of the WRAC enhance profitable commercial aquaculture production in the U.S. for the benefit of consumers?

GY: WRAC funds research that has potential to directly impact commercial development of the sustainable culture of marine and freshwater species.  “Sustainable” in this context includes environmental, economic and societal aspects.  Information and technology from these projects are directly transferred to industry through a group of dedicated aquaculture extension specialists who work closely with researchers. The ultimate goal is to increase the consumption of affordable, sustainably cultured products with well-documented health benefits.

TFF: Do you think American consumers have an accurate understanding of aquaculture today?

GY: No. Even with the highly educated population of the Puget Sound area, I hear misinformation and uninformed opinions in casual conversations, along the lines of anything that is aquacultured is bad. That lack of knowledge about aquaculture practices and products even extends to some retailers and restaurants: a server told me that a well-known Seattle restaurant only served wild Atlantic salmon, for example. In inland regions, having access to affordable, high quality, healthy seafood may be of greater concern to consumers rather than the issue of whether a product is wild or farmed.

TFF: What are some of the regulations applicable to finfish farms in the U.S. to ensure environmental sustainability consumers can feel good about?

GY: The US is widely acknowledged as having has the most stringent set of regulations in the world in terms of site permits, discharge permits, disease control, health and environmental monitoring, etc., with an array of federal, state and local agencies involved.  For example, in documented findings, water discharged from Idaho trout farms is often as clean or even cleaner (lower in nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen) than the incoming water, due to the use of methods to reduce nutrient loads through diets and through settling ponds, etc. Clean water is the lifeblood of aquaculture and farmers have a vested interest in ensuring excellent water quality and low environmental impacts. If they didn’t, their operations would not survive for long.

TFF: Can you talk about the funded projects to aid in the research for technology development of new aquaculture practices, and how this helps aquaculture become more sustainable?

GY: WRAC has a diverse research and outreach portfolio that includes freshwater species such as trout and sturgeon. WRAC-funded marine-based projects have addressed or are addressing issues such as water quality, diseases, and environmental impacts of shellfish harvest, reducing the reliance on fish meal and fish oil, reducing nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen in fish diets, and supporting the development of culture methods for new shellfish and finfish species, and likely in the future, seaweeds. 

TFF: A common concern I often hear is that the aquaculture industry will have negative effects on the commercial fishing industry and the wild fish stocks. How do you see aquaculture working in collaboration with commercial fishermen?

GY: I’ve spent a number of years in Japan, and what always hits me when I tour the many marine finfish farms in southern Japan is the seamless integration between aquaculture and capture fisheries. In many cases, both large and small commercial fishing companies also own extensive net pen operations: the goal is the ability to provide high quality fish products year-round. Fishing vessels are used to service net pens and the same processing plants and distributors are used. The same approach is developing in the northeastern US where commercial fishers are increasingly involved in shellfish culture. You can read about those approaches here and here.

The production of farmed marine finfish in the USA is miniscule on a global scale, so any impact on the domestic commercial fishery does not come from domestic aquaculture production, but from imported products.  As populations and incomes grow, so does the demand for healthy seafood. Any increase in the domestic capture fishery harvest is likely to be modest so meeting an increasing domestic demand for seafood will only be met by an increase in domestic aquaculture.  Other major nations are increasingly meeting the challenge of the integration of commercial fisheries with aquaculture operations – why not the US?

TFF: What about impacts to wild stocks of forage fish used for feed?

GY: Fisheries scientists regard the major forage fish fisheries as generally very well managed at a sustainable level but this is a finite resource. A massive effort worldwide is underway to find alternative fish diet ingredients, and to genetically select fish that are able to efficiently utilize ingredients derived from non-fish sources including a variety of plant-derived products.  A variety of high-tech approaches are being explored for production of key fish oil components and other ingredients in land-based systems.

TFF:What’s the main takeaway you’d like consumers to know about today’s farmed fish in the US?

GY: The US has the most stringent regulatory regime for aquaculture in the world. Domestically farmed finfish are healthy and produced sustainably. This is recognized by the number of US farmed species on Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch’s list of best buy and good alternatives. Some of the other prominent environmental NGOs now support the sustainable, regulated expansion of aquaculture.  The Aquarium of the Pacific’s website provides great information for consumers. Increasingly, productive partnerships between NGOs and scientists are developing to promote secure and sustainable aquaculture production, and a number of farmed US products have been certified as environmentally sustainable by independent certification programs. These include several shellfish species, salmon, trout, catfish, sea bass, etc.