ABOARD THE AQUA LEADER -- The harvesters had been hard at work since 8 a.m. in the evergreen-lined cove off New Brunswick's Lime Kiln Bay.
A humming vacuum hose was sucking silvery 10-pound salmon from their watery pens -- giant plastic cages measuring 230 feet around with 42-foot-deep nylon nets underneath -- and depositing the flapping fish onto a metal slide. There a punch machine rapidly stunned and killed them before workers slashed their gills to bleed them before dumping them into the hold of the 65-foot-long ship.
The Aqua Leader fish harvester sucks salmon through a vacuum hose off New Brunswick's Lime Kiln Bay.
(Courtesy Of Cooke Aquaculture)
In four hours they collected more than 5,000 fish to be transported to a nearby processing plant and then shipped to Boston restaurants the next day.
Cooke Aquaculture Inc., the Canadian company that raises and processes the fish in Reserve Cove, is a major player in what has become the next agricultural revolution: fish farming. The sector's explosive growth is being hailed by many policymakers and entrepreneurs as a source of jobs and a way to satisfy the world's growing demand for protein, but environmentalists warn that aquaculture facilities also threaten to cause ecological damage by releasing nutrients and domestically bred fish and chemicals into the seas.
Observers on both sides agree, however, that fish farming could transform the way Americans eat -- and, to some extent, work and live -- in the next two decades, and ultimately replace the last commercial food-gathering system based on hunting wild animals.
The Bush administration has vowed to quintuple the yield of aquaculture -- the fastest-growing sector of U.S. agriculture, with $1 billion in annual sales -- by 2025. That same year, forecasts say, half the fish consumed worldwide will be farm-raised instead of wild-caught. The government hopes that fish farming will erase the country's $8 billion seafood trade deficit: With $11 billion in imports in 2003, fish is second only to oil among imported natural resources.
"We have to keep looking for a good supply of healthy seafood for U.S. citizens," said William Hogarth, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's assistant administrator for fisheries. "Aquaculture is extremely controversial, there's no question about it. [But] the time has come for us as a country to have this open dialogue."
The recent push to boost fish farming, which has been practiced for thousands of years but took off commercially only in the 1980s, is driven by several factors. The United States and other nations are demanding more seafood: By 2025, the U.S. market will need 2.2 million tons more seafood than it now produces. Meanwhile, the total global catch of wild fish has leveled off at just under 100 million tons.
Many nations, including China, Japan, Norway and Canada, have started farming fish to meet the burgeoning demand. China leads the world, with as much as 70 percent of the world's aquaculture production; by comparison, the 4,000 U.S. fish farms produce 1 to 2 percent of the global total.
Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, compares fish farming to the Neolithic Revolution, in which humans moved over the course of more than 6,000 years from hunting and gathering to raising animals and plants domestically.
"People who go fishing are the last commercial market hunters in the world," Belle said. "We don't do that anymore on land."
Although many wild stocks are suffering from overfishing, fish farmers say they can provide a reliable and inexpensive supply of salmon, catfish, shrimp and other species year-round. New Brunswick-based Cooke Aquaculture processes 100,000 pounds of fish every day, seven days a week, and can ship it to anywhere in the United States within 24 hours.
"Nobody can get it from the water to the plate like we can," boasted Nell Halse, the company's spokeswoman.
Farming has also made once-pricey seafood delicacies such as shrimp and salmon much more affordable: In recent years the cost of raised salmon has dropped from about $7 per pound to the current all-time low of less than $2, and salmon farming has brought jobs to once-struggling areas such as New Brunswick's Charlotte County, where it now employs a quarter of the local workforce.