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U.S Tilapia Farm Files for Bankruptcy

Over 80% of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported. Although the U.S. aquaculture industry is growing, it still only supplies about 10% of local demand. Given this reality, it was with great fanfare that Continental Organics, an aquafarm based in New Windsor, New York began operation in 2011. Continental Organics had hopes of taking advantage of the growing “farm to table” movement where consumers are willing to pay a premium price for locally grown, high-quality produce.

Continental Organics, New Windsor, NY
Continental Organics, New Windsor, NY

The farm uses a water recirculating system that provides an 110,000-pound capacity for raising tilapia. The plan was to supply the Hudson Valley and local New York area with fresh, organic fish and greens year round. The video gives an overview of the farm.

Flash forward four years, and unfortunately Continental Organics has filed for bankruptcy. This is despite an initial investment of $13 million, including $3 million in funds invested by Continental Organic’s CEO Michael Finnigan. This is quite sobering news, especially for those looking at the potential for aquaculture to help meet U.S. food needs.

So what went wrong? Continental Organics was never able to meet its employment and production goals. Plans called for 116 permanent jobs, but there only 18 employees in 2015. Likewise, tilapia production was only 15% of the planned target. Apparently there were difficulties with system design and expenses, such as heating costs to warm the greenhouses in the temperate environment, contributed to unsustainable operations.

Growing fish profitably in recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) is a challenge. Joshua Goldman, CEO of Australis, has more than 30 years experience raising fish in recirculating aquaculture systems. He provides some statistics on the success of RAS based farms in the U.S over the last 20 years. The record shows that only about 1 in 4 is still operating. His article (see So, You Want to Be a Fish Farmer) is a good read and points out the difficulties of raising fish in recirculating systems.

The lesson for the prudent grower may be that you need to start small, acquire experience without huge capital outlays, and have the patience, persistence, and passion to develop a successful business. The markets are there, but sustainable aqua farmers need to be able to provide quality product on a consistent and cost-effective basis.

Seafood Safety and Sustainability

Food safety is an issue of global concern. Consumers are increasingly concerned about the quality and safety of their food. In the United States 80% of seafood is imported and consumers are interested in knowing where their food comes from and under what conditions it was produced.

Some seafood imported into the U.S. comes from foreign producers where food safety regulations are lax which leads to poor production practices and low quality fish. Quality and safety issues include diseased fish resulting from densely packed growing conditions, use of antibiotics, and poor feed quality.

Because of the sheer volume of imported seafood, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is not able to perform adequate testing. News articles, such as “Tainted seafood reaching American tables” are worrisome.

Seafood Watch is a program that developed out of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in the 1990s. Seafood Watch gives consumers guidance on selecting sustainable seafood sources, both wild caught and farmed. Seafood Watch recommends farmed tilapia (blue, Mozambique, and Nile tilapia) grown in recirculating systems in the U.S.and Canada as a best source for tilapia. Other best choices include blue tilapia grown in raceways in Peru and Nile tilapia grown in ponds in Ecuador. Good alternatives include tilapia (blue, Mozambique, and Nile tilapia) that is grown in ponds and net pens in China, Taiwan, Mexico, and Indonesia.

While advisory programs like Seafood Watch help consumers select seafood, certification programs like those provided by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) ensure that seafood produced by the aquaculture industry follows responsible and sustainable culturing practices.

“The ASC’s mission is to transform aquaculture towards environmental sustainability and social responsibility using efficient market mechanisms that create value across the chain. Compliance with ASC’s farm standards show that aquaculture can be an increasingly sustainable, socially-responsible and environmentally well-managed industry.”

BAP PillarsThe GAA advocates Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) certification. “BAP certification defines the most important elements of responsible aquaculture and provides quantitative guidelines by which to evaluate adherence to those practices for processing plants, farms, hatcheries and feed mills.

These certification problems provide uniform food production standards and give consumers confidence that the seafood they purchase was produced according to quality standards.

Certification standards are not just empty rhetoric, but are being embraced by seafood distributors and retail markets.

Whole Foods is an American supermarket chain that specializes in organic produce. Whole Foods outlines their policy for purchasing tilapia.

  • No use of antibiotics, added growth hormones and poultry and mammalian products in feed.
  • No genetically modified or cloned seafood.
  • Minimizing the impacts of fish farming on the environment by protecting sensitive habitats such as mangrove forests and wetlands, monitoring water quality to prevent pollution and sourcing feed ingredients responsibly.
  • No added preservatives such as sodium bisulfite, sodium tri-polyphosphate (STP) and sodium metabisulfite.
  • Traceability from farm to store.
  • Third-party audits

Aquaculture farms in China and other Asian countries have to embrace the need for certification. This increased demand prompted the recent training of 35 additional ASC auditors. Producers who adhere to food certification standards will find greater acceptance in U.S. markets.

Country Focus – Philippines

Aquaculture in the Philippines was initially dominated by milkfish (Chanos chanos). Today, tilapia, after a slow beginning, is the second most important fish cultured in the Philippines.

Mozambique tilapia (Oreochromis mossambicus) was introduced in the 1950s, but was not well accepted by consumers. During the 1970s, successful commercialization of Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) started. Consumers have shown much greater acceptance of the Nile tilapia.

In the Philippines, the fisheries sector is an important contributor to employment and income, export earnings, and protein sources for the local populace. Aquaculture production has shown a steady increase since the 1950s.

Philippines Tilapia Stats (FAO)

Tilapia are found in rivers, ponds, and lakes in the Philippines. Pond farming of tilapia began in the Central Luzon ponds in the 1950s. Advances in culture techniques based on research in the Philippines, along with international help, led to rapid production increases. A low-cost sustainable strain of tilapia, referred to as Genetically Improved Farmed Tilapia (GIFT) help spur production.

Tilapia production from freshwater ponds increased from approximately 14,000 MT (metric tons) in 1985 to 66,000 MT in 2002. In 2013, tilapia culture raised over 270,000 MT in the Philippines.

According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), most tilapia production in the Philippines comes from freshwater fishponds (53.88 percent) and the remainder from freshwater fish cages (37.85 percent), brackish water fishponds (6.75 percent), freshwater fish pens (1.40 percent), brackish water fish cages (0.06 percent), brackish water fish pens (0.04 percent) and marine fish cages (0.01 percent). Table 1 provides some information on culture systems, location, stocking density, and feeding practices.

Table 1. Different culture systems for tilapia grown in the Philippines

Philippines Culture Systems

Tilapia production will most certainly continue to flourish in the Philippines as the country strives to meet the demands of a growing population. Whether the Philippines will develop an export tilapia market is uncertain.

Aquaculture, Aquaponics & Tilapia Training

A list of some training courses:

Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), Thailand

University of St Andrews, Scotland – Online Course, Sustainable Aquaculture

Aquaculture Innovation, South Africa
4-day Aquaculture System Management Course, 19 to 22 April 2016
9-day Practical Fish Farmer Course, 15 to 23 February 2016
2-day Commercial Aquaponics Course, 4 & 5 March 2016

Nelson-Pade, Montello, Wisconsin, USA
Aquaponics Master Class, Montello, WI
March 17-19, 2016, June 9-11, Aug 4-6, Sept 15-17, Nov 10-12