Salmon skins glisten in the waters below as three men wait, nets in hand, for the right catch to swim near the surface.

The fish, grouped into one corner of an expansive pool, flop against its surface as the nets swoop in, splashing water that’s conspicuously salt-free onto the metal platform.

This, of course, isn’t the wild, where 2-year-old Atlantic salmon like this rarely venture south of the Connecticut River and have seldom been spotted in the Chesapeake Bay.

This is The Conservation Fund’s Freshwater Institute, located nearly 80 miles inland in Shepherdstown, WV. It’s currently the only place in the United States that’s growing Atlantic salmon on land with the use of recirculating aquaculture or closed containment systems — and it’s a window into the fast-approaching future.

This research facility has been chipping away at the factors that keep farmed fish, and salmon in particular, from being environmentally and economically sustainable. Its director, Joseph Hankins, said one goal is to provide a “proof of concept” to the broader industry that it can be done.

Elsewhere in the watershed, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future are growing fish and plants together in a lab that has learned firsthand the challenges that can accompany an aquaponics venture.

And a growing amount of research is being conducted by the industry itself, which is still a fledgling inside the United States. New technology is making it possible to grow fish on land with less water, less food and less pollution, but aquaculture ventures are still figuring out how to make the costly facilities financially sustainable.

In the Chesapeake Bay region, fish farms have the potential to relieve pressure on wild sources of seafood by providing locally grown alternatives, but only if they can do so in a way that doesn’t further pollute the region’s water supply.

“Farmed aquaculture product is a necessity,” said Connor Boney, marketing manager for the Jessup, MD-based seafood supplier J. J. McDonnell.

“I’m not sure how people don’t realize that. The reality is, if we didn’t have it, you wouldn’t have your wild product because it would be gone.”

Why grow fish?

Aquaculture is the fastest growing sector of agriculture in the United States. Mike Schwarz, extension agent at Virginia Tech University and president of the World Aquaculture Society, said it’s for a good reason.

The United States imports more than 90 percent of its seafood, about half of which is from aquaculture, adding up to an $11 billion trade deficit in this category. Experts assert that not growing seafood in the states — or by the standards that U.S. customers are beginning to demand — is quickly becoming a food security issue.

Virginia is a leader in some facets of aquaculture with its flourishing oyster industry, and the state happens to be home to the largest indoor producer of tilapia in the world. Blue Ridge Aquaculture is located south of the watershed in Martinsville and ships 75,000 pounds of tilapia throughout the Eastern seaboard.

While the tilapia farm has been around since 1994, smaller aquaculture startups in the region have struggled to stay afloat. Virginia Cobia Farms, also near the state’s southern border in Saltville, reportedly closed its doors in January after focusing on cobia, a fish that’s rated a “best choice” by the Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch Program.

As in other aspects of agriculture, the most sustainable solutions for growing food can take several years to start making money, with costly infrastructure investments required up front.

Many of the recent advances in U.S. aquaculture are based on recirculating or closed containment systems that help conserve water and control environments while growing fish on land. The Freshwater Institute, for example, uses such a system to filter and reuse 99 percent of its water while similar facilities reuse between 80 percent and 90 percent.

Filtering the water allows facilities to stave off disease, remove contaminants and keep out antibiotics or other chemicals if so desired. The alternative used broadly in other countries is pen or cage farming in open waters. Because this method uses existing water bodies, it requires less capital and technology for farmers to get started.

But, unlike farmed oysters, which help filter water in the Chesapeake Bay, many fish farmed in a confined place in open waters pose a pollution problem. Besides waste issues, farmed fish can introduce diseases and escape from their nets and influence wild populations by breeding.

“Net-farmed salmon has been held out as the poster child for environmental issues,” said Hankins, who noted that these types of farmers are working to improve their methods as well. “Aquaculture is now producing more than half of our global seafood supply, so it’s incumbent on us to make sure that aquaculture matures and comes to the front in a way that is sustainable.”

Land-based aquaculture is also riding another wave of today’s food movement to greater popularity: It can be local. As Hankins points out, if salmon can be grown in West Virginia and tilapia in Indiana, “we can locate these facilities almost anywhere.”

“The locally produced trend seems to really be taking hold, said Schwarz of Virginia Tech, “and I don’t think it’s going to be a fleeting trend. People trust local and they want to support local; that’s helping aquaculture also.”

Consumers are also learning more about seafood and how to navigate the nuances of labels and certifications.

“Sustainable seafood” may be one of the most nebulous phrases used in the food industry, because few consumers know how to parse the complex issues that distinguish wild from farmed and farmed responsibly from not.

But consumers are learning more about the nuances of this industry, its labels and certifications. And vendors say they’re requesting, above all, a local product — and learning that “locally farmed” could be a new label worth considering.

