Virginia maintains five coldwater facilities (Marion, Paint Bank, Wytheville, Coursey Springs, Montebello) and four warmwater facilities (King & Queen, Front Royal, Buller, Vic Thomas) to grow fish for stocking in public waters
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries - Geographic Information Systems, VDGIF Fish Hatcheries (as of October 17, 2014)
Growing corn and harvesting timber is land-based agriculture. Growing oysters, clams, trout, and tilapia under controlled conditions is water-based aquaculture.
Managing wild stocks of fish and shellfish is a form of natural resource management, separate from controlled aquaculture. Harvest of aquatic resources in the wild is one of the few commercial operations still based on the old "hunting and gathering" approach. The inventory of underwater resources is poorly understood, though scientific sampling of selected species does allow state and Federal agencies to establish commercial/recreational harvesting limits.
Estimating the number of fish in the Atlantic Ocean near Virginia, in the Chesapeake Bay, and in various rivers - and how populations of different species grow/diminish each year - is as much an art as it is science.
It is far easier to estimate how much corn, wheat, or soybeans are growing in individual fields. For longer-term management, foresters use photography, remote sensing, and sampling to calculate how many trees are present on a company's timberland, and how fast they are growing through drought years or good years. Trees don't move.
Aquatic resources such as fish are "here today - gone tomorrow." The obvious temptation for a waterman needing to make payments on a new boat is to estimate a large population, justifying a large harvest. Until dramatic declines in key species triggered Federal agencies to require more-scientific management, there was little incentive to count and conserve.
If the harvest of trees on private forestland is postponed, then the landowner can reap profits later. In contrast, waterman have few mechanisms to stockpile fish for harvest later. Since fish move around, any conservation by a Virginia waterman may benefit someone else in Virginia - or in Maryland, Delaware, North Carolina. It required interstate compacts, sponsored by the Federal government, to balance the costs of conservation with the benefits and to ensure fair opportunity for watermen in each state to get access to the natural resources.
Aquaculture overcomes that challenge by privatizing the resource. Virginia was a pioneer in leasing oyster and clam beds, now regulated by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. A waterman who controls the right to harvest oysters/clams from "private rocks" (submerged lands leased from the state) can afford to wait until the shellfish are older and bigger. Such patience may lead to a higher return on investment, assuming disease, fresh water from a hurricane, or theft do not reduce the population first.
All Virginia aquaculture occurs in state waters, within three miles of the coast. There are no aquaculture operations in Federal waters off the Virginia coast. In the Pacific Ocean, the first Federal aquaculture lease was issued to the Catalina Sea Ranch off Huntington Beach, California. Its initial harvest of mussels was in 2018.1
The other major form of aquaculture in Virginia is fish farming, especially trout and tilapia. Fish hatcheries offer the greatest amount of control, comparable to greenhouses for plants, though the biggest aquaculture business in Virginia is raising oysters in cages that float in open water. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, a separate state agency from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, regulates the import of non-native fish into Virginia for aquaculture.
Virginia State University (VSU), one of the two land grant universities in the state, is the focal point for aquaculture research and Cooperative Extension outreach. A hatchery and various research and instruction ponds are located at VSU's Randolph Farm near Colonial Heights.
three state fish hatcheries (Marion, Wytheville, and Paint Bank) and two cultural stations (Coursey Springs and Montebello) supply trout for public fishing opportunities west of the Fall Line
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, An Overview of Stocked Trout Management in Virginia
The first fish hatchery in Virginia was constructed by the Virginia Fish Commission in 1879 at a spring on Tate's Run near Wytheville. The U.S. Fish Commission (which later became part of the US Fish and Wildlife Service) assumed responsibility for the Wytheville Fish Hatchery in 1882.
