The Future of Virginia Fisheries: Marine Life at Risk

Jan 15, 2019

Virginia is the top supplier of seafood on the east coast.  Our watermen harvest more than four dozen species – scallops and oysters, blue crabs, clams, flounder and other fin fish worth over $200 million.  The creatures that live off our coast face some big problems, but  scientists here are hoping to find solutions that make sustainable fishing possible.

Virginia fishermen like James Eskridge know shell and fin fish face many challenges to surviving and thriving in the Atlantic and Chesapeake Bay.
Credit Sandy Hausman

The world’s population keeps growing, and as wealth rises, people want more protein.  That’s put growing pressure on marine life according to scientist Nicole Rhody at the Mote Aquaculture Research Park in Sarasota, Florida.

“The oceans are actually our main source of animal protein today," she explains. " Over 2.6 billion people depend on it daily, but global fisheries are being harvested at almost 2.5 times what our oceans are actually able to sustainably support at this time.”

Couple that with changing technology, and you can see why fish could be in trouble. Chad Haggert is captain of a charter fishing boat called the Double Eagle.

“The old Loran systems, if you wrote down a coordinate that you fished this day and went back next week it would get you within 1,500 feet of that spot, and you had to know the bottom and work your boat back and forth to find the spot again,"  he says. "Now, with GPS, you come out, and it’s within feet, plus the technology in the bottom machines being color now and showing the rock structure and the sand – they’ve made everybody a killer.” 

Like other wildlife, fish are contending with climate change and on-going pollution of their habitat – fertilizer that causes algae blooms and dead zones, plastic and fibers from synthetic cloth. George Leonard, chief scientist with the Ocean Conservancy, says those fibers are washed from our home into water treatment plants, rivers and on to the ocean ever time you do laundry.

Plastic in our oceans and bays threatens fish and other marine life.
Credit National Park Service

“There was a study in the Indian Ocean that calculated there were about 10-40 fibers in a coffee can of sediment," Leonard says. "Most of that was rayon and polyester, which indicates that it’s probably coming from clothing, and there’s growing worry that plastic is ending up in seafood.” 

One study found a third of seafood sampled in fish markets of Northern California and Indonesia contained plastic in their system, and another concluded fiber from synthetic fabric are killing the smallest creatures in the sea, zooplankton and phytoplankton at the very base of the food chain. 

Also posing a big threat to fish and other marine life is ghost fishing gear – lost crab pots and nets that remain in the ocean.  One six-year study estimated 31,000 blue crabs, fish, birds and turtles were caught and killed by these abandoned traps.

One possible way to relieve the pressure on fish is to farm them, and Rhody says more of our seafood is cultivated than ever before.

One way to take pressure off wild fish populations is to farm them.

“For the first time in 2016 aquaculture produced more than half of what we caught worldwide.”

Here in Virginia, scientists are doing their part to fine-tune and promote ways of raising fish on farms – among them Jimmy Mullins on staff at Virginia State University:

During a driving tour he points out  56 fish ponds where catfish, hybrid striped bass, trout and freshwater shrimp are thriving. That’s right, Virginia could someday be a hub for production of shrimp.  The babies arrive from Texas about one inch in length and are ready for market by fall.

“We bring the little shrimp in in May and by September, he’s at about six inches long and ready to go to market, so it’s a fast crop, and the price is good,” Mullins says. 

Virginia State's Jimmy Mullins shows how water from fish tanks can be used to nourish greenhouse plants.
Credit Sandy Hausman

But what about taste?  Could a freshwater shrimp from Virginia compete with one from the Gulf?

“If my wife fixed  them, she would probably put some Old Bay on them, and I’d never know the difference,” Mullins concludes.

In our next report, we’ll visit the world’s largest indoor fish farm in, of all places, the landlocked city of Martinsville, Virginia.  

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