Out of the Wild

Photo: Jason E. Kaplan
Luke Fitzpatrick, owner of Santiam Valley Ranch in Turner, Oregon, gives a tour of his fishponds.

A new economic-development grant aims to kick-start Oregon’s nascent aquaculture sector.

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Luke Fitzpatrick’s farm is unusual by U.S. agricultural standards. Much of the 80 acres that make up Santiam Valley Ranch outside of Turner in Marion County is underwater. While his mother’s adjacent land is used for livestock and terrestrial crops, Fitzpatrick’s main agricultural product is fish.

Fitzpatrick grew up on a farm but went to school to study forestry. Now he uses his knowledge of biology and conservation to farm in a way that brings his land closer to its natural state. His ponds grow several species of fish, including largemouth bass, bluegill and black crappie. The byproducts of these animals provide nutrients to grow fertile rice paddies.

A portion of Fitzpatrick’s farm is being converted back into its original state of wetland prairie through a federal conservation project. This easement, along with rice and ducks, provides several sources of income. But the fish remain the main cash crop.

Fish fry blue tanksIn sheds, fish fry grow in large blue tanks. Some are sold as fingerlings, but many grow larger in the pond complex.

Despite all the aquatic animals he grows, Fitzpatrick only sells fish to stock other people’s lakes and ponds. None of the species he raises have commercial demand as table fare.

That is because aquaculture, the farming of fish and plants for food, is underdeveloped in Oregon. Potential investors are discouraged by state regulations that actively prohibit development of the industry due to a history of environmental damage from past projects.

But this may change thanks to a grant from Business Oregon, the state’s economic development agency, aimed at spurring investment in the sector.

Luke Fitzpatrick Santiam Ranch bird blindSitting in a duck blind on the edge of a pond, Luke Fitzpatrick talks about how his land is breeding habitat for wetland fowl. The land also serves as habitat for migrating birds. Ducks breed prolifically on the property. He allows a hunting club to shoot some of the ducks, which provides another revenue stream.

Up until recently, all fish and shellfish used for human consumption were caught wild. Today fully half of all seafood is farmed.

Wild-capture fishery production has been flat since the 1980s. Since that time, the appetite for high-quality protein has grown as the global population increases and developing countries become more wealthy.

Since pressure on the wild fisheries maxes out their production potential, aquaculture will continue to expand to fill the supply gap. By 2030 it is predicted that 62% of fish and shellfish will come from farms.

John Moehl worked for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, managing programs to increase food security in 47 nations through the development of aquatic farming. He left Oregon in 1974, at a time when there was little interest in fish farming in the state.

He has studied aquaculture his entire professional life and clearly feels frustration over Oregon’s inaction in the field.

“Nothing had changed from when I left to when I returned in 2012,” he says. During that time, Washington state has become the nation’s leader in aquaculture output by value. In 2019 it produced about $260 million of farmed shellfish and finfish products.

The majority comes from the vast oyster beds in Puget Sound. Washington represents a large portion of the national output of about $1.5 billion.

John MoehlJohn Moehl (pictured in McMinnville)

Overall, aquaculture in the U.S. is a tiny industry relative to the domestic demand. Approximately 90% of the seafood Americans consume is imported. More than half of that is farmed.

But while neighboring states have developed nascent aquaculture programs, Oregon has done little. Even the small, landlocked state of Idaho has triple Oregon’s level of production.

Moehl’s vision is for Oregon to have vast aquaponic greenhouses in which table-ready fish are raised in large tanks, with the wastewater used to fertilize densely grown crops.

To help realize this vision, Moehl and Oregon State University Professor Emeritus Gilbert Sylvia procured a grant in the spring of 2019 to develop the web-based Oregon Aquaculture Explorer Platform with the goal of doubling the state’s aquaculture output.

Working with the Oregon Aquaculture Association, Moehl and Sylvia are using $431,000 from a Business Oregon grant to develop the web-based platform with the hope of generating investor interest.

Initial research and planning for the project took place in 2018. Development of the resource began in 2019 and will continue throughout 2020.

The platform will have a geographic information system module that will help prospective farmers gauge the feasibility of specific locations for aquaculture development.

Moehl explains Oregon has a geography that limits its potential for aqua farms, but that recent technological advances can overcome that. The platform will also help investors navigate the state’s complex regulatory hurdles.

The application will be given a beta test by the Siletz Tribe. Moehl says he wants to work with a tribe because regulations are less onerous on reservation land.

Unlike in other states, aquaculture in Oregon is almost entirely regulated by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. As its mission is to protect habitat, some department officials see private aqua farming more as a threat to native species than as an economic opportunity.

Few people are interested in developing aquaculture operations in Oregon, according to Bruce McIntosh, assistant administrator for inland fish with the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Oregon lacks many of the geographic attributes that make land attractive for aquaculture development, he says. “Washington is better naturally. We don’t have a lot of estuaries. We don’t have Puget Sound.”

McIntosh admits he is not seeking to make state regulations more fish-farm friendly. He sees aquaculture as a threat to the state’s wild fish stocks, all of which are listed under the Endangered Species Act. “Public and political support [for fish farming] is very low,” he says.

But farmers and investors clearly do have interests in the sector. Fitzpatrick at Santiam Valley Ranch says he would be raising fish for direct human consumption if he could work with the state.