Rainbow trout eggs were imported from California, and the Wytheville facility pioneered the techniques for raising that species in hatcheries. A new facility was built nearby in 1966. The old hatchery was then developed into a private trout-raising operation, Brackens Fish Hatchery. The Federal hatchery was transferred to state ownership in 2006, after the US Fish and Wildlife Service shifted its fisheries program focus towards restoration of species and away from raising fish for put-and-take recreational fishing.2
The state assumed responsibility for growing fish and stocking streams for recreational activity. Funding for hatchery operations is provided primarily through sale of state fishing licenses, including a special license required for anglers who fish for trout between October 1 through June 15. Coldwater hatcheries raise rainbow, brook, and brown trout, at a cost of roughly $2 per catchable (greater than 7" long) fish. Warmwater hatcheries raise muskellunge, northern pike, striped bass, walleyes, catfish, largemouth bass, bluegill and redear sunfish.3
Warm-water aquaculture is successful in Virginia. It is possible to raise catfish and other species in outdoor ponds in Virginia, particularly in 4'x4' cages. However, Mississippi and other states further south have warmer temperatures; aquaculturalists further south generate more income from the greater productivity.
To block low-cost imports of catfish from Southeast Asia, the 2014 Farm Bill created a new requirement that the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service inspectors must be located at all facilities processing catfish for commercial sale. That was intended to increase costs in the United States, raising the opportunity to raise catfish in Virginia. As a side effect, the inspection requirement also reduced the potential for commercial-scale harvest to reduce the non-native blue catfish in the Chesapeake Bay tributaries.4
Indoor operations allow for careful control over temperature and water quality. Blue Ridge Aquaculture near Martinsville opened in 1993, and quickly claimed to be "the world's largest producer of tilapia using indoor recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS)." Martinsville is not the natural habitat for growing tropical fish, but the father of the company founder had been publisher of the Martinsville Bulletin and he had worked for that newspaper.
It was not his first attempt at fish farming. Before starting Blue Ridge Aquaculture, he had run a business raising catfish in tanks and selling fillets, but that operation had gone into bankruptcy two years earlier.5
After about 20 years of successful operation, the founder converted the business into an employee-owned company in anticipation of a new generation of managers keeping it in operation. Many of the employees had previously worked in furniture plants in Henry County or Martinsville which had closed.
In 2020 it produces 4.5 million pounds annually. The Chief Executive Officer was anxious to help start up other US-based fish farms using recirculating aquaculture systems, hoping to grow his isolated niche business into a nationwide industry. In 2019, tilapia imports exceeded 75 million tons, with 75% coming from China.
Part of the marketing strategy for Blue Ridge Aquaculture was to highlight that it sold fish grown in America, since the price differential was so significant. Back in 2007, frozen fillets from China cost $2/pound. Imported fresh fillets from Honduras, Costa Rica, and Ecuador sold for $5-$6/pound. Fresh fillets from American aquaculture operations were priced at $8-$10/pound.
Blue Ridge Aquaculture sells fresh fish, preferred by primarily Asian and Hispanic-American customers over frozen fillets that are imported from Asia
Blue Ridge Aquaculture raised two million fish at a time in over 40 tanks. Each Wednesday, the 200 broodstock females are turned upside down into buckets, and they release 300,000-850,000 eggs from their mouths. These grow over nine months into fish weighing at least 1.5 pounds before they are harvested.
The company sold to "primarily Asian and Hispanic-American individuals with a cultural preference for live seafood," shipping fish in trucks nightly to customers in New York, Boston or Toronto. Fish are displayed in large aquarium tanks, and customers choose the fish they want to be cut into fillets while they wait. The process maximizes freshness.
To ensure quality control and the $2-3 million annual cost, the company expanded in 2017 and started Blue Ridge Aquafeeds to produce own fish food in an adjacent mill. The fish eat 10 tons/day of a mix including corn, soybeans, minerals and vitamins.
The vegetarian diet provides the nutrients required, and tilapia normally feed on algae and plants. The mixture is softened to produce a dough-like mash, then dried and cut into noodles which resemble dog food. Close management of the additives reassures customers about food safety, a marketing factor in a business in which 75% of tilapia are imported from China.
In a recirculating aquaculture system, the water coming out of the tanks is processed on site. Nitrogen (ammonia) and fish poop is removed and oxygen is added, before the water is pumped back to the fish. Recycling minimized the utility costs for water and sewer, and made the process more eco-friendly.
