From Lab to Dinner Plate: Maryland Aquaculture Collaboration Works Toward Sustainable Seafood Production
When Patrick Hudson received the keys to an old aquaculture facility, he had no idea what was in store. All he knew was that he saw a promising opportunity to help solve a major problem and was determined to make it work.
“Demand for seafood has been off the charts, and supply is rapidly dwindling,” said Hudson. “What we’ve seen over the years with oysters and other aquatic organisms is that we’re depleting wild harvests at such a rate that it’s no longer sustainable to meet demand.”
Aquaculture, also referred to as fish farming or aquafarming, is a growing practice that can provide a sustainable, environmental-friendly solution for the growing demand for seafood. It involves breeding, rearing and harvesting aquatic organisms under controlled conditions rather than relying solely on wild fisheries. Besides food, aquaculture can also be used to help restock depleted wild populations and generate valuable byproducts such as fish oil and fishmeal.
Though promising, aquaculture is not easy. There are a lot of factors that must be considered, many of which might be out of a farmer’s control.
“You don’t want your tanks to get too crowded, but you don’t want them to be too sparse, either. The water chemistry and temperature need to be just right. And even under the best conditions, sometimes your stock just doesn’t make it for reasons we can’t explain,” said Hudson.
“It’s challenging, and we’ve seen many failures across the industry, but we’re at the point where we need to make this work,” he said.
Many researchers, including the experts at Baltimore’s world-renowned Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET) facility, have been attuned to this challenge, putting forth significant time, money and resources to better understand the optimal conditions to grow different organisms.
One of the critical next steps is getting this knowledge out of the lab and applying it to the commercial sector.
“I remember attending a few IMET events and hearing their facility heads speaking about and lamenting the fact that we have all of this deep knowledge, but it often stays within the universities or research facilities. What’s more, there are limited jobs in the field,” Hudson explained. “That’s when I raised my hand and said – ‘You’ve laid out the problem, and I have the solution.’”
After doing more research, Hudson decided to not only focus on rearing oysters, which he had a personal passion for, but also shrimp. “Shrimp are the greatest potential market for aquaculture. All the shrimp that you see in the grocery store have been frozen, some multiple times. You also don’t know where the shrimp came from, what their growing conditions were and how long they’ve been on the shelves. We didn’t have any kind of aquaculture system in Maryland that could sustainably supply fresh, local shrimp to markets and restaurants,” said Hudson.
Hudson pitched his idea to Nina Lamba, Ph.D., assistant director at IMET who supports the organization’s innovation and entrepreneurship efforts. Lamba saw a clear opportunity for an impactful partnership – she approached her colleague J. Sook Chung, Ph.D., a professor, researcher and expert in crustacean biology, who enthusiastically agreed to help Hudson realize his vision. Together, they were well equipped to start developing Mark Street into a sustainable, profitable facility that could not only supply fresh local seafood but could create Maryland jobs.
“Fortunately, TEDCO also shared our interest and saw the potential in shrimp. We applied for and received a grant from TEDCO’s Agriculture and Rural Rebuild (ARR) Challenge, which played a big part in helping us get up and running,” Hudson said.
TEDCO, Maryland’s economic engine for technology companies, launched the ARR Challenge in early 2021 to assist Maryland’s rural and agricultural businesses that had been impacted by the ongoing pandemic and economic downturn. These grants, which provided up to $200,000, supported collaborations between applicants, research institutions and industries to help develop lasting tech-enabled improvements in the agtech space and other rural industries. In the case of Mark Street Aquafarms, their goal was to collaborate with IMET to determine the optimal growing conditions for shrimp aquaculture.
While aquaculture can be challenging for any species, shrimp are in another league.
“There were three main stages for this project. First, Pat’s partner hatchery in Florida would hatch millions of shrimp larvae. Once they got to a certain size, they’d be shipped to our team at IMET, where we have tanks set up to further foster their growth. Once they were about 1.5-5 grams, we’d transport them to Mark Street, where Pat’s team would grow them to about 15-20 grams – to a stage where they’d be ready to sell to market,” said Chung.
Shrimp are more sensitive than other aquatic organisms, and things could go awry at any stage.
“We had one shipment that happened during a bad cold snap, which really affected larva mortality,” said Hudson. “It was very frustrating because each shipment takes careful time and planning, and we don’t have infinite money to try things again and again when something goes wrong.”
“We also were just starting to come out of the COVID pandemic, and supply chains were a major issue. Our facilities at IMET were already set up to go, but we had to navigate some challenges getting pumps, parts and pieces to get the tanks ready at Mark Street for the transfer,” added Lamba.
While the teams experienced their fair share of setbacks, they also celebrated great successes along the way. After much trial and error, Mark Street Aquafarms was successful, rearing plump, healthy shrimp that they took to local restaurants to get their feedback and see what prices they’d be willing to pay.
“This project was a big win for many reasons. The beauty of being able to rear aquatic animals in closed systems, whether it be shrimp, oysters or fish, means you can do it anywhere. You don’t have to be close to a shoreline, meaning that you can set up your facility closer to where your target customers are,” said Chung. “We’re not only able to provide fresh seafood, but we reduce shipping costs and our carbon footprint.”
“There’s still work to be done, but we now have a system and a demand. Now, it’s all about figuring out the administrative needs – how many shrimp do we need to rear to become profitable? How many people do we need to hire?”
While working to figure this out, Hudson is taking a brief hiatus from rearing shrimp to focus on oysters and plants, which will churn out profits to support additional projects.
“Our recent oyster production has been off the charts, and our basil and lettuce have come in beautifully. It’s all because we’ve made so many mistakes over the past 10 years that we’ve learned from,” said Hudson. “People are sometimes wary of these failures and are hesitant to invest in aquaculture, but think about it – the Wright brothers probably crashed a hundred times trying to get their plane in the air, but once they figured out the right formula it changed everything.”
Chung’s team is also busy working on additional projects following the ARR Challenge. “Because of TEDCO’s support, I was able to get valuable data that helped me apply for and receive an additional grant, where I’m developing functionally sustainable shrimp feed from upcycled food waste,” she said. “I’ve also been using high-nutrient water from the shrimp project to start an aquaponics system for growing Salicornia, a highly nutritious, but expensive plant.”
“We’re so grateful that TEDCO understood our vision and took a chance on us – it’s set us up nicely for future success,” said Hudson. “I think very highly of all the research experts I’ve worked with, and it’s been such an honor to help take the knowledge they’ve produced and apply it in a way that could make a big impact in our community.”