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Aquaculture industry laying groundwork for future growth.

Aquaculture is U.S. agriculture's latest success story, and its potential is just being tapped, says a recent issue of the Agriculture Department's FARMLINE magazine.

Over the past two decades, U.S. producers have taken to aquaculture production and have been quite successful, making it a major force in some parts of the domestic market. "In 1990, fresh and frozen finfish consumption was 6.6 pounds per capita, over 10 percent of which was U.S. farm-raised catfish," says economist David Harvey of USDA's Economic Research Service.

Per capita consumption of seafood peaked in 1987 at 16.2 pounds, then fell to 15.5 pounds in 1990. But between 1980 and 1990, per capita consumption surged by 24 percent.

About 90 percent of the fish consumed is from wild-catch, also called fish landings (fish caught from the ocean or other natural sources). Edible fish landings rose from 4 billion pounds in 1985 to 7.3 billion pounds in 1990--up a whopping 82.5 percent. In 1990, total commercial landings reached a record 9.7 billion pounds.

But the harvest of wild-catch is approaching its full potential, according to industry observers, so aquaculture producers will need to fill future demand.

Farm-raised finfish account for the other 10 percent of consumption. Harvey says that the catfish and trout found in restaurants and stores were likely raised on domestic fish farms. Just 10 years ago, domestic production accounted for only about 5 percent or less of seafood consumed.

Building a Market

"Aquaculture production grew at explosive rates in the 1980's--about 20 percent per year," Harvey says. "And it should continue to expand in the 1990's, although at a slower pace."

The groundwork for the future of domestic producers will be laid during the 1990's, Harvey explains. Producers will have to make decisions that will help them compete with wildcatch harvesters. "Since many wildcatch species cost less than a dollar per pound, aquaculture producers will not be able to compete directly with this source on a large scale for the foreseeable future," Harvey says.

To help producers compete more effectively, researchers are experimenting with the use of hormones to improve the productivity of finfish and shellfish. "Hormonal controls are being developed in three areas," Harvey says. "First, to get species to spawn in captivity that normally do not spawn while captive. Second, to get species to spawn more than once a year. And third, to use sex reversal so species could be converted to the faster growing sex."

Other options open to domestic producers are to raise high-value species, such as hybrid striped bass, sturgeon, and abalone. But Harvey cautions that markets for these items are fairly small.

In addition, producers can provide specialized products for niche markets. They can also produce species for which there is no substantial wild-catch or species for which the catch has been restricted to recreational purposes, such as redfish.

Good production techniques are another advantage producers can use as a marketing tool.

"Because aquacultural producers can maintain a controlled environment, consumers can be assured that the fish have a proper diet, that the quality of the water in which they live is high, and that products are fresh," Harvey observes. "The aquaculture industry can inform the public of the high safety standards that ensure their products are free from disease and contamination."

The industry could also develop brand names that consumers will associate with quality. This is already being done for some species.

One of the drawbacks to aquaculture production is the relatively high cost of its products compared with other meats, which depresses consumer consumption of fish in a slowing economy, according to Harvey. Many aquacultural products are relatively more expensive than competing protein products, such as poultry, although Harvey cautions that true price comparisons need to be on an edible weight basis. Retail seafood prices rose 25 percent between 1986 and 1990, compared with 21 percent for pork and 16 percent for poultry.

Market To Continue Strong

Many Americans have positive views of fish because of its nutritional value. "Most varieties are low in calories, fat, and cholesterol, especially when compared with other meats," Harvey explains.

In addition, some fish are known to contain omega-3 fatty acids, which have been found to reduce the risk of heart disease in some biomedical studies. Research is being done on special finishing diets that would boost the levels of these acids in farm-raised fish.

The increasing U.S. population will also help ensure strong demand for seafood. "Population growth alone will likely boost demand by 35 million pounds each year," says Harvey. "This could mean an additional 70 million pounds of farm sales yearly, since 15 only about half the weight is edible."

"U.S. aquacultural producers keep up with the latest technology, and therefore the industry continues to change as more is learned about various species of fish," Harvey explains.
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Publication:Frozen Food Digest
Article Type:Industry Overview
Date:Oct 1, 1992
Words:812
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