And, a few of the farms trying to change aquaculture in the Bay watershed have discovered that sustainability issues can sometimes be stacked against them.

Black sea bass

Clarke Morton, an emergency room doctor by trade, moved to the East Coast more than a decade ago to start a fish farm.

He wanted to grow a fish that would be chock-full of healthy Omega-3 fatty acids and free of the toxins, like mercury or PCBs, that keep pregnant women from eating them when they need the fats most. He wanted to do it in a “carbon-neutral” facility that uses alternative energy and conserves resources like water while reducing the amount of fish meal needed to grow the fish.

Morton’s black sea bass dreams are now on the market, served whole as an entrée at Pearl Dive Oyster House in the District of Columbia and available at a few farmers markets.

Based on the seaside of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Bradford Bay Farms is the only recirculating aquaculture farm in the nation growing sea bass for market. The farm installed some solar panels through a grant three years ago that help offset the high costs of heating and cooling the water by at least 50 percent, Morton said.

“We almost have all of the components in place, really. It’s just going to take more time to develop and refine them,” he said.

The farm gets the saltwater for its facility from the ocean (yes, permitting was one of the things that took so long). The water waits in a holding pond for silt to settle out and is then run through filters and ultraviolet light to kill any pathogens. Farm manager Chris Bentley says the result is “natural seawater but as clean as you can get it.”

The farm reuses 80–90 percent of that water each day and is collecting its fish waste in a wetland pond, where it serves as a fertilizer for plants. Bentley says Bradford Bay is always experimenting with how to reuse more of its water, but the fish “still has to taste good.”

If a recirculating system reuses or filters too much of its wastewater, the fish can take on an “off” flavor, and the researchers are working on ways to eliminate this.

Other land-based aquaculture systems, like the expansive Bell Aquaculture in Indiana, are finding niche markets for their fish fertilizers that make them as much money as their fillet or whole fish products. Morton says such ideas are on the table for the future as his fish farm expands.

So far, the niche for this unique sea bass product has been in harvesting the one-pound fish after about 18 months of growth to be served whole at restaurants. Bentley said wild fisheries have a hard time delivering such plate-sized fish because regulations have pushed up the size minimums on their catches.

Most of Bradford Bay’s products currently go to the Black Restaurant Group, which runs seven restaurants and a fish market in DC.

And eventually, Morton said, the business needs to make money. That’s a tall order when working with costly, new technology and a fish that’s not an established species on the commercial markets the way that farmed salmon is.

That’s why Bradford Bay has taken its time getting to market and grown slowly, constructing tanks as the business grows and paying for up-front costs out-of-pocket instead of with loans. Morton thinks the business can be profitable in the next five years.

“That’s why we’re staying small. It’s hard to do things right and make it profitable,” Bentley said.

Apples, goats & goldfish

For Marland Buckner, fighting for better food policies in the nation’s capital left him wanting to “actually do something.” The founder of FoodPolicy.US, a multimedia platform for dialogue on food issues, bought a 30-acre apple orchard south of Charlottesville with the hope of putting his food ideologies to work.

ForeverView Farms stopped spraying the 8,000 trees with pesticides and planted cover crops between the rows, introducing goats as fertilizers and lawn mowers. A year ago, they built a 2,700-square-foot greenhouse to grow a wide variety of crops year-round — and that’s where the fish come in.

Modeled after an aquaponics model of growing food and fish together from the University of the Virgin Islands, ForeverView introduced goldfish, catfish and bluegills that swim beneath and fertilize the plants, which grow hydroponically (or in water).

The farm sells its produce at local markets and at RelayFoods.com and the fish, for now, are just growing and waiting for the right market opportunities. They could be sold whole or as fillets or turned into fish fertilizer for local gardeners.

Buckner plans to grow tilapia for the market soon, pending the correct permits. He envisions the farm as a demonstration project, one that aims to make money and prove that small-scale operations like his can thrive in this region.

“I don’t want you to think I’m engaged in some wild-eyed social mission. This place has to make money,” Buckner said, “The only way we are going to solve these macro-level problems in our food system is if we are able to attract billions of dollars in private capital to sustainable solutions.”

Buckner sees small-scale aquaponics operations like his fledgling farm as a solution that could feed growing appetites for local, sustainably harvested food and fish throughout the region.

While aquaponics is a popular approach among nonprofits and hobbyists looking to grow food with little waste, Buckner admits he has yet to see a business making money with this mixture of products. He hopes a broader effort to connect the region’s researchers, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists could change that.

“I think of aquaculture in the Chesapeake region as a truly amazing opportunity for the kind of interdisciplinary collaboration between innovators in business and the academic community. I think we have all the resources necessary in the Chesapeake,” Buckner said.

