A billion-dollar industry. Yep, that’s right! Now that I have your attention, let me go into detail and describe the idea and how to develop an industry in the Virgin Islands that can generate hundreds of millions, and billions. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. In a word, the answer is aquaculture. Everyone has heard about it. Most people are aware of the concept and that it is the future of seafood for the planet.

Already more than half the seafood consumed worldwide is farm raised. That will only continue to grow in the future. Long before the end of this century, wild caught fish will be regarded as sport, just as hunting on land is today. Wild caught seafood, though still existing, will contribute an insignificant portion of the world seafood supply. There is no longer a debate if this will happen, only how.

In this essay, I would like to lay out the concept in some detail and provide a brief roadmap to show how the VI can benefit from this industry. Of course, the question on everyone’s mind is how this can happen here. How do we develop such an industry? And naturally, there will be sceptics who will want to debate, or refute, all the arguments. Great, bring it on. Follow with me and I will explain the logic and then show you the numbers that demonstrate how the millions, or billions, can be earned. After all, that’s really what most people want to know.


A little history

Obviously, some background and history is necessary first. Everyone knows that aquaculture deals with “farming” aquatic animals and plants in fresh or salt water. This is nothing new. Aquaculture has been practised for thousands of years. I can easily present evidence of farming aquatic animals in ancient Egypt or China or elsewhere on the globe. There is a rich history dating back to antiquity.

The big change has happened in the last half century or so driven by a combination of factors, including advancement in technology and increased demand. The increased demand is a result of the explosion of the human population. That, in turn, has created a host of environmental problems. Overfishing, coastal development, loss of habitat and pollution have all contributed to the steady decline of wild harvested seafood. Despite some determined efforts to reverse the trend, the outlook for wild caught seafood is grim, and will only get worse in the future.

There are related topics like hydroponics, mariculture, polyculture and more. There is aquaculture of animals and plants; of ornamentals and food organisms. There are as many variations in aquaculture as there are in land-based agriculture. There is way more than I can cover here. So anyone wanting more information, or who would like to debate the logic, or facts, is welcome to contact me directly. This is a topic I am happy to discuss.


Fisheries vs. aquaculture

For starters, it is useful to consider the relationship between aquaculture and fisheries. So I will begin with a brief discussion of fisheries and its relation to sea farming. Again, much of this is not new to anyone who follows current events. Let me start with fisheries.

I would argue that commercial fisheries, as we have known it throughout human history, is entering its last gasp. I predict commercial fisheries will be finished well before the end of this century. At least the way we have always known it. You don’t need to be a fisheries scientist to understand this. Just read the news about overfishing and collapsing wild populations, about coastal pollution, habitat loss, introduction of invasive species, and the colossal negative impact humans are having on our planet’s oceans.

Now then, I can hear the howls of protest from my colleagues and friends in the fisheries fields. I hear it every time I attend an international fisheries conference. They will point to successful management programmes, habitat restoration projects, legislation and enforcement, and more. I must commend the efforts in the VI of the Conservation and Fisheries Department, as well as those of the National Parks Trust, the Jost Van Dykes Preservation Society, the Association of Reef Keepers, and others with a commitment to environmental protection. Understaffed, underfunded and often under-appreciated, these organisations and their dedicated members are fighting a heroic battle to preserve what remains and do their best to reverse the environmental decline.

Unfortunately, their efforts will not yield the results we need in a meaningful time frame. They may slow the process, and maybe point to a few victories, but in the end the onslaught of human population growth will overwhelm their best efforts. Most scientists believe that this will be the century of mass extinctions and environmental challenges of a magnitude not seen in human history. I do not wish to go into detail here to explain or justify my point. Nor do I want to come across as a negative scientist. I am happy to discuss with anyone who would like to explore my comments and swap fact for fact.


A ‘realistic future’

I should point out that I am not trying to paint a picture of doom and gloom for wild caught fisheries. Well, maybe a little! I have not given up the struggle for environmental protection, nor will I ever stop advocating for responsible environmental management. I will continue to do my best to work with my friends and colleagues to protect the fragile habitats in the VI from further damage. While I may not be overly optimistic about the long-tern success of such efforts, I feel there is no other choice but to try my hardest. Better to try and fail than to not try at all. Even limited, short-term success is worth the effort. But I cannot escape reality and neglect planning for a realistic future.

