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Seafood Has A Future In Oil-Affected State

Economics +1 more

VIRGINIA, US - Despite the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, there is a future for aquaculture in the state in the form of inland at Virginia Tech's Southwest Virginia Aquaculture Research and Extension Center.

As millions of gallons of crude spilling from a broken well continues to taint both the Gulf of Mexico's waters and prospects for continued seafood harvests there, officials said healthy shrimp and fish swimming in clear-water tanks 800 miles inland in Saltville represent the future of the seafood industry.

SWVA Today reports that at Virginia Tech's Southwest Virginia Aquaculture Research and Extension Center, a small gathering of Saltville leaders and representatives of the university and Virginia Cobia Farms heard Congressman Rick Boucher, D-9th, announce the US Department of Agriculture Small Business Innovation Research has awarded an $80,000 Small Business Innovation Research to Virginia Cobia Farms (VCF).

Provided over nine months, the grant will support development of feed products or water additives that will improve domestic inland shrimp production.

VCF produces 50,000 pounds of cobia annually and employs 12 people, Mr Boucher said.

The congressman said he was "frankly surprised" to learn in preparing for the announcement that the global seafood trade exceeds $100 billion in value, and that the United States imports about 80 per cent of its seafood. Marine shrimp make up 35 per cent of that total.

The import numbers are not likely to fall soon as oil from an exploded gulf platform producing for BP that fast became one of the leading environmental disasters in the world that may have significant effects on wild seafood supplies, Mr Boucher said.

But the use of antibiotics and other chemicals is difficult to control in imported seafood, he said. That is another part of the impetus behind development of the VCF-VT partnership that will "improve the production performance and economic efficiency of inland marine shrimp aquaculture, which will in turn provide a safe and healthy supply of shrimp to US consumers. The domestic production of shrimp will enable better control over the use of antibiotics or other chemicals in the shrimp, ensuring that the supply of shrimp for US consumers will be healthy and contaminant-free," said a prepared statement from Mr Boucher.

Novus International, a large, privately held animal nutrition and technology company, has provided $30,000 toward the project and will assist in commercialising the technologies developed by the project, Mr Boucher said.

Last year, VCF received a Small Business Innovation and Research grant of $79,933 to develop new production techniques for juvenile cobia under low-salinity water conditions, Mr Boucher said. Cobia is a fish noted for its mild taste and heart health benefits, but it is not yet a widely distributed seafood. It is native to Virginia’s coastal waters, but it is not practical for the commercial fishing industry to supply cobia because they do not travel in schools like many other fish that can be caught in large numbers, he said.

With the previous grant, VCF has been working to identify the optimum age of cobia juveniles to make the transition from high salinity water to a lower salinity environment. With this knowledge, the company is working to identify the feed formulations that will produce optimum cobia growth so that cobia can be more widely distributed in the United States, he said.

The aquaculture centre in Saltville helped to attract Virginia Cobia Farms that has made a $6 million investment in the region. The school has received a federal grant from the US Department of Agriculture of $635,000 to promote the sale of aquaculture products and provide educational programmes to the food industry.

In addition, the Virginia Tobacco Commission has contributed $435,000 to Virginia Tech for the development of saltwater and freshwater shrimp aquaculture products, a portion of the work for which will be completed here in Saltville, Mr Boucher said.

According to SWVA Today, the centre gives an opportunity for Northwood High School students to participate in aquaculture research, according to Ron Orr, chairman of the Saltville Industrial Authority.

VCF's research and development work with Virginia Tech is one of a growing number of examples of public/private partnerships that are important to the university, according to VT Distinguished Professor George Flick.

"No longer can the university work by itself. We will see more and more such public-private partnerships," Professor Flick said.

This new one, he said, addresses the need for sustainability and environmental protection in the future as society embraces "new values".

Mr Boucher said: "I think we can anticipate a time when there will be more production, more employees, more investment from Virginia Cobia Farms and more contribution to the economy of both Smyth and Washington counties."

State Delegate Joe Johnson, D-Abingdon, said he is hopeful it will mean people walking up and down the streets of Saltville again, as they did when the town's now-closed chemical industry was in its heyday.

William Harris, VCF president and chief scientific officer, said 60 people could work at VCF in three years.

Harris said the $80,000 grant represents only the first phase of the company's plans. After six months, it will compete for another $400,000 to help with the project.

According to Bill Martin, president of VCF's parent company, Blue Ridge Aquaculture, in spite of the attention-grabbing Gulf of Mexico disaster, overfishing has done the most harm to the seafood industry.

The oil spill and chronic overfishing present an opportunity for VCF that anticipates a long presence in Smyth County.

Steve Craig, senior research scientist for VCF, said some large seafood buyers are already focused on sustainable products. He explained: "This will give us a huge advantage in the marketplace. A good capitalist is a good environmentalist. You have to take care of your environment to make money. The sustainability movement is the future. It is more expensive to go that way right now, but in the future that’s where everything’s headed."

Environment-friendly sustainability also makes financial sense: Mr Craig said at VCF fish waste is used to produce biogas, which provides more than half of the power needed to operate the equipment, he explained. SWVA Today reported that the remaining product is turned into fertiliser, leaving behind nutrient-rich water that can be used to grow algae to feed the fish. Carbon dioxide left over from burning the gas is also used in algae production.