Maine awash in aquaculture opportunities

Maine awash in aquaculture opportunities

University of New England Associate Professor Jeri Fox just got back from one of her legendary field trips. Fox, who is also the coordinator of UNE’s aquaculture and aquarium sciences program, put together a multi-faceted itinerary in which her conservation and ecology students spent time in old Panama City, took a Panama Canal cruise, visited two different native people’s villages, saw a Fair Trade plantation, canopied above the trees, learned how to use simple tools, watched a sea turtle build its nest and – to top it all off – saw a real, live sloth.

“That was a priority for them,” she says.

Fox has been teaching at UNE for 15 years and taken four trips to Panama and several trips to Belize. She says it’s important to get students out of their everyday comfort zones and “make them more worldly.”

“There is something about travel that crystallizes thought,” she has said.

Day to day, though, Fox is also broadening her students’ horizons by teaching the gospel of self-sufficiency when it comes to growing plants and fish. In her younger years, she used to think that aquaculture might solve world hunger problems. Now she has switched her interest from looking at food-supply issues globally to trying to expand the locavore movement from an aquacultural perspective.

Part of her mission – which she promotes with great enthusiasm – is to make UNE an “edible campus,” meaning everything that grows, from the rainbow trout in the aquaponic tanks to the ornamental fruit trees that decorate the campus, could be used to help feed people.

“I’m not saying till all the land and put up a lot of fish cages,” says Fox. “But aquatic seafood production could be knit all together with the production of other foods into a ‘robust pilot study.’”

Fox says she is always “fishing around – no pun intended” – for ideas to expand her philosophy. Right now, for example, she’s trying to get funding to purchase some honeybee hives from Australia. She also would like to start tapping the maple trees around campus for syrup.

Her students are growing seaweed year round – a product she calls a wonder food, because all you really have to do is find a good spot for it and watch it grow. Fox says the school could use the kelp for Nori wraps and other seaweed food products in the cafeteria, and to make its own sea salt.

Before coming to Maine 15 years ago, Fox worked in Hawaii, where she did her post-doctoral research on coral reefs. A diver since the age of 14, she worked to create and expand aquaculture resources to slow the damage being done to coral reefs by harvesters of ornamental fish. Since coming to Maine, Fox has seen aquaculture grow to the point where it is second only to Hawaii – and in some years has surpassed the Aloha State – in terms of the production of farmed fish.

“The only thing holding Maine back is attitudes toward aquaculture in the United States,” she says.

Fox is referring to the fact that some aquaculture products are seen as inferior to wild-caught fish products because the fish are grown in cages, and are sometimes treated with antibiotics when and if a bacterial infection threatens the stock. Fish farms are also criticized because their use of small fish as feed may be depleting those wild stocks. And there are those who cite the escape of farmed fish, especially salmon, as reason to fear for the future of wild stocks.

Fox admits there “are always going to be bad apples” in fish farming.

“But the things aquaculture is accused of goes on in all food production industries,” she adds. “We are the new kid on the block. Fish farms are right there and very visible.”

Fox says the worst practices are going on in other countries where such fish as tilapia and shrimp are farmed along the coast of China and Thailand. A year ago, the federal government banned the importation of farmed fish from China because of the presence of contaminants that have been shown to be carcinogenic in lab animals.

Such health scares are all the more reason to subscribe to the locavore movement, Fox says. Here in the U.S., and especially in Maine, “there are a lot of very conscientious people doing innovative things” to ensure the safety of the fish they produce, she says.

Fox is enthusiastic about the future of aquaculture and believes her students will lead the way in the ongong quest to use the ocean in sustainable and ecological ways. “We are overfishing the wild stocks we have,” she says. “The only thing we can do is develop farmed seafood.”

Jeri Fox

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