I doubt I am alone in my opinion that commercial fisheries are doomed. By the end of this century, fisheries will be primarily recreational. The remaining wild fish stocks will be more valuable for sport than for commercial harvesting.

Of course, there will be a few exceptions. Some fisheries will be successfully managed for sustainability. But I would argue that they will make an insignificant impact in the world supply of seafood. The fisheries will follow the same pattern of collapse as “market hunting” did in the early 1900s and before. At one time, wild harvest of ducks, geese, shorebirds, elk, bison and other species comprised the major source of meat sold in markets. Over time, the combination of overhunting, habitat loss, pollution and demands of increasing populations resulted in the collapse of commercial hunting. Today, many of those animals are hunted for sport, never appear on supermarket shelves, and represent a negligible contribution to our food supply. Yes, there are pockets of resistance where “bush meat” still makes up a sizeable portion of the diet. They are few.

I once met a man on Vancouver Island who ate elk, grouse, salmon and other wild game. He claimed he never in his life bought meat in a grocery store. No doubt he was healthier for it, but he represents an incredibly tiny portion of humanity.


What you eat

Think a moment about what you eat. The beef, pork, chicken, turkey, lamb and so on are all farm raised. Most people in developed countries have never eaten an animal that was not farm raised. With fisheries, we are still in the “bush meat” phase. Less and less of the seafood you eat is wild caught. Today, in grocery stores, most shrimp is farm raised. The same with salmon, trout, tilapia, clams, mussels and more. The percentage of wild caught seafood is dwindling and will continue to do so. The change will be driven by availability, economics and basic market forces. This is happening right before our eyes and nothing we can do will change it. It is a replay of the decline of market hunting a century ago.

Here again, I can hear the howls of protest from those who would point out the contamination of aquaculture products, the environmental destruction associated with shrimp farming, the health differences between farmed and wild caught salmon, and much more. To those individuals, I will offer my empathy and understanding and agreement with their criticisms. However, those problems are not about aquaculture: They are about greed and bad behaviour in humans. I will agree with much of the emotion and the nostalgia, and even accept some of the arguments for how we can reverse some of the change. However, in the end, reality will be pretty much as I explain. It will still make for interesting discussion and debate, and I welcome the conversation with anyone who cares to delve deeper into the topic.



Wild fisheries challenges

Before I go into more detail about aquaculture, it is useful to explore some of the issues related to fisheries. I would like to share my thoughts on why commercial fisheries is not worth considering as a significant contributor to the overall economy of the territory.

I am not suggesting for a moment that we should abandon local commercial fisheries. In fact, I advocate following the recommendations of CFD and others for sound management of all marine resources. I believe the local fisheries should be managed for sustainability. But here is the problem.

Today, in many parts of the world, politicians, regulators and resource managers are quick to embrace the concept of sustainability. Politicians and government officials are particularly keen to promote sustainability. It is the buzzword of our time. They think by promoting sustainable management of natural resources, there will be more for us to harvest. They think sustainable fisheries will result in more fish to catch. Unfortunately, an important point is missed. Managing for sustainability does mean there will be more to catch: more to catch in the future than if there is no management today. But not more to catch today. Virtually every fishery is not harvested sustainably today.

So to manage for sustainable harvest in the future means fishing less today — usually the opposite of what many managers would like to hear. To have more fish tomorrow means taking less fish today. That means restricting current fishing practices. That means telling fishers that they cannot fish as they have. This is not easy to achieve anywhere in the world. Fisherfolk are notoriously difficult to regulate. Fishing has a long tradition in nearly every culture. Any attempt at regulation will inevitably meet with enormous, and usually powerful, resistance. Fact is, few fisheries anywhere have been successfully regulated. Sure, there are a few bright spots. Some fisheries are being managed sustainably, usually with local cooperation. They are few and far between.

