Rising Demand for Aquaculture in the Lake Champlain Basin
“I’m having to go to Maine to satisfy demand for fish here in Vermont,” said Matt Danaher of Danaher Fisheries on a sunny afternoon in late May 2021. Danaher Fisheries of Shrewsbury is the largest aquaculture producer in Vermont, handling 20,000 to 30,000 trout per year. “During COVID our restaurant sales evaporated, but everyone with a pond wants food on hand. We nearly sold out last year, and we are sold out this year,” he continued.
Like the other aquaculture producers on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain, Danaher Fisheries gets eggs in late fall from other hatcheries, either state-run or a private supplier in New Hampshire, and grows them up to market size. A six-inch fish, ready for stocking into ponds in the spring, is the primary product of most aquaculture producers in the Lake Champlain basin. Maybe it was fear of food scarcity, maybe just securing an afternoon activity at home, but COVID created a level of demand for aquaculture products in the basin that no one had seen before.
What Is Aquaculture?
What is aquaculture and what does it look like in the Lake Champlain basin? Aquaculture is the rearing of aquatic animals or the cultivation of aquatic plants for food. Most people summon an image of large pens containing thousands of salmon swimming in slow lazy circles, backdropped by the vastness of the ocean. In reality, aquaculture covers many forms of growing food in water. Oysters, mussels, seaweed, clams, shrimp, and fish are just a few of the most common forms of aquaculture. Most are grown in salt water. Some, like shrimp and fish, can be grown in freshwater or saltwater. Many are grown in tanks on land for some period of their life cycle.
Land-based aquaculture is a subtype of finfish aquaculture, or raising fish for food. All sorts of public and private entities fall into the category of land-based finfish aquaculture. The public fish hatcheries in New York and Vermont that raise Lake Trout for stocking into Lake Champlain are practicing land-based aquaculture, as are the private hatcheries in both states.
Land-based aquaculture dates back to the late 1800s when the technology of harnessing well water to raise salmon in long raceways was pioneered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a means of addressing declines in Atlantic Salmon numbers all along the East Coast. For over a century, land-based aquaculture used raceway technology, a simple system of bringing water into one end of a long, straight canal stocked with fish and flushing their waste and used water out the other end. Eventually, public and private hatchery engineers figured out that raceways were not particularly good for the fish or the environment.
Ponds are also a means of practicing land-based aquaculture. You may know someone who has trout or bass or perch stocked in their farm pond. If they feed those fish and catch and eat them later, they are land-based aquaculturists, too.
In the 1980s, the industry introduced more and more technology—first filters to remove solids, then pre-filters. Bio-reactors then became available that use microbes to scrub the water of ammonia, a toxic waste product of the animals being fed. Oxygen injectors and CO2 scrubbers were installed to maximize oxygen saturation, keeping the water as “breathable” for the fish as possible. Ultraviolet light treatments and ozone are the latest innovations, designed to remove the bad microbes that give fish infections while living in dense, close quarters. Even plants can be used in aquaponic land-based aquaculture. The plants remove nitrate from the water produced by the good bacteria when they consume the ammonia byproduct.
Aquaculture Around Lake Champlain
Today, land-based aquaculture is worth hundreds of millions of dollars as an industry in the U.S., with individual facilities ranging from backyard operations costing thousands of dollars to high tech fish “factories” costing a hundred million dollars or more. In the Lake Champlain basin, there are eight land-based aquaculture operations. Most operations make up one part of the aquaculturists’ income. They are one line in the farm income stream and may exist alongside vegetable production, dairy cattle, high tunnel greenhouses, or pond care operations.
Fin and Roots, is an aquaponics operation in Bakersfield, Vermont. Aquaponics uses the ammonia waste from the fish to fertilize vegetable beds that produce leafy greens and some harder crops year-round. Fin and Roots also has orchards and fields on a working farm. Sweet Sound Aquaculture is a shrimp farm and one of the few operations where the aquaculture product, shrimp, is the stand-alone product. They are co-located on an old dairy farm with a brewery in Charlotte. The waste from the brewing process provides the raw material for feed that grows Vermont’s only local shrimp.
Sweet Water Trout Hatchery in Newport Center, Vermont also has maple syrup and beef cattle operations at the farm. Mountain Foot Farm in Lyndonville is a vegetable farm as well as fish supplier for restaurants and stocked ponds. Lewis Creek Trout Hatchery in Starksboro (802-453-2099) is the newest aquaculture venture in Vermont, while Peak Pond Farm, which raises trout and is located in Randolph, is the oldest.
New Brandon Fisheries is the only Lake Champlain basin producer located in New York. They specialize in pond stocking Rainbow Trout and Brook Trout and raise small numbers of Atlantic Salmon.
Find contact information and links to all the Vermont aquaculture producers at www.voga.org/vermont-fish-hatcheries.html and New York land-based aquaculture producers at www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/52348.html.
Theo Willis is an aquaculture expert and the Aquaculture Education Specialist with Lake Champlain Sea Grant. He lives in Maine where he is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Southern Maine and runs a kelp farm off Stonington, Maine. Theo can be contacted at theodore.willis [at] uvm.edu.