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Sustainable Seafood

Bell Aquaculture: Sustaining Tradition with A Sustainable Fishery

By Tina Casey

When the topic turns to feeding the global population boom, the main theme is how to grow more food within limited resources. However, a recent conversation with the president and CEO of Bell Aquaculture, Norman McCowan, reminded us that food is at the heart of community and ethnic traditions. Feeding the world is more than a matter of producing more calories and nutrients while consuming less resources, it is also a matter of sustaining identity.

With that in mind, when you take a close look at Bell Aquaculture's operations you can see that sustainable seafood is more than simply a matter of food supply.

Aquaculture and local culture

Bell Aquaculture is currently known for its yellow perch, though it is introducing new fish this year. Perch happens to be a good example of the identity-sustaining model, which we discovered with one of our first question when we asked McCowan, "Why perch?"

There's an answer for that. Bell was founded in 2005 specifically to serve the demand for yellow perch in the Great Lakes area. The region is known for its Friday fish fries, a tradition with roots in the Catholic admonition against eating red meat on Fridays.

As a ripple effect of the local custom, fish fries are also promoted as a tourist attraction in Great Lakes states, so this is also a good example of how culturally rooted food traditions take on a significant role in regional economic activity.

For many years the massive yellow perch population in the Great Lakes provided ample fodder for the tradition, but more recently overfishing and environmental stress have severely curtailed commercial yellow perch fishing in the region.

The one exception is Lake Erie, where the perch population collapsed in the 1990s but has been recovering thanks to successful management practices. However, perch in the other Great Lakes have not fared nearly so well (for a first-hand report on the problem, read this 3p piece about overfishing).

With demand for perch still high in the region, it's no accident that in a few short years Bell has grown to be the nation's largest yellow perch fish farming facility.

The result is a three-fer: local residents can still enjoy a custom they identify with from a fresh local source; the tradition continues to support the regional tourist economy; and employment in the regional commercial fish industry still has the potential to continue growing.

Aquaculture and the environment

Aquaculture has a somewhat problematic past in terms of environmental impacts, but Bell Aquaculture represents the sustainable wave of the future.

Throughout our conversation, McCowan emphasized the role of Bell's unique vertically integrated business model in enabling the company to improve its operations in terms of environmental improvements that also result in bottom line savings.

Aside from raising fish, Bell invests significant energy in R&D up and down the supply chain, including partnerships with the aquaculture industry and other stakeholders.

One significant result can be seen in Bell's use of a closed system called a Recirculating Aquatic System (RAS). In contrast to aquaculture operations located within natural bodies of water, a closed system consists of segregated pools or tanks. That enables a high degree of water recycling along with the recapturing of fish effluent and other contaminants for proper disposal or reclamation.

Energy and aquaculture

One drawback of RAS in terms of sustainability is that it is an energy intensive operation. McCowan, though, noted that Bell has tackled that issue  head on. Bell's RAS has been updated to include a number of proprietary tweaks developed by the company's research partnership with the Conservation Fund's Freshwater Institute.

Those tweaks have yielded significant energy savings partly by speeding up the rate at which the fish mature to market, which in turn has come about as a result of water quality improvements.

McCowan recently listed the results of the partnership in a statement available on the Freshwater Institute's website. These include bringing Bell's perch to market four months earlier than before, reducing electricity consumption by threefold, and reducing water consumption by an impressive twentyfold.

The energy improvement also has to do with Bell's adoption of a new tank and drain system, which enabled it to drop from 265 hp (horsepower) per 800,000 perch to 80 hp per 800,000.

Another significant result of Bell's R&D partnerships, particularly in the area of water quality, is that the company can raise fish without hormones or antibiotics.

McCowan also emphasized to us that the vertical integration model includes the company's own feed mill, providing it with full control over the fish feed supply chain.

Triple Pundit founder Nick Aster and senior editor Mary Mazzoni recently paid a visit to Bell's fish farm in Redkey, Indiana and spoke with McCowan and other Bell staffers about the company's vertically integrated model. See what they had to say in the video below.

Additional benefits of aquaculture

As for the future, Bell Aquaculture is adding more fish to its roster, including rainbow trout and coho salmon. That underscores the benefit of raising fish in a closed, highly controllable environment, which is the ability to bring new species of fresh fish into a market.

McCowan is optimistic about Bell Aquaculture's latest addition to its vertical integration model, which is the capture of fish effluent for use in fertilizer. That is a bottom line benefit that would be difficult to pursue commercially in natural bodies of water.

We'll add one last thought to that: The benefit of reclaiming fish effluent could also be realized in a combination of RAS fish farming with vertical produce farming or other hydroponic produce farming configurations--although Bell notes that for its own purposes, producing fertilizer is a better fit than farming fruits and veggies onsite.

Image credit: Perch fry by Hungry Dudes via Flickr

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey