Blue crabs are by far the most valuable marine resource to North Carolina’s economy, but hurricanes and overfishing in recent years have decimated the blue crab population in the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds. Less than 43 million pounds of the shellfish were caught in state waters in 2003, down 31 percent from just five years earlier. If harvests continue to struggle, the state could begin enforcing catch restrictions next year designed to help the population recoverrules that also would make it more difficult for crabbers to make a living.
Enter Dr. David Eggleston, part-time rock drummer and full-time crustacean researcher, who wants to change the rhythm of the crabbing industry by farming them in ponds across eastern North Carolina. Although blue crabs spend most of their lives in the open ocean or the brackish waters of coastal estuaries, Eggleston’s studies show the creatures could actually grow faster in ponds because fresh water helps their body tissue expand whenever they molt. And the taste? “In a word, they were delicious,” he says with a grin, noting he and his marine science students have feasted on some of their freshwater experiments.
After an initial study in a Belhaven crabber’s backyard pond last year, Eggleston is planning large-scale trials in Plymouth this summer. He will track costs and yields and hopes to determine that crab farming makes economic sense. “We have to take fishing pressure off the wild stock to preserve the future of the industry,” he says. “Taking advantage of unused farm ponds offers a development opportunity to the eastern part of the state and gives crabbers a chance to expand their business.”
Unlike crabs, freshwater fish have been farmed for decades, from trout runs to catfish ponds, but Dr. Tom Losordo believes production could be improved by getting the fish out of the groundponds are too cold for some speciesand into indoor tanks. In a corrugated metal building off Lake Wheeler Road known as the Fish Barn, the agricultural engineering professor oversees a series of 15,000-gallon tanks teeming with tilapia, yellow perch, and other species. He has tweaked his system for yearsadjusting water levels, feeding schedules, and waste filtersand each tank now produces about 11,000 pounds of fish every six months.
The Fish Barn system is so recognized that Losordo travels the globe presenting scientific papers and technical workshops on indoor fish farming. But in North Carolina, he spends a lot of time talking people out of going into the business. Aquaculture is an industry that allows successful farmers to diversify their operations, he says. It’s not a savior for a failing family farm. “My job is not to build an industry quickly. My job is to help build an industry in the state that lasts and that continues to grow.”
Ten Fish Barns have been built statewide in the past seven years, with Southern Farm Tilapia marketing fish from all but one. The Nash County-based company, which also owns one of the few tilapia hatcheries on the East Coast as well as a processing facility, sells about 2.5 million pounds of fish annually. President R.C. Hunt says NC State’s technical expertise helped him apply the business skills he had honed in cattle and pig farming to a new market. “They taught us the engineering and the chemistry and motivated us to strive for improvements,” Hunt says. “We’re just taking their knowledge and applying it on a commercial scale.”
Dr. Harry Daniels expects Fish Barns around the state to one day supply Southern flounder to supermarkets and sushi bars nationwide. The associate professor of zoology is working with Losordo to adapt the indoor system to the flat fish, which prefer piling up along the bottom of the tanks to swimming around. “Because aquaculture can be done anywhere, we need to focus on higher-grade niche businesses like this to be successful,” Daniels says.
A former Peace Corps worker who once rebuilt fish hatcheries in western Africa to feed growing populations, Daniels now works to build an all-female species of Southern flounder to fill Fish Barn tanks because the female fish grow three times faster than males and are more marketable. By fertilizing flounder eggs with sperm from black sea bass and pressurizing the egg enough to retain the mismatched genetic material, Daniels and Drs. John Godwin and Russell Borski have created male flounder with no Y chromosome. These so-called XX males can then be bred to produce all female flounder and improve a farmer’s yield. “Breeding these fish and raising them in tanks is a major accomplishment,” Daniels says, “one that will offer economic opportunities to farmers across North Carolina for years to come.”