Wild Versus Farmed

Wild Versus Farmed

Laura TIu

Scallops and shrimp over grits.

I have been involved in the aquaculture industry since the late 1980’s when I got my first job out of college on a tropical fish farm in Plant City, FL. As you can imagine, the industry has changed a lot since then.  When folks find out I have worked in aquaculture, the same question seems to arise: “Is farm-raised fish safe to eat as wild caught?”  I would like to say that I don’t understand where this question comes from, but over the years I have seen a bewildering number of mass media headlines touting misinformation about farm-raised fish and not enough touting the benefits.  In fact, I saw a post this week on Facebook actually claiming that tilapia have no skin or bones and cannot be found in the wild, both not true.  It is no wonder people are so confused.  Many of the claims made are not research-based and a quick review of the scientific literature will disprove the statements, but who has time for that?

Aquaculture currently supplies over fifty percent of all seafood consumed and will expand in the future due to a limit on the amount of wild fish that can be sustainably harvested, and increasing demand by a growing population. Sustainable, responsible aquaculture is needed to fill that gap. Fish are farmed using a variety of production methods including ponds, raceways, recirculating land-based systems and in ocean net pens.  Each one of these fish species and production methods comes with pros and cons, similar to the production of livestock and fruits and vegetables.  Each species can be evaluated based on its environmental impact, production method and even country of origin.

The American Heart Foundation recommends eating fish (particularly fatty fish rich in Omega-3s) two times per week. We currently only consume about half of that.  This recommendation includes a variety of farm-raised and wild-caught fish.  Both are crucial to meet current and future demand for seafood and omega-3 fatty acids.  A common misconception is that farmed fish is not as healthy or nutritional valuable as wild caught fish although this claim has been largely disproven.  One recent paper (Trushenski et al, 2017) compared the nutritional values of wild-caught and farmed bluegill, largemouth Bass and hybrid striped bass and concluded that the farmed fish provided more long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAs) per portion that wild fish, however both are excellent sources of high quality protein and nutrients.

With the Lenten season upon us, a time of a traditional increase in seafood consumption, what is an easy way to choose wild and farm-raised seafood?   One website and smartphone app that I find easy to use is Seafood Watch (www.seafoodwatch.org).  Seafood Watch uses an extensive evaluation system using research and a panel of experts to label seafood products as green (best choice), yellow (good alternative) and red (avoid) depending on the variety’s sustainability.

With this information and a little bit of homework, I hope you come to the same conclusion that I have. Both farm-raised fish and wild-caught fish are delicious, nutritious and great additions to your diet.

Baked tilapia, rice and vegetable medley.

Meanwhile, Back at the Oyster Ranch…

Meanwhile, Back at the Oyster Ranch…

Sorting and re-caging take place on-site at the lease

Photo: Erik Lovestrand

There are a number of parallels than can be drawn between shellfish farming and traditional forms of agriculture that take place on the land. The most obvious similarities are the amount of hard work, grit and faith that are required of the farmer on land or sea. In spite of this there are many “salty” farmers in the Florida Panhandle who have mustered the faith requirement and are now putting in the hard work necessary to help build this budding industry in the Southeastern U.S.

Market demand for quality oysters has continued to outstrip available supplies for several years of late. This has been due in part to better marketing strategies employed by growers as well as clientele becoming aware of the health benefits of fresh oysters; a great supply of important vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C and B vitamins, zinc, selenium and iron. However, supply/demand ratios are not the only important factor in developing a thriving oyster aquaculture industry. Also required, is the necessary infrastructure to support the grower’s equipment needs, enough sources of baby oyster “seed”, a reliable refrigerated transportation network for live shellfish, and the support of regulatory agencies in making water leases available in suitable growing areas.

Fortunately, the stars seem to be aligning for many of these industry-growth necessities and the business of oyster farming is gaining a firmer foundation to build upon. One of the important milestones for Florida was the approval of “full-water-column” leases, which allows the use of floating oyster cages or bags. Previously, oysters were required to be grown on the bay bottom and this made them susceptible to higher levels of predation from crabs and snails and severe biofouling (barnacles and algae) on the exterior of the mesh bags. Heavy biofouling reduces the water flow through the oyster’s growing environment, thus the available food for this filter feeding bivalve.