Blue Ridge Aquaculture breeds its own fish and raises tilapia in tanks, for final sale as live fish
Source: Blue Ridge Aquaculture, Tilapia
About 85% of the water was recycled initially. The additional water added daily was provided from a well drilled into the local aquifer. Groundwater was less expensive than buying drinking water from Martinsville, and avoided dealing with changing levels of chlorine and other chemicals used to make drinking water safe. Water not re-added to the tanks was sent via sewer to the Martinsville wastewater treatment plant on the Smith River.
Most US-based tilapia businesses have failed. From a business perspective, the key to tilapia growing is to be vertically integrated. Managing the production of broodstock through delivery of live fish reduces the risks of "aqua-shysters" who find opportunities to take advantage of overworked, undercapitalized fish farmers.
For example, Blue Ridge Aquaculture caught its feed company selling bags of food that included 10% sand to inflate the weight. It clogged the company's water system, while aquaculturalists who dump feed directly into outdoor ponds would never discover the fraud. A transportation company once claimed, suspiciously, that half the fish died on the way to market.
The key to cost-effective production of fish within indoor tanks is to maintain temperature, water chemistry, and other conditions so the fish are not stressed. Minimizing disease minimized loss and maximized growth. Blue Ridge Aquaculture employed 35 people working in shifts 24-7, because aquaculture requires constant attention. The company's Chief Executive Officer said the fish made it clear when they were not happy by dying:6
Blue Ridge Aquaculture, the largest aquaculture operation in Virginia, is located far from the Chesapeake Bay in an industrial park near the Martinsville Speedway
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Only the males, which are larger, are grown for sale. The fish convert the food put into their tanks into fish protein at the rate of 1.5 pounds of meal to 1 pound of fish, a ratio that helps fish farmers compete with pork and beef operations. Temperature and other conditions are carefully controlled.7
In 2020, Blue Ridge Aquaculture expanded with construction of a $2.5 state-of-the-art nursery facility. Tilapia normally breed twice each year, with the females protecting the developing eggs in her mouth. The aquaculture process moved the eggs daily from the mouths of females to a nursery, so female tilapia would produce a new batch of eggs every 10-14 days. The developing eggs mature in hatching tubes. Eggs stay at the bottom, while mature fingerlings rise to the top and flow into a series of 42 tanks. At 10 weeks, the fish are ready for sale.
By 2020, the company was breeding its 19th generation of fish. The control over genetics had one side benefit - the fish adapted to the steady noise of the nearby Martinsville Speedway. THe earlier generations had jumped out of the tanks in response to the noises.8
Raising fish indoors, rather than in outdoor ponds, could be the future of commercial aquaculture for tilapia, catfish, and some other species. A spokesperson for the Global Aquaculture Alliance suggested that the fish farming industry will mimic the techniques used by the chicken and port producers to increase productivity substantially in the last 50 years:9
Not every aquaculture operation in Virginia has been successful. Virginia Cobia Farms, a joint project between Blue Ridge Aquaculture and a company in Maine, briefly raised cobia in a $600,000 aquaculture facility in Saltville. Cobia is a saltwater fish, but the company used a protein that triggered the natural capacity of that species of fish (Rachycentron canadum, also known as pompano) to grow in low-salinity water. Because cobia grows faster than salmon, the company's chairman said in 2007:10
Virginia Tech's Southwest Virginia Aquaculture Research Center, already doing research in Saltville on raising yellow perch, assisted the cobia aquaculture operation. The Saltville Industrial Authority leased a building to Virginia Cobia Farms for its indoor recirculating systems, and the Town of Saltville sold massive amounts of water to the operation.
Virginia Cobia Farms planned to invest $30 million and bought its building in 2010, but a deep economic recession cut demand for high-priced fish with name recognition far below salmon. Three years later the business closed. The building was transferred to the Saltville Industrial Development Authority in 2015.11
the Virginia Cobia Farms facilities in Saltville were advertised for sale at auction in 2014
Source: Woltz Brothers, Smyth County, Virginia - Industrial Property Auction
Some hatcheries seek to raise fish in aquaponics facilities, integrating the production of plants and fish. Blue Ridge Aquaculture has tried raising lettuce, tomatoes, and other vegetables using nutrient-enriched waters from its fish production operations. The company needs to remove wastes excreted by fish, and plants are a cost-effective way to clean the water in its Recirculating Aquaculture System.