I applaud all successful efforts in this area. I encourage the local government to do everything possible to manage local resources for sustainability. However, when anyone suggests fisheries in the VI can be a pillar of the economy, I would argue it is unlikely, if not impossible. Let me explain why.


The economics

It is all about economics. Fisheries in the VI have historically been artesanal, with limited export to nearby markets. There has never been a large-scale fishery that could support the economy of the territory. In my four decades here, I have seen several attempts to expand the fishery with long-line offshore fishing. Usually funded from external sources with technical expertise, the projects were designed to develop the offshore fishing sector. Success was always limited and below expectations. For a variety of reasons, the long-line offshore fishery has always been limited. Certainly, there are notable exceptions. The Soares family on Anegada have been long-lining for decades. While they have been successful as a family, there have not been many to join them.

Fishing has been touted as a potential pillar of the economy. The only segment with that potential is the offshore fishery. However, that fishery has short-term opportunity at best. The reason is simple. The target offshore species include tuna, wahoo, billfish and a few others. These are all migratory species. They are in the local territorial waters for a brief period. Thus, they are usually in international waters where they are pursued by large oceangoing fishing fleets that follow the schools and fish relentlessly. Efforts to limit the pressure on fish stocks through multinational agreements have met with limited success. The result is that virtually every species is in trouble. Swordfish, a major target species, are crashing in number. Each year the average size of fish taken decreases to the point where more and more animals harvested have not yet reached reproductive maturity. It is not hard to understand what will happen to a population when you remove them before they have a chance to reproduce.


Reef species

The situation is more complex and important with reef and shallow water species. Numerous critters living on reefs are harvested. Fish are the most obvious and probably most significant. However, lobster and conch are also targeted. Any local fisherman will tell you that fishing is harder today than in the past. There is less to catch, and fishermen must go further and work longer than in previous years.

As we learn more about the ecology of commercially valuable species, we discover that many management plans are not as effective as we would like. For example, we want to catch the biggest grouper or snapper and leave the little ones to grow up. Now we understand that the larger female fish produce vastly more eggs and of a higher quality. A 20-pound grouper produces way more than double the eggs and of a better quality than a 10-pound grouper. So a better management strategy would be one that preserves the largest, healthiest individuals for breeding.

We have fishing contests where prizes are awarded for the largest fish, or the most fish, or whatever. Much is based on tradition. Unfortunately, what was once tradition — and had few negative consequences — is different today. To effectively manage wild fisheries for the future will require a rethinking of tradition and the implementation of new strategies incorporating the best scientific evidence available. It should be a dynamic strategy, and one than respects tradition but uses good science and realistic assessments to develop management plans.


Topping financial services?

It is not my intention here to comment on the VI fisheries in detail. That might be an interesting, and worthwhile, topic for another essay. My point is one of economics. The current fishery, or any that can be realistically imagined, will not support the VI economy. No wild caught fishery will provide hundreds of millions to the economy. The wild caught fishery will not equal or surpass the financial services industry as a driver of the local economy. Aquaculture can.

Finally, there is one more important consideration in any discussion of the future of fisheries. Once again, economics will play the defining role. While the focus here has been on the various environmental issues like overfishing, pollution and whatever, it will ultimately be simple market forces that will end commercial fisheries.

Each year the cost of commercial fishing increases. It includes the cost of fuel, vessel maintenance, equipment and the obvious issue of human safety. Fishing costs more and more to catch less and less. Each year the cost of farming fish goes down. Driven by the development of technology, the cost per pound of aquaculture continues to decline. It will be hard to justify the cost of commercial fishing when farming will be so much cheaper. Sure, there will be a case made for the benefits of wild caught versus farmed fish for quality and health. But that will change in time as aquaculture improves and solves the problems while wild fish populations will become vulnerable to increasing pollution. More important is the fact that the consumer will increasingly select the less expensive product. That is already happening in the local grocery stores.

All this will take some time and we will all watch it happen. It will happen on a global scale. It is in process now. The VI has a chance to participate in this industry and perhaps make good contributions to how things are done in the future. We can be a leader in this industry. But not if we stand on the sidelines and just watch.



Why aquaculture?