One critical need for this industry is the availability of quality “seed” (baby oysters) to put in the growing waters. Seed oysters are supplied by hatcheries where oyster brood stocks are spawned and babies are raised to the necessary age for grower needs. Some growers use baby oyster larvae that have not settled and attached yet. These “eyed larvae” are put in a tank with old oyster shell and allowed to attach on the shells, which are then deployed at a lease site. Other growers use seed that has already attached to a small particle of crushed shell and are sold as individual oysters to be placed in grow-out bags or cages. The more recent development of oyster stocks with 3 sets of chromosomes (triploids) have provided growers with an oyster that gets to market size faster. Triploid oysters are infertile and do not use energy for spawning, thereby putting more energy into shell and tissue growth. Federal and state laws also govern where growers can buy their seed in an effort aimed at stopping the spread of shellfish disease from one body of water to another (i.e. Atlantic to Gulf of Mexico, etc.).

Even if all of the hardware and infrastructure is in place, there is still one other factor that plays a significant role in whether an oyster farmer will be successful. Just like the dairy farmer, the cattle rancher, the cotton or peanut grower, or the blueberry producer; backbreaking labor is necessary for many stages of the production cycle. Oyster growers work their leases either bending over the gunnels of a boat or actually being in the water, lifting heavy bags or cages of shellfish, sorting by size, re-caging, and moving lots of materials to and from the lease area. True grit and a dogged determination to stay on top of things, regardless of unpleasant conditions, are vital to raising a successful crop of oysters. And by the way, don’t forget that Mother Nature will have the final word. As all farmers know, they are required to be a good listener when she speaks.

So What’s Good with Local Seafood?

So What’s Good with Local Seafood?

Shrimping in the Gulf of Mexico.
Photo: NOAA

Actually, if you like seafood – it’s all good! However, not everyone does and sometimes when this question is asked they are interested in not how it taste but where the seafood came from.

 

In recent years, there has been a move across the country to learn more about where their food comes from. Whether that is because they are concerned what the livestock and chickens have been fed, their living conditions, or whether they came outside the United States – more people are asking and it is affecting how they purchase their food.  Is it the same for seafood?

 

In some cases, yes. Several years ago, I ran the marine science program at Washington High School.  We were discussing whether, with a growing human population, the ocean could sustain the demand for seafood.  Would we need to focus our production on aquaculture?  We decided to survey locals to see whether (a) they liked seafood, and (b) if so, would it matter whether the product came from the ocean or a farm.  Over a 10-year period, we found that (a) the percentage of locals who did not like seafood increased. (b) Those who did like seafood did not have strong feelings whether it was from a farm or from the sea.   Curious as to why those who did not like seafood felt that way, we followed up with those questions and found it was not as much a concern with seafood safety in that they just did not like the taste of it.  Of course, this was a high school science project and not a formal science investigation, but they did a good job with it and the results were interesting.

 

That was almost 20 years ago, do people feel the same?  According to Dr. George Baker (Florida Sea Grant), yes… things are about the same.  If they can get access to wild harvested seafood at a good price, they will buy.  If it is not available, or to expensive, they will, purchase farm raised. Moreover, more people do not like seafood.

 

What about the local issue? In California, there is a program that allows you to find out which boat captain caught your fish.  In Florida, there are studies going on to determine what type of filet you are actually buying.  As with produce and livestock, people seem to be interested in where their seafood comes from – and for many, if effects where and how they buy seafood.

Commercial seafood in Pensacola has a long history.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

 

So what is local?

 

Well, we call any seafood product harvested or cultured within 250 miles local. For Pensacola, that would include Alabama, Mississippi, and eastern Louisiana.  We know that between 80-90% of the seafood you currently purchase is imported from both commercial fishing and aquaculture overseas.  That said, local seafood is still here and available.

