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Fishing for a solution

As stocks dwindle, a team of researchers pioneers new ways to 'farm' fish - miles offshore in the ocean's depths.

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On the surface, fish farms seem like a brilliant solution to the problem of too few fish in the sea. Instead of further depleting threatened populations of wild fish with traditional fishing methods, simply hatch thousands of fish from eggs, cultivate them in pens, and when they grow big and strong, sell them off.

But a deeper look reveals that it's not always that easy. Negative reports on the impact of some forms of aquaculture - especially salmon - have flooded the media in recent months.

Claims from conservationists and environmentalists are familiar to followers of the farmed-salmon saga: Pens are overcrowded and polluted with waste, males often escape and weaken the gene pool of wild fish, and many farmed fish are fed fishmeal, which depletes stocks of smaller wild fish.

Still, the news isn't all bad on the fish-farming front. At the University of New Hampshire (UNH), an innovative program is showing that these problems can be overcome - at least for some types of fish and shellfish.

The Open Ocean Aquaculture (OOA) demonstration project at UNH is experimenting with cultivating halibut, haddock, cod, and mussels up to 8 miles offshore and deep below the ocean's surface. A big advantage of this - as opposed to the current practice of farming fish close to shore and near the surface of the ocean - is that sealife is protected from harbor pollution and turbulence caused by storms or passing boats. And because farming far offshore doesn't obstruct views from expensive oceanfront houses, it doesn't raise the ire of coastal property owners.

Richard Langan, an aquaculturist and researcher at UNH, started the demonstration project, which is part of the Cooperative Institute for New England Mariculture and Fisheries (CINEMAR). He and his crew are pioneers in the United States and North America in farming cod offshore. They are also the first in the world to cultivate mussels in exposed open-ocean conditions.

Dr. Langan has chosen not to farm salmon, but he isn't doing this simply to dodge potential flak. The fish and shellfish he farms are, for various reasons, easier to cultivate in an offshore, submerged environment.

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