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Setting the Standard in Organic Aquaculture

You pick out fish in the grocery store, perhaps with the vision of it coming straight from the sea, wild and fresh. This vision is not entirely accurate. One-third of fish in grocery stores come from fish farms (also known as aquaculture operations). The amount from the sea is dropping because of depleted wild stocks and more efficient aquaculture operations. Raising fish in aquaculture tanks has drawbacks, however. Fish are subject to stresses and may require chemical treatment to maintain their health until they grow to market size.

As with many other foods, there's a movement afoot to provide organic aquaculture products. You could still have a vision of your fish being fresh and free of unwanted chemicals. Sea Grant and the University of Minnesota's Institute for Social, Economic, and Environmental Sustainability are at the forefront of international and national efforts to develop standards for organic aquaculture and seafood.

International Organic Aquaculture Seafood Tasting Tour organizers and chefs: Deborah Brister, Brenda Langton (Café Brenda), Anne Kapuscinski, Vincent Francoual (Vincent a Restaurant), Bill Neimer (Art Institutes International), Lark Weller, Rick Kimmes (Oceanaire), and Alex Roberts (Restaurant Alma).

This past July, Anne Kapuscinski, Sea Grant aquaculture and biotechnology specialist, and Deborah Brister, research fellow and sustainable aquaculture program manager, convened an International Organic Aquaculture Workshop and Organic Seafood Tasting Tour in Minneapolis to evaluate and prioritize outreach and research needs for farming, marketing and consumption of "low-food-chain" fish and shellfish that are promising species for sustainable and organic aquaculture.

Low-food-chain species are those that eat plants and insects, things on the bottom end of the food chain. The fish that do this -- tilapia, catfish, sunfish, carp -- provide an opportunity for developing more sustainable seafood markets and introducing new culinary possibilities to chefs and consumers.

"That's because they require little to no fish in their diets to grow," said Brister. "Their feed doesn’t need to contain fishmeal and oil, which are derived from marine fish species and should be considered limited resources."

Low-food-chain species may be easier to eventually certify as organic because the National Organic Standards Board (an advisory board to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program) currently recommends that diets of organically cultured aquatic species include less than 5 percent fishmeal and oil.

"Culturing low-food-chain species bypasses difficult organic feed requirements that require 100 percent organic feed," said Brister. "Using wild fish as a feed ingredient is still a much-debated allowance in organic standard setting bodies."

Bluegill salad

Seafood Tasting Tour Menu

Salad (above)
Warm sesame-crusted bluegill on a bed of rice noodles and baby greens in a lime/passion fruit vinaigrette, topped with wasabi ginger mayonnaise. Garnished with fresh mano, sugar snap peas, and radish.Prepared by Brenda Langton, Executive Chef and Owner, Café Brenda.
Bluegill (a.k.a. sunfish):Widely recognized as a great sport fish in North America, freshwater sunfish are tender and delectable. Their natural diet includes insects and zooplankton. Some 30 species, including green, redear, and bluegills belong to the sunfish family, with 485 producers culturing them nationally.

Second Course
Lightly smoked carp, paired with shaved fennel, melon, and arugula. Prepared by Alex Roberts, Executive Chef and Co-owner, Restaurant Alma.
Carp:There are many different species of carp; a number of which are highly prized, especially in Europe and Asia. They are also farmed more than any other species on the planet. This is truly a "world fish."

Grilled tambaqui on a bean and potato salad, dressed with Asian barbeque sauce. Prepared by Rick Kimmes, Executive Chef, Oceanaire.
Tambaqui:Amazonian fishes that depend upon fruits, nuts, and seeds for food. During the rainy season, rivers are flooded, enabling the tambaqui to swim closer to the fruiting trees along the river.

Coconut-crusted milkfish dumpling, served in lemongrass/lychee broth, with kefir lime oil. Prepared by Vincent Francoual, Executive Chef and Owner, Vincent a Restaurant.
Milkfish:Touted as a national fish in the Philippines, milkfish occur in the warm waters along continental shelves and around islands in the Indo-Pacific. Milkfish have been farmed in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Taiwan for over 100 years.

The workshop and tasting tour, conducted with a $162,157 grant from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, were great successes. The tasting tour paired four chefs from the Twin Cities area with an audience hungry for low-food-chain species. Each chef donated their expertise and cooked a different species that represented a geographical region of the world. (See tasting tour menu sidebar.)

Thus inspired, workshop participants explored candidate species and culture systems, incentives for growers and end users, organic standards, and research needs. The workshop also included an organic shellfish trade show tasting tour.
The resulting report (in preparation) will be distributed to regional and national aquaculture centers, several government and non-governmental bodies, organic standard setting and certification bodies, restaurants, and chefs.

Besides satisfied tummies, the workshop resulted in several opportunities for Brister. She went on to conduct organic aquaculture trainings for organic inspectors, and recently returned from British Columbia, where she gave a keynote address at a government-organized organic aquaculture workshop. This fall, Brister accepted the role of co-chair for a newly-created National Organic Aquaculture Working Group to further the development of national organic aquaculture standards. She also accepted an invitation to write an organic aquaculture book.

These national and international opportunities grew out the first National Organic Aquaculture Workshop that Kapuscinski and Brister organized back in June 2000. The workshop, held at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, initiated dialog on organic aquaculture in the United States and led to draft general organic aquaculture principles that were presented to the USDA’s National Organic Program.

Brister functioned as a liaison between the groups developing the principles and hopes the drafted principles will become law in two years or so.

For more information about organic aquaculture, contact Deborah Brister at djb@fw.umn.edu or (612) 624-7723.

By Marie Zhuikov
November 2003

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