 

The commercial fishing in Pensacola goes WAY back. It was one of the first industries to get off the ground shortly after Florida became a U.S. territory.  According to Dr. Jack E. Davis, in his book The Gulf; The Making of an American Sea, Cuban fishermen harvested seafood from the Gulf coast of peninsula Florida prior to our becoming a territory.  Shortly after becoming a U.S. territory, New England fishermen came to harvest the Gulf, including one by the name of Leonard Destin.  Soon a fishing industry was operating in Pensacola.  They sold a variety of species but in 1840 they found red snapper – and the boom was on.  Shrimp followed but water quality, habitat loss, and overharvesting have plagued the industry over the years.  Fishermen did well for a time, then the landings decreased, the fishermen believed the fish had moved, and so the fleet would move.  This continued until they have literally moved all over the Gulf of Mexico seeking fish.  At this point quotas had to be initiated and regulation has been the norm ever since.  Add to this an increase interest in recreational fishing, increasing the number of fishermen, and increased regulation with this sector.  Today we can include the introduction of invasive species as another stressor.

 

All that said, local seafood is still available. Some species have become quite pricey, but they are still available.  The Gulf & South Atlantic Fisheries Foundation created a Gulf Coast Seafood Species Chart.  This chart indicates when selected species are in peak season for commercial harvest.  This chart suggests they are in season year round but there are peak months.  It varies from one state to another, but the list below includes Florida and Alabama.

 

Species Months in Peak Season Comments
Blue crab No peak season
Blue crab

Soft shell

Mar – Jun
Black drum No peak season
Red drum No peak season Subject to quotas and closures
Clams All year – FL only Clams are now cultured in FL and are available year round
Crawfish Apr – Jun – LA only LA only, but close to us
Flounder Jul – Aug; Oct-Nov Subject to quotas and closures
Grouper No peak season Subject to quotas and closures
King mackerel Jan – Feb; Jul-Sep; Dec Subject to quotas and closures
Mahi-Mahi May – Jun
Mullet Jan; Sep – Dec
Oysters Jan – Apr; Sep – Dec
Pompano Jan – Apr;
Sheepshead No peak season
Brown shrimp May – Sep
Pink shrimp Jan – Jul
Rock shrimp Jun – Sep
White shrimp May – Nov
Snapper Peak season year round Subject to quotas and closures
Yellowtail snapper Mar – Jun
Spanish mackerel Jan – May; Aug – Sep; Dec Subject to quotas and closures
Spiny lobster Aug – Sep; Oct – Nov
Spotted seatrout No peak season Subject to quotas and closures
Stone crab Oct – Dec
Swordfish Sep – Nov
Yellowfin tuna Jun – Oct

 

The health benefits from consuming seafood are understood. We certainly think it should be part of your of weekly dinner menu.  There are concerns for safety in some seafood products, as in mercury and king mackerel, and we will address that in another article – but the lack of consuming seafood can create health issues as well.  We hope you enjoy local Gulf seafood.

Commercial crab boats docked on Escambia Bay.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

 

References

 

Baker, G. 2017. personal communication.

 

Davis, J.E. 2017. The Gulf; Making of an American Sea.  Liveright Publishing. New York NY. Pp. 530.

 

Gulf & South Atlantic Fisheries Foundation. 2013. Gulf Coast Seafood. www.eatgulfseafood.com

The Status of Commercial Fishing and Aquaculture in the U.S. and Florida

The Status of Commercial Fishing and Aquaculture in the U.S. and Florida

ARTICLE WRITTEN BY DR. CHARLES ADAMS, FLORIDA SEA GRANT

 

The demand for seafood in the US continues to grow. This growth is a function of a number of factors, including the increased awareness of the healthful attributes of many finfish and shellfish products, the increased availability of several key imported, cultured species (shrimp, tilapia, pangasius), and more convenient packaging for home consumption, to name just a few.   In terms of wild-caught seafood, effective management at the state and federal level helps ensure the sustainable harvest of traditionally important species, such as reef fish, scallops, flounders, mackerels, and crab.