The justification for aquaculture is simple. It is an enormous worldwide industry and growing year by year. It represents the future of seafood. There are a few basic assumptions that few would challenge. For starters, the human population will continue to expand. Some scientists predict the population may double in the next century or so. That means lots of bellies to fill. Future food production will need to grow enormously to meet the demand.

The consequences of expanding human populations will be huge. Habitats, especially coastal ones, will continue to decline. Those that remain will become increasingly polluted and degraded, not just from chemical contaminants, but from invasive species, poaching and human physical encroachment. Despite the best efforts of regulatory agencies, pressure on the remaining wild stocks will increase. There will be less and less left. If we are overfishing our resources today, what will happen when the population doubles? How will wild fish populations remain intact when their habitats dwindle and are contaminated?

This is happening worldwide. Many places are being hit much worse than the VI. Even here, think about the coastal wetlands on Tortola. Every bay on the south coast once had a mangrove estuary with associated salt ponds. Those were the breeding grounds for fish, lobster and all the organisms that contribute to a healthy flourishing ecosystem. You don’t need to be a scientist to see what has happened or how the fisheries have been impacted. Fact is, wild caught fisheries are under pressure and that will continue in the foreseeable future.

In my view, the best option for the VI is aquaculture. Perhaps the best reason of all is the one resource the VI has that few developed countries can match: clean, clear ocean water that is unpolluted and near shore. The ocean currents that sweep across the Virgin Islands bank come from the open ocean and are not down current of major sources of pollution. Not many countries are so blessed. Thus, that single resource provides the basis for a new industry.

There are a few other potential benefits in the VI. Some resources, particularly at H. Lavity Stoutt Community College, could provide logistical support for aquaculture development. An efficient government entity could develop a national plan to guide and encourage the development of aquaculture projects.



What kind of aquaculture?

The field of aquaculture is as broad as land agriculture. There is aquaculture for fish, invertebrates and plants. Often, there can be a form of polyculture where several types of animals and plants are grown together. A perfect example is hydroponics and fish culture. Tilapia grown in tanks combine with hydroponic production of vegetables.

Aquaculture can be as simple as a backyard fish tank, or as large as ocean net pens producing millions of pounds of fish annually. New species, growing technology and management strategies are developed all the time. Thus, the opportunities in the field are enormous.

While much of the focus in aquaculture is growing food for the plate, there is also a profitable field of ornamentals. Fish for the aquarium trade can be more profitable than food fish. A two-inch fish selling for $50 has benefits over selling meat for $5 per pound.

For the VI, the best option is raising fish in large ocean cages. That alternative takes best advantage of the primary resource available.

Large-scale aquaculture on land or in coastal wetlands is not practical here. There are a few areas in which the VI cannot compete on the world stage. Any form of aquaculture that requires large amounts of cheap coastal land, abundant cheap electricity, or very cheap labour will not be competitive here. We cannot compete with southeast Asia, Ecuador or China in those categories.

However, where the ingredients are clean, clear water, good support infrastructure, and a well-trained workforce, the VI can compete with anyone.

In considering resources, let me quickly dispel one idea that surfaces repeatedly in conversations.



No Anegada wetlands

Over the years, I have had many conversations with individuals interested in aquaculture. In the majority of cases, the questions arise about using the Anegada salt ponds for shrimp culture or some other use. My answer is always the same. Absolutely not.

The Anegada wetlands are not suitable for a variety of reasons. First, the wetlands there are a national treasure. They are of international importance. As wetlands worldwide continue to diminish at an alarming rate, those that remain gain in importance. Such is the case on Anegada.

I don’t know of any form of aquaculture compatible with those wetlands. Shrimp culture, fish culture or anything else would destroy the ecosystem of the ponds. Any culture of marine organisms on Anegada should be grown by nature and reserved for the flamingos.

Now, I realise that my comments may be taken as emotional, and the viewpoint of an environmentalist. So let me provide another reason — one based on simple economics.

