Thursday, July 24, 2014

Helping aquaculture grow in N.H.

It may not be as historically prevalent as groundfishing, but aquaculture is quickly becoming an important part of the local seafood scene in New Hampshire. This relatively new venture for many fishermen who are seeking ways to supplement their income or transition to a new job comes with its own set of challenges, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is seeking ways to help fishermen overcome those challenges and advance aquaculture initiatives in New England.

Two dozen N.H. fishermen, shellfish farmers, UNH researchers and others involved in fisheries and aquaculture efforts attended a discussion on July 17 at the Judd Gregg Marine Research Complex in New Castle, N.H., that focused on challenges and opportunities related to aquaculture. David Alves, Northeast Regional Coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Office of Aquaculture and John Bullard, Northeast Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries, were also in attendance to find out about N.H. aquaculture first-hand and offer guidance where possible.

“Aquaculture allows us to create food and jobs, both of which are very worthwhile goals,” Bullard said. “Aquaculture holds a tremendous amount of entrepreneurial opportunities. It’s people thinking outside the box and engaging in new ways of doing things.”

Bullard and Alves began the discussion by first asking the group, “What limits the growth and development of aquaculture right now?”

“You’re the ones living it every day, and you know what makes your job harder,” Bullard said. “I need to know what those are so I can help make your job easier.”

Attendees spoke at length about their challenges. Sourcing the aquaculture equipment is a challenge for some of the shellfish farmers, particularly those working in offshore environments where the gear needs to withstand deep water and large waves while remaining economical to purchase. Many of the shellfish farmers and aquaculturists said their gear is made in other countries as far away as New Zealand, making it harder to acquire and return if it does not meet their needs.

Pete Flanagan, co-operator of a mussel farm near the Isles of Shoals, said the permitting process is a big hurdle for aquaculturists working in federal waters.

Alves posed a question to the group: “If the permitting process was more transparent, if you know you’ll get a permit in a year, would that help?” Richard Langan, director for the UNH Coastal and Ocean Technology Programs, said transparency in the permitting process could help ease some of the burden, but aquaculturists would need to see some “success stories” to be able to buy into it.

Michael Chambers, NHSG/UNHCE marine aquaculture specialist, added that demonstration projects have tremendous potential to help by testing the gear technology and vetting the permitting process.

Following this discussion, Erik Chapman, NHSG/UNHCE commercial fisheries specialist, spoke to the group about the myriad community collaborations involved in local seafood marketing. The N.H. Fresh and Local Seafood brand, the community supported fishery, off-the-boat sales, and new value-added seafood products are all efforts that help to bring awareness of and access to N.H. seafood and provide fishermen with a fair, stable price for their products.

Alves asked if those seafood marketing efforts could be scaled up for N.H. seafood to reach markets further away, perhaps in the Midwest. Chapman said it’s possible and cited Alaska seafood products as an example of locally branded seafood that is sold all over the world.

N.H. fisherman Erik Anderson asked Bullard and Alves how NOAA and NMFS might be able to help with local aquaculture efforts in more tangible ways. Bullard provided some suggestions for possible grant funding sources that fishermen could tap into. The Economic Development Administration offers loans and grants to communities and private businesses; this might be a good place to start when searching for funding to establish or retrofit a processing facility that can handle more N.H. seafood, he said. Money from the federal disaster declaration of the Northeast U.S. groundfish stocks could be tapped into to help out-of-work ground fishermen transition over to aquaculture, he added.

Some of the challenges faced by Great Bay oyster farmers, mussel longline aquaculturists andt he fishermen raising trout and kelp in pens in the Piscataqua River involve permitting issues in state-regulated waters. Bullard and Alves offered some suggestions and noted that they can help in the consultation process with permits in state waters, and have been working to streamline the federal side of this process. NOAA is also concentrating on the permitting process in federal waters - areas beyond three miles off the coast.

Bullard closed the discussion by noting the fiscal climate does not allow for funding of all the aquaculture needs in New England, but if fishermen think creatively, they can find opportunities for growth in aquaculture endeavors.

“We’re trying to build a case for aquaculture in an environment where aquaculture is sort of new,” Bullard said. “This is how we’re going to meet our goals.”

Above: Meeting attendees take a look at the steelhead trout aquaculture pens at the mouth of the Piscataqua River.