The famous blue crab.
Photo: FWC

According to the latest data from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the US domestic fisheries fleet landed about 7.8 billion pounds of edible seafood products, valued at $5.2 billion.  Florida plays an important role in this industry, particularly within the Gulf and South Atlantic region.  Approximately $250 million worth of seafood is landed by the commercial harvesters in Florida on an annual basis, with some species being landed in Florida, and virtually nowhere else … including pink shrimp, spiny lobster, grouper and stone crab.  But wild harvest is not the only source of finfish and shellfish products.

The commercial aquaculture industry is also growing, as the demand for species grown within controlled systems (such as catfish, oysters, striped bass, crawfish, and salmon) continues to increase.  The latest NMFS data indicates that the commercial aquaculture industry in the US harvests approximately $1 billion worth of freshwater and saltwater species annually.  The success story for aquacultured food items in Florida is molluscan shellfish, in particular cultured hard clams.

Though our wild seafood stocks are sustainably managed and aquaculture production is increasing, approximately 90% of the seafood consumed in the US is imported.  Our domestic harvest and culture of seafood simply cannot keep up with demand.  We are eating more and more seafood … with the latest NMFS estimate of annual, per capita seafood consumption being 15.5 lbs (edible meat weight).  This is the highest level of per capita consumption since 2010.  Even though demand is growing, consumers should be confident that the traditional species from our nation’s wild stocks will be there in the future.   In addition, the aquaculture industry will help the seafood industry keep pace with growing demand.  The seafood industry will continue to be an important source of incomes, jobs, and tax revenue for our coastal communities.  And given the increasing number of cultured species and innovative packaging/preparation methods … now is a great time to be a seafood consumer!!

For more information about the US seafood industry, go to https://www.st.nmfs.noaa.gov/Assets/commercial/fus/fus15/documents/FUS2015%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf.

Say it Ain’t So: Important Apalachicola River Water Dispute Ruling Goes Against Florida

Say it Ain’t So: Important Apalachicola River Water Dispute Ruling Goes Against Florida

In his 137-page report to the U.S. Supreme Court published on Valentine’s Day, a Special Master appointed to oversee the case has stated, “Because Florida has not met its burden, I recommend that the court deny Florida’s request for relief.” This may not be the final word on the matter but it does sound like the “bottom line” as the highest court in the land will lean heavy on his recommendation when they rule on the case in the days to come. So, will this be the end of the decades-long battle over water rights in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin?  Considering the magnitude of what is at stake when it comes to this “Dixie-Style” water war, I seriously doubt it.

Hard working Apalachicola oystermen are finding times tougher with the “water wars” problem.
Photo: Erik Lovestrand

Florida argued for years that Georgia was illegally using water from its reservoir in Lake Lanier for unauthorized purposes according to the legislation that allowed the dam to be built in the first place. When that argument fell through during prior court rulings, the state sued claiming harm to the once prolific oyster fishery in Apalachicola Bay that has sustained a near total collapse that began in 2012. Florida contended that reduced freshwater flows tied to increased human needs upstream and sustained drought in the southeast had resulted in higher average salinities in the Bay, which added stressors (disease, parasites and predators), causing the crash.

Proponents of Florida’s case were ecstatic when the highest court in the land agreed to hear this case, following denials to do so in the past. Proponents on Georgia’s side of the case claimed that there was no proof that reduced flows had caused the crash and instead blamed poor management of the fishery for Florida’s woes.

Special Master Ralph Lancaster largely agreed with Florida’s assertions on the cause of the fishery disaster but still ruled against Florida’s request for relief saying that the evidence based on low flows during drought periods did not prove how a cap on Georgia’s water use during other times would provide the relief requested. Special Master Lancaster also hinted that Florida had made a grave mistake in not naming the Corps of Engineers as a party in this dispute. He said “Because the Corps is not a party, no decree entered by this court can mandate any change in the Corps’ operations in the basin.”

Georgia officials are breathing a sigh of relief as the economic impact to their state would have been substantial if this had not gone their way. On the other side of Lake Seminole at the State line, Florida’s resource managers still worry about what they can do to improve conditions in a struggling estuary on the Gulf Coast, once known locally as the “Oyster Capital of the World.”