The greenhouse at Virginia Highlands Community College in Abingdon has experimented with growing tilapia as a way to enhance the horticulture research and potentially create a new industry in the region where tobacco-based agriculture is declining. In 2014, Herb Aqua Farm started selling lettuce at the Williamsburg farmers market, after growing it in an aquaponics system in Smithfield.12
all remaining streams still supporting a wild trout population are in the Blue Ridge or Valley and Ridge physiographic provinces
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries - Geographic Information Systems, Trout Waters (as of October 17, 2014)
The 2018 Census of Aquaculture revealed that Virginia was #4 nationally in total aquaculture sales. Half of the value of those sales was from oysters. The 134 oyster farms in Virginia were 70% of all aquaculture operations in the state, which totaled 191 farms.13
In Tazewell County, the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority (VCEDA) committed to $10 million loan to an Israeli aquaculture firm for Project Jonah in 2013. The proposal was initiated by the local member of the House of Delegates and supported by the Virginia Israel Advisory Board (VIAB), an agency of the Virginia General Assembly that helps Israeli companies grow their operations in Virginia. The delegate claimed Project Jonah would be "the largest aquaculture project in the world," and a company lobbyist claimed that each aquaculture job would create seven ancillary jobs in trucking and retail.
advertising in early 2020 suggested Dominion Aquaculture was already shipping product to the eastern half of the United States
Source: Dominion Aquaculture, About
The Virginia Israel Advisory Board had also supported the project by Appalachian Biofuels to open a biodiesel production facility in Russell County; the company's Chief Executive Officer (CEO) was the Vice-Chair of the Virginia Israel Advisory Board. When that project ultimately failed, the CEO convinced the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission to waive its claim on $210,000 of loans because he was succeeding in bringing other investments to the region and helping the commission achieve its revitalization goals.
The political support alone was not sufficient to overcome the economics of opening a private fish farm on the Appalachian Plateau. The investors required multiple extensions on deadlines to meet the loan commitments to hire people and attract private investment.
The aquaculture firm acquired 123 acres next to the Richlands wastewater treatment plant, and planned a recirculating system similar to what Blue Ridge Aquaculture used successfully. It also planned to purchase land next to Southwest Virginia Community College. The vision was for the school to start a training program for aquaculture technicians, which the company would then employ.
Dominion Aquaculture's "Project Jonah" planned to raise and process fish on 123 acres next to the Richlands wastewater treatment plant in Tazewell County
Source: Tazewell County, Tazewell County GIS
The initial proposal was to raise tilapia, flash freeze the product, and sell directly to the region's Food City supermarket chain. Company officials later suggested, as they struggled to attract more private investors, that salmon might be substituted for tilapia. Tazewell County officials traveled to Poland in 2015 to visit an AquaMaof fish farm.
In 2020, Tazewell County approved another extension with the firm then called Dominion Aquaculture, a subsidiary of the Israeli fish farming company AquaMaof. The county's Industrial Development Authority had cosigned for $1.5 million in Tobacco Region Opportunity Funding between 2013-2015, and promised $1 million in county tax abatements.
The new extension included a deadline to spend at least $25 million within the county by the end of the calendar year. The long-term requirement was to provide 218 jobs and create $228 million in taxable assets within Tazewell County. To ensure the county's loans were repaid, in 2019 it placed liens on the company's 120 acres plus equipment.14
Later in 2020, the proposal was being led by an international set of investors organized as 8F Asset Management and headquartered in Singapore. They raised over $350 million to invest in aquaculture through a company called Pure Salmon, which partnered with AquaMaof to obtain the necessary expertise in recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) aquaculture. The company owned a successful salmon-farming operation in Poland producing 450 tons of salmon annually, and planned to build more plants in Japan, France, North America, China, Southeast Asia, and Africa. The business model was based on creating brand recognition for "Pure Salmon," so customers no longer purchased just generic Walmart or Costco salmon.
For Tazewell County, Pure Salmon announced plans to spend $228 million and to complete building the "world's largest vertically integrated indoor aquaculture facility" by the end of 2023. The facility was projected to produce 20,000 pounds of salmon each year.15
the fish farm in Tazewell County was projected to produce 20,000 tons of salmon annually
Source: Pure Salmon, Land-based salmon farmer secures $20 million funding