“I’ve tried, but ODFW is really hard to work with,” he says. The farmer would like to raise sturgeon, but an annual state licensing fee of $3,000 makes it unviable. When he asked the department why the fee was introduced, officials told him it was because the state wants to discourage people from farming sturgeon.

Farm owner Kathy Bridges, who is Fitzpatrick’s mother and also secretary of the Oregon Aquaculture Association, echoes Moehl’s belief that Oregon’s climate and geography hamper aquaculture development.

It is a little too cold for warm-climate fish and a little too warm for cold-water animals. “We don’t have a climate that’s real good for a lot of species,” she says.

But she also says regulation is the biggest obstacle. “There isn’t a leadership goal in the state to pursue aquaculture,” she says. “You need to have state leadership from the top down.”

In California and Washington, a state office oversees aquaculture and coordinates regulation between the different agencies. The Oregon Department of Agriculture does not regulate aquaculture beyond making sure that food products are safe for consumption.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife seeks to prevent fish escapement, pollution and disease, which are always risk factors with aquaculture operations.

Bridges understands and agrees with the department’s mission. “We want to keep our natural environment,” she says. “It’s the good work of the Department of Fish and Wildlife to make sure that no invasive species get released.”

The environmental risks of aquaculture development are real. Most of Idaho’s aquaculture is in the form of trout ponds. With about 80 facilities discharging into the Snake River, water quality has become a serious issue for native fish.

Washington permits farming of Atlantic salmon in offshore pens. On Aug. 19, 2017, a pen owned by Cooke Aquaculture near Cypress Island collapsed, releasing more than 200,000 non-native fish into the wild.

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources determined the pen break was caused by insufficient maintenance. In the aftermath of the accident, the Washington Legislature passed a law that bans all offshore salmon pens by 2025.

The first and last time there was a sizable investment in Oregon aquaculture was in the 1990s. With timber harvests down, wood-products company Weyerhaeuser sought to diversify by farming salmon.

The project, known as OR AQUA, consisted of facilities in Newport and Coos Bay. Coho salmon were raised in large hatcheries and then released out to the Pacific Ocean. The hope was that, come spawning time, the fish would return to where they were bred so they could be easily harvested.

For various reasons, the project was deemed nonviable and shut down. The company abandoned the hatchery fish. This was damaging to wild salmon because farm-raised fish interbreed with wild stocks and reduce their ability to survive.

“[Weyerhaeuser] basically walked away from it, and for years we’ve had [OR AQUA] fish coming back that we’ve had to deal with,” says McIntosh.

The OR AQUA failure turned the tide of public opinion against aquaculture in Oregon, says Moehl. These days the only table-ready seafood farmed at any scale in the state is oysters.

Despite demand for farmed oysters, Moehl does not want this seafood to be the sum of Oregon aquaculture production. He also does not want the idea of finfish aquaculture to end with OR AQUA.

Moehl sees opportunity for synergy between aquaculture and horticulture through the use of aquaponics. Using fish waste as fertilizer is a practice that Fitzpatrick has already embraced, both with his rice paddies and with greenhouse-grown vegetables.

Moehl wants to see an aquaponics industry develop beyond this. He mentions tilapia as a species that might be well suited to indoor aquaculture. Because it is a tropical fish, the risk of it escaping into the wild and becoming an invasive species is mitigated by the fish’s inability to survive in the Oregon climate.

Unused greenhouse space on farms and nurseries could be used for this purpose. Moehl also sees the possibility of repurposing excess lumber infrastructure for closed-system aquaponic aquaculture projects.

The Aquaculture Explorer Platform could act as a catalyst to generate more interest among investors. “It will signal that Oregon is ‘open for business’ for those wanting to invest in aqua farming,” says Moehl.

The increased interest could also be the impetus the state needs to overhaul the regulatory framework.

“Whatever Oregon decides to do or not do, if people want to keep eating seafood, aquaculture will have to increase,” says Moehl. “Oregon will either see the value of these opportunities or they will let it pass by.”

While Oregon has oyster farms along the coast, they are small compared with the output of farms in Puget Sound. One company that has capitalized on Oregon’s proximity to the largest oyster farms in the country is Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery.

Located next to Netarts Bay, it grows all its products indoors and sells most of them while they are still microscopic.

Hatchery tanksRows of giant round tanks give the hatchery a slight resemblance to a winery.  In these vessels, a crop of about ten billion oyster larvae are harvested every year.  The company also grows mussels and clams.

Alan Barton, the operations manager, says that 95% of the business is oysters.  The hatchery’s biggest clients are the oyster farmers of Puget Sound.

Alan Burton Whiskey CreekStanding in a room lined with clear jugs containing liquid colored from yellow to dark brown, Barton explains that these are algae cultures used to feed the oyster larvae.  “Most of the work we do is growing algae.” he says.

Oyster spawningAnother part of Barton’s job is to “trick” oysters into spawning.  One way to do this is to squeeze out the egg or sperm of an adult oyster to encourage others nearby to release their germ cells as well.

Oyster larvae microscopeWhile still too small to see with the naked eye, the oyster larvae, photographed here through a microscope, are shipped to farmers who raise them to maturity on underwater beds.

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