HERALD MAIL MEDIA
December 2, 2013
by Janet Heim
Shepherdstown's Freshwater Institute offers sustainable aquaculture
SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — Tucked away off the back roads of Shepherdstown is a typical-looking farmhouse.
A gravel drive winds behind it, leading to a nondescript building, a research lab that is the heart of the Freshwater Institute, an internationally recognized program of The Conservation Fund.
Nature is teeming in that lab, the centerpiece of which is a tank filled with 40,000 gallons of water and 5,000 Atlantic salmon, each weighing about 4 to 6 pounds.
That tank and the fish within it feed the research into sustainable aquaculture conducted by the staff, including Senior Research Associate John W. Davidson III. He presented his findings at a conference in Denmark in October.
“Many companies in Europe are interested in this type of technology,” Davidson said.
He has traveled to Canada several times for work, as well as to conferences in the United States.
Davidson, 38, has been working at the Freshwater Institute since 1998, when the research lab, which now has 20 employees, was being built.
The 1993 Williamsport High School graduate started as an intern while working on his bachelor’s degree at Shepherd University, which then was Shepherd College.
After college, Davidson was hired as a part-time technician, cleaning tanks. Over time, he worked his way up. He now collects data, writes scientific research articles and presents them at conferences.
He earned a master’s degree from West Virginia University in wildlife and fishery resources.
“This is a great job,” Davidson said.
The staff at the Freshwater Institute hatches the salmon eggs and grows the salmon to harvest size, between 8 and 10 pounds, which takes about 24 months. The fish are sold to a West Coast seafood marketer who ships them to restaurants in Toronto and British Columbia.
Davidson said he would like to see their fish stay on the East Coast, but that would require finding a seafood marketer who supplies East Coast restaurants.
The Freshwater Institute also is under contract to raise rainbow trout for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources for recreational fishing.
The institute receives funding from a variety of sources — foundational, state, federal and private.
Most farm-raised Atlantic salmon are raised in ocean net pens, instead of in a land-based recirculating aquaculture system such as the one at the Freshwater Institute. The circular fiberglass tank uses what is a small volume of water, by fishery standards.
“What we do offers an alternative to that approach. You could locate a tank near a big seafood hub. It optimizes freshness. You could harvest fish and have it within a day or two,” said Davidson of the land-based, closed-containment system used at the institute.
He said most people don’t know much about where the fish they eat comes from, and whether it’s fresh or frozen.
“We import 90 percent of the seafood in this country. It is ironic in some ways because the U.S. is a leader in other areas of agriculture,” Davidson said. “One of our main goals is to help increase domestic seafood production.”
He said 50 percent of the seafood people eat is farm-raised. While the amount of wild-caught seafood has stayed the same year to year, there is a dramatic increase in the amount raised through aquaculture.
The other advantage of the recirculating freshwater system with which Davidson works is “we can control anything, including inputs into the fish and toxins into the fish.”
It also has “very little impact on the environment,” which is another positive, he said.
The Conservation Fund focuses on land conservation, balancing economic goals with conservation and environmental goals.
“We fit into the mold. We’re focused on water resources, with a focal point of developing sustainable aquaculture practices,” Davidson said.
The institute does other water-related work, such as watershed restoration for the Chesapeake Bay.
“That’s the one thing I hope, that this provides a little more knowledge about the seafood we eat in the U.S. It’s important to do it in a sustainable way, that we use as little water from the environment as possible and that the water goes out clear,” Davidson said.
Davidson lives in Hagerstown with his wife of six years, Kalli, and their 4-year-old daughter, Kamryn.
For more information, go to http://www.conservationfund.org/our-conservation-strategy/major-programs/freshwater-institute.