Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Can small-scale steelhead trout aquaculture operations help local fishermen?

Newcastle, NH – Commercial fishermen came together to discuss an opportunity to raise steelhead trout as an extension to the research UNH Scientists Dr. Hunt Howell and Michael Chambers have been conducting for the past several years.  
Gita George, Captain of the Muriel B, holds a steelhead trout grown in a pen off the UNH pier in Newcastle, NH

Given the current regulatory climate of the fishing industry and the pressures of an economy in a severe recession, steelhead trout may be an opportunity for fishermen to supplement their income while continuing to fish.  

The steelhead trout is closely related to the salmon and essentially a saltwater variant of the rainbow trout. They are native to the Pacific Northwest but have been domesticated for more than 150 years. Presently, there are extensive commercial aquaculture industries in Canada and Northern Europe.  

The steelhead has done remarkably well off the UNH research pier in Newcastle, N.H. In fact, the fish grow very fast and reached an average size of 6lbs after 6 months. Howell believes the opportunity for N.H. fishermen will be a small-scale, inshore-farm approach, which could produce 8,500 pounds annually in a small 25’ x 25’ x 12’ cage on a single point mooring.  

Test market sales this year averaged $4 to $5 per pound retail. Seacoast restaurants and fresh markets were given fish as part of the test marketing. Comments were all positive and the opportunity for a locally produced product was important to their businesses and clientele. Fish are sourced as eggs from Washington and fry (6"-8” or about ½ lb) are raised in a local hatchery and stocked directly into seawater. In April, cages would be stocked at 2,400 fry per cage.    When all is said and done you would expect approximately 2,000 market animals (assuming about 15% mortality) to remain, each weighing about 5lbs in November.

Only females are raised; since this species does not occur naturally in this area  this avoids any chance of escapees reproducing.  Howell adds that the environmental impacts of a small-scale steelhead aquaculture operation would be "miniscule."

Howell is quick to point out that permitting for commercial operations is still an issue but not impossible given that the environmental impacts of small-scale operations are expected to be very small. The process would include a public-hearing process and approval by several agencies.  (NHDES, NH Fish and Game, NH Port Authority and USCG).

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