Thanksgiving and the Sea…

Thanksgiving and the Sea…

I was trying to think of a topic that could connect Thanksgiving and our marine environment. Like many others, when I think of Thanksgiving images of Pilgrims and native Americans come to mind.  There is the turkey – and I wrote about “turkey fish” (another name for lionfish) last year.  So I continued to think.  One thing I do know about the native Americans who lived in this area, they liked oysters.  We find middens (piles of oyster shell) in many places around the Gulf coast.  These were discard piles from their consumption of the animal.  Lots of these indicate, at least to me, that they enjoyed them… and we do also.  Oysters are a part of Gulf coast culture and many have them with their Thanksgiving meal.

Oysters are one of the more popular shellfish along the panhandle. Photo: FreshFromFlorida

Oysters are one of the more popular shellfish along the panhandle.
Photo: FreshFromFlorida

Oysters are animals – meaning they lack cell walls and must consume their energy. The food of choice is plankton, sounds good doesn’t it!  They possess two tubes called siphons which basically filter seawater.  One brings water in, the other expels it.  As the water enters their body they filter it for food and oxygen.  As it leaves they expel waste and carbon dioxide.  At times sand is sucked in and becomes lodged – they cannot expel.  This “irritant” is covered by a material called nacre and becomes a pearl.  Most are not round nor pretty but occasionally there are nice ones…  Pacific oysters make better pearls.  Amazingly a single oyster can filter up to 20 gallons of water in a day during the warmer months.

 

They are invertebrates and belong to the phylum Mollusca – meaning they have a soft body. Many invertebrates have a soft body, but what makes mollusks different is that they have bilateral symmetry (a head and tail end), a coleomic cavity (which allows organ development and increased size), and unique to them is a tissue called a mantle (which can secrete a calcium carbonate shell – and most mollusks do this).

 

Oysters are in the class Bivalvia – meaning they have two shells connected by a hinge at a point called the umbo. Other bivalves include the clams, scallops, and mussels.  All of these are popular seafood products.  Oysters differ from other bivalves in that they are cemented to a structure and cannot move around (sessile).  Many mussels are sessile also but oysters differ in that they use calcium carbonate to literally cement themselves to the substrate, where mussels use a series of threads to do this.  Cementing to the substrate means that they are picky about their habitat – it needs to have a hard substrate, sand will not do.  We all know this.  Place a piling, clay pot, board, or boat in the water… and oysters find it.  Typically, they will attach to each other and form small clumps of oysters.  These clumps form larger structures we call oyster reefs (or oyster bars) and this is what the commercial oysterman is looking for – and the recreational boater is trying to avoid!

 

So how do these oysters, who are sessile, find these habitats? Well, when it is time to reproduce oysters (which are hermaphroditic) release their gametes into the water.  The sperm and egg that find each other form a planktonic larva called veliger.  To increase the chance of finding each other the oysters release their gametes at the same time – a mass spawn.  There are a variety of factors that trigger this but water temperature seems to be an important one.  The veliger drift in the currents, developing into juveniles, and then settling out as small oysters called spat.  If the currents have brought them to a good location, the spat settle on a hard substrate and the next generation begins.  If not, they die.  So literally millions of fertilized veliger are produced from individual adults.  In many cases the suitable substrate are other oysters.

An oysterman uses his 11 foot long tongs to collect oysters from the bottom of Apalachicola Bay Photo: Sea Grant

An oysterman uses his 11 foot long tongs to collect oysters from the bottom of Apalachicola Bay
Photo: Sea Grant

Today oysters seem to be in trouble. Large bars have disappeared due to dredging and over harvesting.  Hurricanes certainly do damage to some and poor water quality alters their growth and development.  Recently problems in Apalachicola include the lack of river water reaching the Gulf.  The higher salinities created by the reduction of river flow have increased the number of oyster predators (starfish and snails) as well as diseases.  All of that said, they are still a popular seafood item and enjoyed by many during the holidays.  The cooler months mean less bacteria in the water and fewer problems consuming them raw.  Cooked oysters have few problems… period.

 

I hope all have a Happy Thanksgiving and if you have not tried oyster dressing, maybe this year could be the year.

 

Happy Holidays.