The Future of Virginia Fisheries: Growing Our Own in the Blue Ridge

Jan 16, 2019

Like many cities in southside Virginia, Martinsville lost thousands of jobs as tobacco, furniture-making and textiles left for places where labor was cheaper, but as those industries went away, a new one grew up thanks to one man with an idea.  It's now the largest indoor fish farm in the world.

Bill Martin in a fish farming pioneer, with the largest indoor facility in the world.
Credit Sandy Hausman

At 71, Bill Martin calls himself an old redneck – a label that belies his sophisticated view of the world, economic development and fish.  His employee-owned business, Blue Ridge Aquaculture, is a complex of low-rise buildings in an industrial park five miles south of downtown Martinsville.  Here, about 30 people tend dozens of indoor ponds where two million tilapia grow.

“Tilapia is probably the fish for people that don’t like fish," he says. "When we started it didn’t even make the list of fish.  Now it’s number four in consumption.”

He launched the business 25 years ago and quickly discovered that Asian-Americans prefer to buy fish live – to assure that they’re fresh when they hit the plate. 

Blue Ridge Aquaculture transports live fish to New York, Boston, Toronto and other cities with large Asian populations.
Credit Sandy Hausman

So each morning, a small fleet of tank trucks leave for New York, Boston or Toronto, arriving at night to supply distributors with 4.5 million pounds of fish each year.  That delivery completes a process that Martin and his team oversee from the start.

“We take the eggs from the females every Wednesday," Martin explains. "On a good week we’ll have 850,000.  On a bad week we’ll have 300,000.”

Blue Ridge breeds for calm fish that like living in large schools.

“Stress is the root of all evil," the founder  says. "It’s just like in humans – the more stressed out you are, the sicker you get.  We have pretty much a zero stress level.  How do you do that?  Well it’s just over years of genetic selection.”

Blue Ridge Aquaculture raises about two million tilapia at a time -- calm fish that like swimming in large schools.
Credit Sandy Hausman

The company also makes its own fish food in a newly built, three-story factory:

“You buy a bag of feed it says ‘tilapia feed’ you make a terrible assumption that’s what it is.  What kinds of things are they sneaking into the feed?  How about sand, among other things, and they do what they call low-cost formulation.  It doesn’t matter what you want.  It’s what they give you.”

Over a period of nine months babies grow into adults weighing at least a pound and a half.  Employees are constantly checking the water to assure the right temperature and chemistry:

“It’s not like a chicken barn where you go home at night and the chickens keep breathing.  We have to stay here all the time, and make sure nothing happens.  If anything happens you only have a few seconds to do something to correct it.” 

And much of what is done here breaks new ground for an industry in its infancy.

“When we went to Tech originally, I said, ‘I need a book to help me on this.’ A guy said, ‘I’ve got just what you need,’ and he handed me a three-ring notebook.  I said, ‘There’s nothing in there,’ and he says, ‘That’s correct.  Start writing!’  There is no book!’”

Martin's team tends the fish tanks 24/7.
Credit Sandy Hausman

While many people his age are thinking about retirement, Bill Martin is planning for the future.  He wants to start using water from his tanks – filled with fish waste that’s great fertilizer – to grow crops, and he’s thinking about expanding operations to Africa.   In the U.S. he sees potential for improving the nutritional value of tilapia – boosting their Omegas 3 and 6 – and offering this mild-flavored fish to kids at school.  Whatever happens, Martin thinks aquaculture might – for better or worse -- be the future of fish, because wild populations are falling:

“I talked to a lobster guy one time," Martin recalls. "I said, ‘Why don’t you back off on this a little bit?’ and he said, ‘I’m going to quit when the last lobster hits this deck!’ And that’s the mentality you have for most of the guys out there.”

In our next report, we’ll look at how Virginia polices the seafood-rich waters of Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic.  

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.