Shrimp culture, as currently practised in most wetlands in Asia, is incredibly devastating to the habitats. Wetlands that are modified into shrimp ponds produce only a few crops before they must be abandoned for new areas, much like slash-and-burn agriculture on land. That means even if you carve up the Anegada ponds, there will only be a few cycles and harvests before the ponds become unusable. At best, there may be a few seasons of profit before the resource base is gone. Clearly, it is not worth it. Any associated infrastructure built to support shrimp culture would become useless.

The wetlands on Anegada are best used as they currently are: a natural attraction for visitors looking to experience the islands as they once were.

However, Anegada can benefit significantly from the development of aquaculture away from the wetlands. A few acres of coastal upland could become the support base for much of the VI aquaculture industry. There will be a need for some land-based support. Tanks for growing fish larvae, experimental breeding and a variety of projects would need a base of operation. It could be the start of a small “aquaculture park” that could service the industry while becoming a tourist attraction. More importantly, such a facility would provide employment for residents and training opportunities for the youth in an emerging industry.


The numbers

Reading through this essay, in the back of everyone’s mind is the question of how much money this industry can produce. So let me provide an example.

Keep in mind that aquaculture is just like all forms of agriculture: There is no magic formula. Some farmers become millionaires while others go broke. In every form of business, some succeed and some don’t. There are many reasons why. Perhaps most important is management. There is good management and bad management. Of course, there are other reasons also. Understanding the market is important, as is choosing the right species and the growing methods. Sometimes plain old-fashioned bad luck plays a role in the form of a disease outbreak, a storm or other event. It is no different on land. Despite all the challenges and risks, we continue to grow food. There is no choice. Humans must eat so someone will grow the food.

So what works best for the VI? In my opinion, the best strategy is one that uses a variety of approaches to growing different products. The best example — the billion-dollar example — relies on growing food fish in moderate-sized offshore cages.

There are many design options for sea cages, and the technology improves all the time. As an example, assume a sea cage somewhere between 30- and 50-foot radius. That is considered small by current standards. Let’s be conservative and use a smaller cage with a volume of about 3,000 cubic yards (roughly similar to cubic metres for those who prefer).

Current fish production is estimated at 100 pounds per cubic yard. So 3,000 cubic yards times 100 pounds = 300,000 pounds per cage per cycle. At $5/pound that equals $1.5 million per cage per harvest.

A typical floating fish farm may have 12 cages (to harvest once per month). Thus, 12 cages times $1.5 million = $18 million per farm annually.

Given 10 farms, the result is $180 million, or 100 farms at $1.8 billion.


Answering objections

Now, some will scream that these numbers are unrealistic, or would have other negatives. I can deal with all the objections. For starters, not all fish are worth $5/pound wholesale. But most don’t require a year to harvest. Mahi mahi can be harvested three or four times per year. Sea cages can be larger and thus more efficient. In addition, these numbers are not profit. There are expenses, of course. But where there is this kind of turnover, profit can be had.

Also, 100 farms at 12 cages each means 1,200 cages in the VI waters. That seems excessive. I agree. However, as I envision, these would not be visible. No one would look out and see hundreds of sea cages. They would be offshore near the edge of the bank and submerged. They would only be brought to the surface for maintenance and harvesting. Otherwise, they would be out of sight and out of the way of boat traffic or potential thieves. Alternatively, I could propose larger cages and fewer of them. The numbers and projections would not change.

I only suggest these as a sample of what is possible. What is grown and what values the fish have will be determined by market forces and will change over time. Very likely there would be a mix of difference types of farms depending on what is grown and that would respond to market demands. The idea is for the VI to remain on the cutting edge of technology and be able to respond more quickly than the competition.

Let’s take the numbers further. For sake of argument, assume the 100 farms (or production equivalent) and consider the amount of fish produced. If 100 farms harvest one cage each per month, that means roughly three cages per day. At 300,000 pounds per cage, that is almost one million pounds per day. A processing facility would have to operate 24/7 to deal with the demand. If the fish are just gutted and frozen, you would fill a 40-foot container just about every two hours. Imagine exporting 12 containers of fish every day.

Clearly, these numbers seem extraordinary, especially considering current VI production is zero. However, these numbers are very realistic because billions are made worldwide and growing every year.

My point here is simple. The opportunities in this industry are enormous. It is possible to develop an aquaculture industry that can support the VI economy. It can exceed what is earned by the financial services and tourism sectors combined.


