On an abandoned railroad pier off I-95 in Portsmouth, N.H., past mountainous stacks of rusting junk metal, Rich Langan's vision for the salvation of the American fishing industry slowly rises. To a landlubber -- or just about anyone else -- it looks like a huge red fish net, 35 feet high, attached at top and bottom to rings made of steel and plastic piping. But this is much more than the mother of all nets.
It's a contraption drenched in controversy because Langan, director of the Open Ocean Aquaculture Project and a professor of zoology at the University of New Hampshire, believes he can use it to farm depleted species like Atlantic cod. Dressed in a T-shirt and shorts and puffing on a cigarette, the deeply tanned professor looks more like the fisherman he used to be than an academic who has become a lightning rod for criticism of efforts to establish offshore fish farms, a move environmentalists deride as fraught with risks for marine life.
"It's bigger than I thought it would be," Langan muses as a crane lowers the 65,000-pound cage onto the pier so staffers on the project can make adjustments before it's dropped back in the water and towed to a fish farm six miles out. The 30-acre site, staked out in 1999 with permission from state and federal authorities, is intended to be far enough off the coast to avoid conflicts with lobstermen and recreational boaters.
The aim of the federally funded project is to learn how to raise species like cod at a low cost and without harming the environment. While salmon and catfish have proved simple to breed in onshore farms, more sensitive sea creatures such as cod and halibut have resisted aquaculture.
Unlike prior fish cages at the site and in use in Europe and Hawaii, Langan's new "farm" can be raised or lowered to different depths while loaded with young fish. That allows more flexibility to adjust conditions. And at harvest time, the cage can be slowly brought to the surface, keeping the cod in top condition for market. Last year some 1,100 fish weighing about two pounds each were harvested live and sold, but it took hours to raise the smaller cage in which they were confined, and 10% still died in the process.
The new prototype cage is attached with polysteel lines to heavy anchors on the seabed, and on an inspection visit a couple of weeks later, it hasn't yet been filled with fish and submerged. It bobs just below the surface with only the top ring and a few red reflectors revealing its presence. Once at the site, Langan gets video feeds from cameras attached to the earlier cage already in place. Some 50,000 two-year-old cod swim wildly about when they hear the noise of the boat's engine, then move lazily toward a feeding tube when a computer-controlled buoy on the surface starts releasing pellets made of fish meal, vitamins, and minerals.
A diver on the project clambers atop the swaying bright-yellow buoy, which weighs 20 tons, to refill its hold with 75-pound sacks of the pellets made by Cargill Inc. Instructions on the bag come first in Spanish, since Cargill's prime customers are Latin America's giant fish farms. Critics of farming argue that it takes three or more pounds of meal, made mostly from small fish like anchovies, to produce one pound of salmon. "The amount of meal needed is enormous," says Zach Corrigan, staff attorney at Food & Water Watch, a spin-off of Ralph Nader's nonprofit group Public Citizen. "Would we want to start raising tigers for food?"
But there's no harm to the small species, Langan says. About the same number of small fish for meal are being caught each year, but more are going to fish farms and fewer to feed chickens and hogs. Farmers on land quickly find alternatives when fish meal prices rise. Research is under way to find nonfish proteins for the cod. "Otherwise, there is some limit to growth of aquaculture," Langan says. Already, tilapia raised in South America eat a vegetarian diet, and barramundi growing at an indoor farm in central Massachusetts dine on mostly soy meal.
The UNH farm is carefully monitored for its effects on the surrounding ocean ecosystem. Opponents fear that concentrated waste from the caged fish will harm other marine life and that escapees will damage the gene pool of wild fish. "We've seen no environmental impact or fish freedom," Langan says. Doubters also argue that successful fish farming largely depends on cheap labor. Langan points to Norway and Canada, where wages are high. "If they can do it and be competitive, why not the U.S.," he asks. And Norway is already working on cod farms, too.