George J. Flick, Jr.

The United States imports approximately two-thirds of its seafood and is one of the largest seafood-importing nations in the world. Domestic seafood imports are approximately 9.3 billion per year, while exports are 2.8 billion. Nearly all our wild fisheries are either fully exploited or overexploited. 

Numerous news reports on the commercial fish and shellfish industry have appeared in recent years, most of them concerning harvest quotas, restricted or closed fishing grounds, and offers of government assistance to commercial fishermen. The decrease in our fishery resources has been long attributed to habitat destruction and overfishing. 

It is generally acknowledged that estuaries are the breeding grounds for fish. If one accepts this premise, it is not surprising that our fishery resources have diminished and will continue to diminish. When the nation was settled by Europeans, 215 million acres of wetlands existed in the continental U.S. By the mid-1970s, only 99 million acres remained, 46% of the original acreage. An average of 440,000 acres of fresh water marsh, bog, and swamp are lost to development every year—an area roughly half the size of Rhode Island. Wetland draining for agricultural purposes accounts for 87% of this yearly loss, and fill for residential housing, industry, and commercial facilities accounts for the rest. 

World commercial fishery landings remained relatively static from 1984 to 1998, averaging 80–90 million metric tons (mmt) per year, and a significant increase in landings is not anticipated in the foreseeable future. However, aquaculture production increased from 10 mmt in 1984 to 40 mmt in 1998. During that time period, aquaculture production in developed countries remained static at 4 mmt, while production in developing countries increased from 6 mmt in 1984 to 36 mmt in 1998. 

In 1984, the People’s Republic of China produced 4 of the 6 mmt of aquacultured product. By 1998, the country had increased production to 27 mmt. China has recently announced plans to produce 65 mmt of tilapia filets per year. Vietnam’s aquaculture production in 2001 accounted for 11.7% of the country’s export turnover and is in third position in the export sector. 

Aquaculture production has lowered market costs for salmon, tilapia, and catfish in recent years. The market value per pound of salmon was $3.50 in 1992, $2.50 in 1997, and less than $1.70 in 2001. Tilapia filets from China and South America and basa (previously marketed as catfish in the U.S.) from Vietnam have sold at prices lower than the production cost of U.S.-produced fish. Crawfish aquaculture production in China has economically impacted crawfish producers in Louisiana and other Southern states because of its lower cost. 

There are several reasons why developing countries have been able to compete with industrialized nations. First, many developing countries have year-long growing seasons, an abundance of natural resources, significant government assistance in the form of economic, marketing, and technological support, low labor costs, less-stringent environmental regulations, and less government control over general business operations. 

Second, U.S. funding for aquaculture development has been inadequate. Adequate funding to advance aquaculture development through congressional appropriations to the U.S. Dept. of Commerce and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture has not been received. Unfortunately, National Sea Grant College Program funding for aquaculture research and advisory (extension) services has also decreased. The money for the Sea Grant national competition in aquaculture decreased from $5.6 million in 2001 to $2.6 million in 2002. A decision needs to be made on whether the U.S. wishes to become an aquaculture player or just an observer. 

Aquaculture production in the U.S. faces several challenges. The amount of usable water remaining for trout production is limited, and, consequently, large increases in production are not anticipated. Pond production of some fish species is impacted by unfavorable weather. Also, groundwater restrictions are anticipated because of consumer and industrial demands. Net pen production has application for some species but is not suitable for many geographic locations. Recirculating aquaculture systems have been promoted as an emerging technology, because they allow production to be independent of prevailing environmental conditions and because they conserve resources (water, feed, and energy). Also, they can be strategically located near markets and feed sources. 

Success in U.S. aquaculture will depend on the ability to improve diets by replacing costly fish meal with plant proteins, developing effective biosecurity programs, increasing production efficiency through resource conservation and labor, establishing minimum growing-water quality standards for survival and growth, improving market strategies for fresh and further-processed products, improving firm management, developing new and effective chemotherapeutics, reducing business risk through the integration of alternative enterprises congruent with aquaculture, and developing stocks, including genetically modified stocks, that are resistant to disease, have greater yields, and demonstrate increased feed efficiency.

by George J. Flick Jr. is University Distinguished Professor, Food Science and Technology Dept., Virginia Tech, Blacksburg.