Diverse economy

Now, I would not argue for a moment that the VI should forego the financial or tourism sectors. Quite the opposite. The safest strategy for any country is a diversified economy. Aquaculture does have one advantage over the other sectors. It is less vulnerable to political pressure or variations in the global economy. Financial services are subject to the changing politics in larger countries. Tourism fluctuates with the economies of North America and Europe. Growing food provides a level of independence not available in the others. No matter what happens in the world economy, people must eat, and food will always be in demand. A robust aquaculture industry could be a good backup plan.


The environment

Considering the full potential of an aquaculture industry, some individuals will react negatively. There will be a host of concerns, mostly environmental. Recall that I consider environmental protection the cornerstone of this industry. That’s why my initial thinking is to suggest offshore cages — of a smaller size and more of them. If you look at a map and consider the length of the shallow bank north and south of the islands, you will see an impressively long distance. Sea cages placed near the edge of the bank would be in sand areas far from shore and in deep water. Any excrement produced by the fish should quickly dissipate in the strong currents and be absorbed by the environment. Of course, the monitoring programme would make sure such was the case and there would be a response plan if problems were identified. It is interesting to note that some sea farms attract wild fish to the cages that are then caught by local fishermen. Such was the case at Snapperfarm off Culebra.

The important point is that none of this will happen overnight. It will take time. One farm at a time. There will be ample opportunity to observe the impacts of each growing technique. Not every proposal will be practical or successful. As the industry develops, so will the monitoring and evaluation. I cannot predict every type of aquaculture that may be tried, or all the issues that may emerge. Surely there will be some problems. It is inevitable. However, aquaculture will continue to grow and provide the seafood the world demands. The VI could be in a position to benefit from this growth.



How to get started?

Developing an aquaculture industry is not difficult, but it does require a level of commitment and a sound strategy. One of the first steps is to create a national aquaculture policy. Once the government and community decide to promote this industry, certain steps need to be implemented. There are plenty of plans in the world to use as a model. Whoever guides the process should review the available plans and craft a policy that considers the unique features of the VI.

For example, I would argue for a clear and specific set of guidelines to manage growth. In all cases, the policy should promote aquaculture development in a framework that protects the environment. That means you don’t develop one industry at the expense of another. The natural environments of the VI are important and must be preserved. They represent the foundation of tourism in the islands. Further, in a worst-case scenario, the environment may once again have to sustain the local population. A healthy environment is insurance against bad things happening in the future.

What that means for aquaculture development is that the policy must consider the environment first. This is easier said than done, especially when a company has millions of dollars in potential profit hanging in the balance. This is where the national policy is so important. Guidelines must be clear, fair and transparent. Any developer must know what can and can’t be done. Nothing complicated here.

One obvious policy suggestion would be to permit only native species for cultivation. No exotics from the Pacific or Indian oceans. The Caribbean has plenty of excellent candidates for farming. No need to import some non-native that can wreak havoc on native ecosystems. In addition, as the industry develops so should environmental monitoring. Long before an environmental problem develops and turns into a crisis, monitoring should identify the issue of concern. In such instances, remedial action could usually be suggested that protects both the environment and business.


Education and training

Another obvious consideration is training. Part of the policy should be to incorporate the local community in all phases of development. While outside investment and technology will be required in the early phases, future development should encourage local investment and participation.

An aquaculture education programme should be launched early at the college and even in secondary schools. In fact, in the 1990s an aquaculture curriculum was developed at the college but not implemented. Education and industry should develop in tandem.

An aquaculture industry will not develop overnight. Nor will it be free of controversy or problems. Most of the criticism of the worldwide aquaculture industry is based on people being greedy and behaving badly. It is a people issue that has nothing to do with the concept of farming. Same on land. There is good farming and there is bad farming. The benefit of creating a new industry is that there are no business pressures to confront. There are no traditions that will impede progress. It should be the role of government to guide this process so the local community will get as much benefit as possible with the least negatives along the way. Aquaculture development is the wave of the future. It is up to the VI to decide if it wants to be a part of it.