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Wild or Farmed?

Researchers from the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies weigh the options for sourcing the salmon, shrimp or oysters served up on your dinner table.

“Wild or Farmed? How to Sustain the Options for Your Dinner Table” was the title of a March 10 discussion in Newport Beach, Calif., highlighting the ways USC Wrigley Institute researchers are investigating the opportunities and challenges of aquaculture.
“Wild or Farmed? How to Sustain the Options for Your Dinner Table” was the title of a March 10 discussion in Newport Beach, Calif., highlighting the ways USC Wrigley Institute researchers are investigating the opportunities and challenges of aquaculture.

Since the 1980s, the Earth’s population has ballooned to 7 billion — a nearly 2 billion increase over three decades. Meanwhile, seafood consumption has remained constant with demand outpacing the amount of wild fish available in the ocean.

“We have a distinguished record of overfishing many species in the ocean,” said Roberta Marinelli, director of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies at USC Dornsife. “As a result we have decreased our ability to rely on the ocean’s bounty to feed our populations.”

Changing temperatures and higher levels of carbon dioxide in the oceans may also impact many of the species the world has come to depend on for food, as well as the ecosystems in which they thrive.

But, Marinelli noted, there is much potential to meet the ever-growing demand for seafood, one of which is aquaculture.

“We’re producing more seafood by farming the sea,” Marinelli said. “Farming is what’s made it possible to increase seafood consumption while the population of wild fish caught has remained the same.”

While fish farming often gets a bad rap for introducing nonnative species into ecosystems or for producing pollution from aquaculture waste products, there is much misinformation about it, she said.

“We certainly want to sustain our wild species not only because it’s good for our wild fisheries but because it’s good for our environment,” she said. “At the same time we need to be a little bit more creative about how we produce food from the sea. We must do it in such a way that is harmonious with nature and preserves the wild stock that we’d like to depend on in the future."

Marinelli’s remarks opened the March 10 talk “Wild or Farmed? How to Sustain the Options for Your Dinner Table” presented to a standing-room-only crowd of 250 USC Dornsife alumni and friends gathered at the Pacific Club in Newport Beach, Calif. The event was hosted with support from Karen and Andrew Littlefair, the latter a member of the Wrigley advisory board and the USC Dornsife Board of Councilors.

Marinelli moderated the panel discussion, which highlighted the ways that USC Wrigley Institute researchers are investigating the opportunities and challenges of aquaculture. Panelists included Dennis Hedgecock, Paxson H. Offield Professor in Fisheries Ecology and professor of biological sciences at USC Dornsife; Sergey Nuzhdin, professor of biological sciences at USC Dornsife; and Sam King, president and CEO of King's Seafood Company.

Philip Hagenah, chair of the USC Wrigley Institute advisory board, welcomed the crowd.

“When Philip K. Wrigley launched the Marine Science Center nearly 50 years ago he envisioned a leading research facility in Catalina that would advance marine research,” Hagenah said, adding that in 1999, Bill Wrigley enhanced his father’s vision to include environmental research by creating the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.

“The mission of the institute speaks to their shared vision: to encourage responsible and creative decisions in society by providing an objective source of marine and environmental science and fostering an understanding of our natural world among people of all ages. It’s this mission that brings us here tonight.”

During the discussion, Hedgecock predicted that any future growth in aquatic resources must come from aquaculture, which already accounts for half of global aquatic production. Hedgecock’s expertise includes conservation and genetics in marine species and ways genetics can be used to improve the growth of commercially important species such as oysters.

Production from capture fisheries has plateaued or stabilized since about 1980, he said. 

“Therefore we need to keep capture fisheries at the current level of about 94 million metric tons, which may represent the maximum amount that we can ever hope to get. To feed growing human populations, we need aquaculture to make up the difference between demand and production from capture fisheries.”

He noted that the global production of farmed seafood is 83.7 million metric tons, according to the most recent data published in 2011. The United States produces less than one percent of that amount, importing 91 percent of its seafood annually.

“It’s somewhat irresponsible of us to source the food that we like to eat from other countries where we can have no control over the environmental impacts there,” Hedgecock said. “So, for the question, ‘wild or farmed?’ my answer is we need both.”

Citing the evolution of hybrid corn, which has allowed the crop to produce much higher yields, Hedgecock suggested that the same principle could be applied to species such as oysters.

“There has been a 7-fold increase in the amount of corn we could produce from the same amount of land,” he said. “That’s a model for us.”

Currently, USC Wrigley Institute researchers are looking into various ways to grow species of seafood.

“We’re looking at how organisms can be bred not just successfully but to maximize the yield and species that we know we safely can place in the environment,” Marinelli said.

“We’re working at all levels, from the environmental impact all the way down to what species we can grow through advanced selective breeding. That’s why we have our two genetics guys here, Dennis and Sergey, because these professors are at the forefront of determining what the right tools and techniques are so that we can provide more food to our region locally, as well as around the country.”

Nuzhdin, who studies evolutionary genetics, investigates how plants and animals evolve, and how they’re likely to respond to future environmental challenges.

By using selective breeding practices, Nuzhdin noted that researchers can produce shellfish that have an ideal size and taste.

“We are just doing exactly what people have done for the past 5,000 years,” he said. “But we are doing it using scientific ways like genomics to make the response that much faster.”

King, whose company operates seafood restaurants such as Water Grill and King’s Fish House as well as a seafood distribution company, sees aquaculture as a viable and smart way to supplement the dwindling amount of wild seafood available in the oceans.

“This year we’ll serve over 3 million guests a little over 3 million pounds of seafood,” said King, a member of the USC Wrigley Institute advisory board and the USC Dornsife Board of Councilors. “We’re growing as a company, and we’re going to double and triple our numbers. Thinking about what our needs for seafood are going to be, we’ll need farmed seafood to offset the lack of increase in the wild.”

He noted that while early versions of fish farms may have tended to be industrialized and not as concerned with curbing pollution, today’s businesses have increased sustainable business practices.

“About 10 years ago I was so frustrated with the negative narrative on farmed fish that we actually labelled each item on our menu as farmed or wild so our guests can make the decision what they want to buy for dinner,” King said.

He also pointed out that over the past few years, the price of seafood has skyrocketed. For instance, four years ago Alaskan Halibut was $14 per pound. Today, it's about $23 per pound, he said.

With that in mind, King noted that “without farmed seafood, seafood prices would be a lot higher than it is today.”

King lauded the USC Wrigley Institute for the research it is producing on farmed seafood.

“Wrigley is really at the cutting edge,” he said.