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Here's a fish story you can believe

Special to the Sunday News

February 22. 2014 1:28AM
Krystin Ward, a research assitant at UNH, WORKS on an oyster nursery raft at Jackson Estuarine Laboratory in July. The researcher experimented with biodegradable netting for the oysters. (COURTESY)

DURHAM -- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sent out a notice recently touting the importance of aquaculture in helping to support struggling fishing communities across the country.

In New Hampshire, the funding has not been behind the pronouncements, and efforts to start innovative aquaculture programs have been hindered as a result.

But there are ongoing signs of what is possible.

A commercial transfer project of an offshore rope-cultured mussels program at the University of New Hampshire has had good success, and the UNH NH Sea Grant program has also demonstrated success in farming steelhead trout at the mouth of the Piscataqua River.

Making progress

Over the past five years there has also been an increase in the number of oyster farms in Little Bay, also thanks in part to research being done at UNH.

Researchers say they wish they could do more.

"There is not a whole lot of political will from the federal government for funding research," said Richard Langan, director of ocean and coastal technology program in the school of marine science at UNH.

Langan previously directed the Atlantic Marine Aquaculture Project at UNH, which operated from 1997 to 2010 when the funding dried up and the program closed down.

"Aquaculture is having a hard time getting a foothold pretty much everywhere in the country, and it was difficult then to get acceptance, and it hasn't gotten better," Langan said.

Ray Grizzle's work at UNH has often focused on the importance of oysters to the health of Great Bay. He and research assistant Krystin Ward also both run their own oyster farming operations in the estuary and have done considerable research on the opportunities for and challenges to oyster farming in Little Bay and surrounding areas.

Around 2009, they received some funding through the Federal Red Tide Relief Fund to develop in-shore aquaculture. Grizzle and others developed an analysis of where oyster farming could occur and not be affected by red tide.

According to Grizzle and Ward's 2012 final report on the red tide research, their rationale was that because red tide blooms mainly occur in coastal or offshore waters, further development of estuarine shellfish aquaculture could offset the effects of shellfish closures in those areas.

In their final report, Grizzle and his fellow researchers said there is the potential for 62 oyster farms occupying about 186 acres based on major sociological and environmental factors for oyster aquaculture with respect to the Little Bay area.

Another try

Grizzle said there is a scattered history of oyster farming in New Hampshire, and the $300,000 grant allowed the industry to kick start again.

Ward has been working with Grizzle since 2005 on projects like the oyster shell recycling program, and her interest in oyster farming was a natural progression of that work.

"It is something I can create as a small business and hopefully grow into a big part of my life," said Ward, who now operates Choice Oysters in Newington. "I like what oysters do for the bay. It is such a sustainable and healthy way to go."

It takes three years before the oysters are even ready to market, so this coming season will be the first in which Ward realizes any profit, but Grizzle said the market is there when the oysters are ready.

"Overall it is safe to say we don't really know the limits of the market right now, and the market is going to be dynamic. It is not just a local or regional market anymore," Grizzle said.

Last year, Grizzle and his business partner with Wagon Hill Oysters in Durham harvested about 13,000 oysters in five weeks. Most were sold through Taylor Lobster in Kittery, Maine. Oysters were also sold at local restaurants including Jump'n Jay's Fish Café in Portsmouth.

The Nature Conservancy has taken an interest in oysters and is now working with Grizzle and Ward to seek additional funding opportunities for research.

Another current success story for aquaculture in New Hampshire involves a multi-species approach supported by UNH NH Sea Grant.

Ongoing project

Michael Chambers and Hunt Howell have been working for the last three years with seven to eight New Hampshire fishermen to raise rainbow trout in saltwater environments.

The fishermen are involved in growing the fish to size and are then able to market them locally, but as the program got bigger, they ran into challenges from the Environmental Protection Agency, which had concerns about fish waste and additional bad nutrients being excreted into the Piscataqua River.

The project has been located at the mouth of the river at the Judd Gregg Marine Research Complex in New Castle.

"They said it is nutrient impaired, nitrogen in particular . so we can't have any more nitrogen going into this area," Chambers said.

To combat the concern the researchers began looking at other organisms, in the way of shellfish or seaweed they could grow in tangent with the trout that could bio-extract those nutrients.

In 2012, they proved they could with rope-cultured blue mussels and sugar kelp. Both remove phosphorous, carbon and nitrogen from the environment 24/7, while the fish are only eating and excreting for certain periods of time during certain times of the year.

This last season, in addition to selling trout, they had a permit to sell kelp and did some test marketing with Portsmouth restaurant The Black Trumpet, and Chambers said they are hoping to scale up production this year.

He said the blue mussels are also very viable, and people want them, but the area the work is being done in is not open to shellfish harvesting. The shellfish have since been moved to an open area and will be harvested in the spring for sale.

"So at harvest time when you extract those organisms you pull that nitrogen out of the river," Chambers said, adding that they have so far been able to pull out two to three times the nitrogen out of the water than what goes in through fish farming.

Looking for increases

He said they are hoping to scale up the project, but that takes money and investment. He said the fishermen involved have been quite engaged and are gaining new skillsets, but are only doing the work part-time.

"They might be able to do it full time if we scaled up," Chambers said.

Right now, they are prepping for another run of trout in the spring, with nine-inch, three to four pound trout ready for harvest by November.

Chambers said there are many misconceptions about fish farming in general.

"You talk to anybody in the street and ask them about salmon farming and they say 'bad, bad, bad,' but farming the ocean is actually much more efficient than farming the land," Chambers said.

He said no antibiotics are used, and they are very restricted in what they can do.

On the flip side, fish is one of the healthiest local food sources available.

Chambers said some fish are easier to raise than others. Work done with an eye for cod stock enhancement has been unsuccessful, but trout and salmon are relatively easy to farm, Chambers said.

The kind of trout farming being done by UNH is already being done in Canada, Chile, Norway and Scotland, Chambers said, but nowhere else on the eastern seaboard.

Chambers said funding for aquaculture research is short, competitive and hard to get.

"We spend a lot of time writing proposals," Chambers said.

Much support

And so do many other agencies. About 261 proposals were recently submitted for $5 million in available federal Saltonsall-Kennedy funds.

Chambers said one of the main reasons the open ocean aquaculture project was successful for so long was the support of former U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg.

"Senator Gregg was very good at bringing money back here and was able to advocate for that money for a period of time, but it's difficult," Chambers said. "We built up a lot of expertise here, so we are always wishing we could do a lot more. We can do it, but it's about finding ways to support it."

According to Grizzle and Ward, the future of shellfish farming will depend in large measure on how well it's integrated into the process.

"Lobster is in the culture and tradition. I think oyster farming will come along," Grizzle said.

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