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, with fish hatcheries offering the greatest amount of control almost comparable to greenhouses for plants.
Managing wild stocks of fish and shellfish is a form of natural resource management, rather than 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 from "private rocks" (submerged lands leased from the state) can afford to wait until the oysters/clams 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.
The other major form of aquaculture in Virginia is fish farming, especially trout and tilapia. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries regulates the import of non-native fish into Virginia. 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.
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.1
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.2
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 and aquaculturalists there 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 could increase costs in the United States, raising the opportunity to raise catfish in Virginia, but could also eliminate the potential for commercial-scale harvest to reduce the non-native blue catfish in the Chesapeake Bay tributaries.3
Indoor operations allow for greater control over conditions. Blue Ridge Aquaculture near Martinsville claims to be "the world’s largest producer of tilapia using indoor recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS)." It produces 4 million pounds annually, selling to "primarily Asian and Hispanic-American individuals with a cultural preference for live seafood" in the northeastern states and Canada.4
The recirculating water system removes the solid wastes excreted from the fish and reuses the water, minimizing the utility costs for water and sewer. The broodstock of the tilapia are carefully selected, and only the males - which are larger - are grown for sale. Ten tons of soybean meal is fed to the fish each day, and converted into fish protein at the rate of 1.5 pounds of meal to 1 pound of fish (a ratio that helps the business compete with pork and beef operations). Temperature and other conditions are carefully controlled, and the fish quickly adapt to the steady noise of the nearby Martinsville Speedway once the races get underway.5
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:6
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 2007:7
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 and the building was scheduled for auction in 2014.8
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.9
1. "The Old Wytheville Fish Hatchery," The Mountain Laurel - The Journal of Mountain Life, September, 1989, http://mtnlaurel.com/mountain-memories/1576-the-old-wytheville-fish-hatchery.html; Edward H. Davis, Edward B. Morgan, The Virginia Creeper Trail Companion: Nature and History Along Southwest Virginia's National Recreation Trail, Overmountain Press, 1997, p.30, http://books.google.com/books?id=qfQvQ61YU-4C (last checked October 17, 2014)
2. "License Requirements," Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/fishing/trout/license-requirements/; "An Overview of Stocked Trout Management in Virginia," Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Powerpoint, 2013, http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/fishing/trout/management-plan/presentation-overview-and-history.pdf; "State Hatcheries," Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/fishing/stocking/hatcheries.asp (last checked October 17, 2014)
3. "USDA Releases Final Rule Establishing Inspection Program For Siluriformes Fish, Including Catfish," United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service, November 25, 2015, http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/newsroom/news-releases-statements-transcripts/news-release-archives-by-year/archive/2015/nr-112515-01; "Sorry, Pescatarians: Congress Says Catfish are Now Effectively "Meat," and What this Means for Biodiversity," Scientific American, March 22, 2016, http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/food-matters/sorry-pescatarians-congress-says-catfish-are-now-effectively-meat-and-what-this-means-for-biodiversity/ (last checked March 25, 2016)
4. "About Us," Blue Ridge Aquaculture, http://www.blueridgeaquaculture.com/aboutus.cfm (last checked October 17, 2014)
5. "Blue Ridge Aquaculture," Virginia Farming video, June 28, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yEqPAmvDEKY (last checked March 31, 2015)
6. "Is aquaculture ready to follow poultry’s path?," All Things Poultry blog, October 26, 2015, http://www.wattagnet.com/blogs/6-all-things-poultry/post/24719-is-aquaculture-ready-to-follow-poultrys-path (last checked June 7, 2016)
7. "Virginia Farm Raises Marine Fish 300 Miles from Nearest Ocean," April 4, 2007, PRNewswire, http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/virginia-farm-raises-marine-fish-300-miles-from-nearest-ocean-57862837.html; "Maine firm invests $30M in fish farm; MariCal to offer technology for indoor growing," Bangor Daily News, October 20, 2006, http://archive.bangordailynews.com/2006/10/20/maine-firm-invests-30m-in-fish-farm-marical-to-offer-technology-for-indoor-growing/ (last checked October 31, 2014)
8. "Former Cobia Farms site in Saltville to be sold at auction," SWVAToday, October 31, 2014, http://www.swvatoday.com/news/smyth_county/article_5583e274-5eef-11e4-af8a-0017a43b2370.html (last checked October 31, 2014)
9. "Research and Development," Blue Ridge Aquaculture, http://www.blueridgeaquaculture.com/research.cfm; "VHCC’s greenhouse gets a little bigger with their new fishy addition," Bristol Herald Courier, November 2, 2014, http://www.tricities.com/news/local/article_d39dc86c-630b-11e4-8a06-0017a43b2370.html; "Tractor Tales- Herb Aqua Farm," The Farm Table, May 13, 2014, http://www.thefarmtable.org/tractor-tales-herb-aqua-farm/(last checked November 3, 2014)