The way George Nardi sees it, if the U.S. is going to compete with other countries that farm fish, there will need to be cooperation — partnerships involving industry, all government levels and academia. His GreatBay AquaFarms plans such  a trial partnership along with an experimental farm to see if raising cod in Maine will work.

The project will be more than an experimental cod farm off Sorrento, Maine, however. The four pens will stock only 25,000 fingerlings per pen, each of those fingerlings hatched and raised at GreatBay AquaFarms’ land-based site in Newington, NH, using eggs that came from an “elite broodstock” of wild cod, caught in the Gulf of Maine or off Newfoundland.

“It’s a native species,” said Nardi. “Our spawning stock is based entirely on native fish. We don’t want to bring in anything from the outside.”

Other farmed species have created controversy because the variety farmed is sometimes hybrid, as in the case of Atlantic salmon, and critics express concern that escaped fish breeding with wild stocks will weaken or displace the wild variety. Besides using fish that can’t harm the native species because they are the native species, Nardi said farmed cod have some advantages over their wild brethren.

“It’s a great product. Restaurants that have sampled it [through a project run by the University of Rhode Island] and compared farmed cod to wild cod. Farmed cod scored higher than wild for texture, mouth feel and whiteness,” said Nardi. “The texture could be altered by the harvesting techniques, or the state of maturation — if the fish are in spawning mode — but with all things being equal, the farmed will be as good or better.”

In fact, the needs of growing populations will not be met by wild stocks in the future, and unless the U.S. wants to buy most of its fish frozen, from Asia, local, state and federal governments need to work together to help the industry become competitive. “So far, we’ve had good support,” he said.

“The way it’s shaping up now — Norway is the major producer, Ireland looking at high-end niche markets such as organic, as is Shetland. Canada is next and the U.S. is last and least among cod producers,” Nardi said. “We’re hoping to change that in 2008.”

Besides meeting the criteria for consumers seeking to increase local food consumption and lower the carbon footprint of their food — or adding in the fuel and greenhouse effect of bringing food from around the world — farming cod in Maine offers another potential: jobs.

“The cod potential here is very good,” said Nardi. “National Marine Fisheries statistics show that just in New England in the 1980s, we landed 55,000 MT of cod. That’s reduced to 5,000 MT  now according to the last available numbers.

“There’s a lot of room between 5000 and 55,0000 MT to bring the availability of cod back up to recorded history, and I’m not talking the `30s and `40s (when landings were higher), just the `80s,” said Nardi. The lower landings of cod in New England coincided with the massive collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery – the 500-year-old fishery that was the most productive in the world and is rebuilding so slowly, scientists can’t predict if it will ever reach viable commercial levels again.

“There’s terrific potential for value-added shoreside jobs,” Nardi said. “And farmed cod could save millions in production because it won’t have any worms, so it won’t require candling.” Wild cod often contain worms that are harmless to humans but must be extracted by passing fillets over a lighted counter and having a worker remove each worm with tweezers.

If the three-year project is approved for Maine and, if it demonstrates to GreatBay that “a cod farm is profitable and can be conducted sustainably, the company would look at expanding its operations in Maine in hopes of developing a promising cod farming industry.” Another farmer may try growing mussels on ropes around the farm, but not on the pens. Nardi says GreatBay also plans to work with fishermen in Sorrento.

Cod farming has been growing in Europe, especially Norway. Norwegian cod farming is expanding, “going from a whole lot of little operations, to settling down with fewer but more substantial operations, with hatcheries, growout sites, and all,” said Nardi. Norwegians are producing thousands of tons. Iceland and the UK are starting commercial cod farming and Shetland and Ireland have niche market operations underway.

GreatBay is working closely the University of Maine Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research (CCAR). Hoping to stock the pens this spring, together they plan to determine the best time to stock small fish, because the slow-growing cod will have to overwinter at least once before harvesting.

“It may turn out growers will not want to stock such a small fish in winter, because of the risk, but the industry is still evaluating the size of fish stocking and when to do it,” said Nardi. “Spring might be the best bang for the buck.”

Hatching a cod to fingerling size takes most of a year and growing cod out to market size — depending on the target size — takes between two and two-and-a-half years, Nardi explained. Cooke Aquaculture from New Brunswick is the largest producer of farmed cod in North America and GreatBay has a joint venture with Cooke at one farm in St. George, NB.

GreatBay has been in business for 12 years on land owned by Public Service Co. of NH. The utility brings in a lot of seawater from its shoreside location for use in its plant, and GreatBay gets to use some of that. Their needs are minimal since they recycle a lot of the water they use. GreatBay is using some of the nutrient-rich effluent water to grow nori as a potential partial replacement for some of the fish used in fish feeds.

Originally, GreatBay began as a hatchery for summer flounder. It expected to become a growout facility for summer flounder, but that part never happened. However, GreatBay is now a hatchery for summer flounder, cod, cobia and black sea bass.

“Flounder was our first and only species for a number of years until we realized we couldn’t just produce one species because there were not enough customers, nor would there be, to support the hatchery and keep the capacity occupied,” said Nardi. “So we added cod.” Now the company produces cod fingerlings twice a year. In December, GreatBay had 160,000 small cod on the premises — 110,000 headed for Canada and 50,000 to Maine. 

Besides hatching small cod, GreatBay is a one of the founding industrial partners with some Canadian provinces and companies on the Cod Genome Project (CGP), a 4-year $18 million (Canadian) project starting its third year.

“If we want to compete with Canada, Norway and Iceland — and there’s no reason we shouldn’t, we’re on the same technical level — but they have government support,” Nardi said. “I can’t think of a better project for Maine — cod we can grow and eat here.”