Tony Mazzaccaro had a better year this year than last. After losing more than 20,000 prime market-size hybrid striped bass in the summer of '96, he lost only about 10,000 fish in 1997 - about half a pond's worth - and got the rest to market.
Without intending it, Mazzaccaro's aquaculture ponds have become a biological, sociological and economic laboratory, one that is being watched closely by conservationists, resource managers and the seafood industry.
"These ponds are like a petri dish for the river," quips Mazzaccaro, who owns and operates HyRock Farm near Princess Anne, Maryland. The river is the Manokin, which provides abundant water for his operations; like other Bay tributaries, the Manokin is populated with numerous species of dinoflagellates, algae that include Pfiesteria and other single-celled organisms capable of producing harmful toxins. Mazzaccaro is on full alert against dinoflagellates that come in with the river water.
"It's gotten so I hate summer," he says, with a sweeping exaggeration. From June to October, Mazzaccaro checks his ponds for dissolved oxygen three time a day, seven days a week. "I go out at 5:30 am, 6:00 pm and midnight, every day," he says.
While on guard against potentially deadly invasions from the Manokin, Mazzaccaro must at the same time be careful that nutrient effluent released to the river from fish waste does not degrade the river's water quality. Those nutrients can lead to algal blooms that cause problems both in the ponds and in the river. Fortunately, the HyRock ponds drain into a wetland, which helps to filter out nutrients. Also helpful is the fact that Mazzaccaro drains his ponds once the fish have all gone to market, which means the middle of winter, when biological activity is low in the Bay.
The ecological give-and-take between aquaculture operations and the environment is no small concern in Mazzaccaro's ponds and in aquaculture operations nationally. With an overabundance of nutrients in our coastal waters, environmental organizations caution that the nation's expanding aquaculture operations can become sources of unwanted nutrients if not handled properly. In a recent report on aquaculture entitled "Murky Waters," the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) argues that fish farming, especially in open-water systems such as netpens, can have direct impacts on the quality of coastal waters. At the same time, EDF concludes that aquaculture does not need to be a polluting industry, and calls upon the federal government to encourage environmentally friendly methods for growing fish.
According to Jim McVey, the federal government has already been moving in precisely that direction. The coordinator of aquaculture efforts at the National Sea Grant Program, McVey has helped shape a new initiative in the Department of Commerce that will focus on environmentally sustainable aquaculture, with an initial emphasis on offshore aquaculture, recirculating systems and marine fish enhancement.
The EDF is also calling for further federal oversight of aquaculture, for example, over water netpens as well as regulation of potential pollutants that include chemicals, nutrients and the accidental release of non-native species into local waters. In addition, EDF argues for a program that certifies farm-raised fish grown in "environmentally friendly" systems.
In the midst of concerns about environmental protection and new methodologies, another concern looms large, according to Reginal Harrell, Maryland Sea Grant Extension Aquaculture Specialist. Harrell, who runs an aquaculture research and outreach program at the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) Horn Point Laboratory, worries about the bottom line of aquaculture enterprises such as those undertaken with considerable financial commitment by fish farmers like Tony Mazzaccaro.
While Harrell applauds new efforts to develop environmentally friendly aquaculture, he says that "these ideas may get you on the cover of Mother Earth magazine, but you won't see them in Forbes. It all comes down to the economics. Otherwise, why are you doing it?" Like any farmer, fish farmers must, after all is said and done, register a profit. And unlike land farmers, fish farmers have no subsidies to fall back on. If their operations lose money, they're sunk.
The Big Picture
The fledgling efforts to promote aquaculture in the Chesapeake Bay region are being played out against the gigantic backdrop of world fisheries markets. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in recent years, worldwide fish supplies have expanded rapidly. From 20 million metric tons in the 1950s, world fisheries production - including both wild harvests and aquaculture - rose to 109.6 million metric tons in 1994, then 112.3 in 1995. That increase, the FAO reports, is mainly a result of continued rapid growth in aquaculture production, which now accounts for some 27 percent of seafood consumption worldwide.