Aquaculture research park redefining what it means to be a fish farm

"Wild caught" has become a desired attribute at the fish counter. But that may be changing. "CBS This Morning: Saturday" co-host Jeff Glor spoke to experts on why fish farming may be repairing a bad reputation to become a key player in the world's food supply.

Video Transcript

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- You've heard the term farm-to-table, how about fish farm to table? Many scientists and chefs believe it's the future of food due to a combination of factors, including over-fishing in the oceans and a global population that keeps rising. Fish farms haven't always had the best reputation. But as we found out that seems to be changing fast.

- This is one of the few totally recirculating aquaculture farms in the world.

JEFF GLOR: WEMA Dr. Kevin Mayne, at the Mote Aquaculture Research Park in Sarasota, Florida. The park is 20 miles away from the ocean, but has seawater running through it constantly. Recycled and reused, 24 hours a day. "Fish under quarantine" is not for COVID reasons?

- No. Definitely not for COVID reasons. That is when we first bring them in from the wild, we have to keep them by themselves and have to check them and make sure they're healthy and put them through some treatments.

JEFF GLOR: At this farm, Mayne is raising Red Drum, Snoek, and more. So these are what kind of fish?

- Elmer Kojaks.

JEFF GLOR: Elmer Kojaks. They look hungry.

- Yep. Yep. They're hoping we're going to give them some lunch.

JEFF GLOR: If I stuck my finger in there, I wouldn't lose it but it would hurt.

- You could lose the tip. I wouldn't recommend it.

JEFF GLOR: Elmer Kojak, also known as Long-Fin Yellow-tail, have very sharp teeth and are also very adaptable. Mayne originally found these fish about 100 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico. They've been raised to be the perfect, healthy breeders.

- So we've got males and females in here. And at least three to four times a week they will reproduce in this tank.

JEFF GLOR: Fertilized eggs rise to the surface and are sent out via tubes to a collecting tank before being sent to a hatchery, then eventually, your plate. It's like a fertility clinic.

- It is. For fish.

JEFF GLOR: For fish. Farming fish isn't new. 52% of fish consumed around the world come from onshore or offshore fish farms. The first thing you might think of is farm-raised salmon. The industry, however, has been hampered by a history of bad practices, including overuse of antibiotics, overcrowded facilities, releasing waste into the environment, and lax regulation. Fish farms have faced opposition, why do you believe those protests are misguided?

- Because they're based on technology that has been going through a change. Moving from learning how to do it to learning how to do it better.

JEFF GLOR: Which is what Mayne is working on here. She says depending on the size of the fish, the water in these tanks could be used, filtered, and reused again in as little as an hour. After it leaves the pools, it's to an outside filtration system which eliminates any toxic nitrogen put out by the fish, but keeps the nutrients. From there the water travels into this plant house where it's used to grow a second crop. In this case purslane. That process also serves to clean the water before it's returned to the fish. It seems development of these new technologies couldn't come at a more crucial time.

- It's critical that we provide protein to feed the world and there is no more sustainable protein that's produced than through fish farming. These plants are being grown hydroponically.

JEFF GLOR: Scientists like Mayne are getting support from rising chefs around the country. Including Steve Phelps, who has become an outspoken proponent for healthy, farm-raised fish.

STEVE PHELPS: To watch how an operation works where I can have my protein and have a salad on the same plate right now, it's fascinating.

JEFF GLOR: If you recognize Phelps it's because he's one of the chefs we featured on The Dish, just last month.

STEVE PHELPS: I'm afraid of what's happening out on our waters, the pollution in the water, the quotas for the fishermen. They're all starting to get-- pollution is getting higher, quotas are getting smaller. And they're going to stop fishing soon.

JEFF GLOR: Over the last 60 years, global demand for fish meat has more than doubled, while global supply has dropped. According to Mayne and Phelps, it doesn't have to be that way. It feels like for so long we were told to buy wild, that's not the case anymore.

STEVE PHELPS: No, you know, the numbers are staggering of how much we're over-fishing. And what's great for a restaurant and a chef like me is we've got consistency in product like this. They're fed the same thing, they're in the same environment, they're harvested at the same size. So when I go to create a menu, I can always guarantee that I'll have a two pound fish on it, or whatever is necessary.

JEFF GLOR: For Phelps and Kevin Mayne, the key to ensuring a future for farm-raised fish is getting the right information out there about the process, where the food comes from, and what it will take to make sure it lasts.

- One thing I've learned is that we've got to communicate more with the public. When people come here and they see how it's actually operating, they're comfortable with it. It's a fresh product. It's local. It's going right here to your restaurants, and the chefs know the product. The grocery stores know it. It's really the wave of the future.

- Now, one of the issues here is that the seafood they're giving to the fish on the farms often comes from the ocean. If you're trying to avoid over-fishing in the oceans that's one issue. But these processes are constantly evolving. So I think they're working on trying to make that better. Listen, I've had bad farm-raised fish and good farm-raised fish. I've had bad wild caught fish and good. So it's just important to figure out so you know where it comes from.

- Does it change the cost dramatically?

- It all depends. It depends where it is and what kind of fish it is.

- And that's just like the wild stuff, you know. As long as it tastes good, I'm all for it, right.

- Good for the environment.

- There you go.