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Massachusetts Aquaculture White Paper - Introduction to Marine Aquaculture
Massachusetts has approximately 1500 miles of coastline interspersed with rivers, estuarine systems, salt ponds, saltmarshes, and protected bays. These waters produce a variety of seaweeds, shellfish, crustaceans, and finfish. Many of the coastal waters are of high quality and have historically supported a significant commercial harvest as well as recreational fisheries and water-sports activities. The productivity of natural populations in Massachusetts is a good indicator that the quality of the state's waters is suitable for a variety of aquacultural activities.
Harvesting the sea, either through the taking of wild animals or through managed cultivation of impounded waters, tidelands, or submerged lands, is a practice that dates from before the first European settlers landed in the Bay colonies. However, the practice of rearing bivalve mollusks from the fertilized egg to the juvenile stage under controlled conditions did not become a commercially viable reality until the 1960's. Initially there were many failures, usually due to insufficient understanding of bivalve larval food requirements. Once realized, it became clear that millions of tiny clams, oysters, and bay scallops could be successfully produced in captivity.
During the 1970's, when methods of satisfying the nutritional requirements of larval and juvenile shellfish in captivity had been improved, a major focus in shellfish culture was the development of methods to assure the survival of hatchery-reared juveniles to market size. Attempting to rear shellfish from larvae to harvest size in "captivity" is not economically feasible. Various techniques were developed for culture under natural conditions, including "off-bottom" methods and the use of various materials spread on the bottom that protected the young shellfish from bottom-crawling predators.
By the 1980's, commercial shellfish hatcheries were operating successfully in New England, both publicly and privately run. Large numbers of juvenile hard clams (quahogs) and oysters were produced each year and transferred for grow-out to harvest size to tidal flats.
Today, aquaculture can be separated into two broad methods and techniques - intensive and extensive aquaculture. Intensive aquaculture subjects an organism to hatchery controlled-conditions for most of the life cycle. This form is most commonly applied to finfish. The cultivation of salmonids in "fish farms," either offshore or in inland ponds, is an example of intensive aquaculture; the fish are hatched from eggs, reared and fed in controlled enclosures until reaching harvest size, and then harvested.
Extensive aquaculture is the manipulation in the natural environment at one or more stages of an organism's life cycle. Examples include the growing of shellfish off the bottom on and in mesh bags, sleeves, nets, floats, trays, or racks, predator control, and removal of "seed" shellfish from a nursery area to a controlled pen until growth to full harvest size is completed.
Like agriculture, aquaculture is an attempt to propagate crops in a semi-controlled setting. This relationship has placed the entire aquaculture process in a confusing position somewhere between traditional agriculure and traditional fishing. In fact, agricultural interests have given aquaculture little support because it is an extremely foreign practice relative to other forms of crop propagation, while traditional fishing has viewed aquaculture as an unwanted competitor. The result has been either a lack of interest or outright hostility towards aquaculture providing it with little political and/or financial support.
Some problems related to agriculture are true in aquaculture as well, such as the accumulation of waste products and the potential for disease. Yet, the waste disposal issue offers an example of how aquacultural operations are often made more complex than its traditional counterpart. While farm wastes can often be composted on-site, the composting of fish wastes is restricted to a few specially permitted facilities, increasing costs to the aquaculturalist for waste disposal. A quick solution may be achieved for this issue if small scale on-site composting could be approved for aquaculture.
Aquaculture poses many unique challenges to the farmer not found in traditional agriculture such as those related to siting due to legal and traditional conflicts, and to contamination of wild fisheries due to interactions between these distinct populations. Unlike agriculture, aquaculture depends upon and directly influences public resources introducing conflicts to available uses and to traditional fisheries management issues. Similarly, marine and fresh water aquaculture is not always well-defined since anadramous species such as salmon or catadramous species such as eels depend upon both salt and fresh waters for parts of their life cycles complicating the need for resources which must be employed.
These obstacles have swayed public sentiment against aquaculture significantly reducing the availability of funding sources needed to legitimize the industry. Despite these obstacles, the growing demand by the public for seafood products coupled with the dwindling availability of natural sources to meet the demand still makes aquaculture a promising industry in the near future for Massachusetts.
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Published: September 1995