A ‘local’ farmed salmon?

Before salmon, Hankins and his team used the same recirculating aquaculture technology — which is their specialty — to grow arctic char, rainbow trout, tilapia and yellow perch.

But they knew salmon would be their “formula one project,” the fish that’s the most difficult to farm sustainably and in the highest demand. Both wild and farmed forms of the carnivorous salmon are prized for their health benefits and constitute the most popular seafood product in the country.

“Like chicken breast in the meat department,” said Rich Martin, who oversees Wegman’s Maryland and Virginia area grocery stores.

A few of his stores began carrying the Freshwater Institute’s first batch of farmed salmon in March and quickly expanded to offer the product at all of its regional stores. The product is available “for a limited time only,” as the research facility only grew enough to supply 5,000 pounds a week for two months. The next batch won’t be available for up to 10 months.

Hankins says this market research — seeing how well a “local” farmed salmon actually sells from the shelves — is key to determining the concept’s potential.

So far, stores and restaurants receiving the product from J. J. McDonnell say it’s selling well. Martin said the key selling points among Wegman’s customers has been that the product is “local” and that samples of it taste good. Some of his seafood managers have visited the research facility and can go into great detail about the source of this new salmon for curious customers.

For them, “it really all comes down to being domestic and local, knowing that there’s no antibiotics or hormones,” Martin said.

But there are plenty of other issues to consider.

Fish in - Fish out

To poke a hole in the hull of any fish farms’ argument that it can help take pressure off of wild stocks of fish, ask how many forage fish are necessary to grow its product.

Wild forage fish like menhaden are the most common ingredient in most fish foods used by the aquaculture industry. In the wild and on the farm, they provide the fish meal and fish oils that give their predators those heart-healthy fat profiles.

Growing carnivorous fish like salmon on increasingly vegetarian diets is a focus of current research — and it isn’t an easy bait-and-switch.

The feed in aquaculture is the greatest single cost of fish production, so any advances that can be made to lower the cost of those feeds has a huge impact on the economics and feed sustainability,” Schwarz said.

The industry typically refers to this issue as the “fish in-fish out” ratio. Some farms discuss their fish meal and fish oil ratios separately or aggregate them into one statistic.

Scientists from the University of Maryland developed a plant-based diet in the summer of 2013 that has the potential to support fast-growing marine carnivores like the popular cobia.

The team replaced fish meal and fish oil with a food made of corn, wheat and soy with soybean and canola oils.

The Freshwater Institute is in the midst of trials to reduce its salmon’s fish ratios. Its first crop of salmon was grown on a traditional diet so that the institute’s recirculating water technology could be an example to the broader industry without changing too many variables at once.

Hankins said that they are growing this batch of fish without any fish meal, replacing forage fish with soybeans for protein, and the fish are growing “faster than anything we have seen before.” They have to monitor how every alteration in feed changes the salmon’s health profile and growth rate while making sure they’re not introducing a new problem with ingredients like GMOs (genetically modified organisms), said Steve Summerfelt, director of aquaculture research at the Freshwater Institute.

A diet too rich in soybeans can, for example, give the fish diarrhea and present a waste issue.

“People mistakenly say, ‘Don’t raise a carnivorous fish, because you have to feed it fish.’ But you don’t,” Summerfelt said.

The research facility has grown walleye and rainbow trout with zero fish meal, and its reduced-fish meal salmon is currently outperforming the fish on a conventional diet.

At present, 1.05 pounds of feed grows one pound of salmon for the facility, which is about 20 percent more efficient on feed than the farmed industry average.

One of the reasons Morton started Bradford Bay Farms was that fish had better feed conversion ratios than other farmed proteins like cows or pigs. Land-based systems can also generate less waste and reduce the carbon footprint of seafood and protein in general.

Bradford Bay works closely with researchers at the University of North Carolina who are reducing the amount of fish meal necessary to grow black sea bass. The fish has taken well to non-marine sources of protein, but more research is needed for the industry to fully jump on board.

Research on fish feed replacements is still in the nascent stages, but it has fish researchers like Summerfelt giddy about the possibilities.

Universities, nonprofits and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are growing microbial proteins in labs (from ingredients as wild as spruce trees) that could become fish food. They’re making fish meal substitutes out of a variety of nuts, including pistachio shells, and finding that eaters who are otherwise allergic to tree nuts may still be able to eat the fish. They’re collecting the fish offal — bones, guts and skins — leftover from fillets and squeezing the fish oil or meal out of them to feed back to fish.

“It just takes time,” Hankins said. “We have to consider fish welfare, economic issues, we want to grow the fish fast. You can simplify it, but it’s not that simple.”