Rosenstiel School's aquaculture program advances a sustainable strategy for feeding the world

UM News, 06-12-2020

Advances in aquaculture are crucial to feeding the world in the future, according to Roni Avissar, dean of the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
In the past decade, aquaculture companies have invested millions of dollars in trying to raise red snapper with limited success. But the Rosenstiel program, with support from an ongoing $1 million grant from NOAA, is changing the game for reef species, such as red snapper, Nassau grouper and hogfish. Image: Ron Hoenig


Advances in aquaculture are crucial to feeding the world in the future, according to Roni Avissar, dean of the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.  “Conventional methods of farming simply can’t meet rising global demand,” he said. “Aquaculture can also provide an alternative to commercial fishing, helping to preserve threatened and endangered species around the world.”

Today, the Rosenstiel School is internationally recognized as a leader in the research and development of cost-efficient, ecologically friendly aquaculture practices. “We have built a global network of graduates, and trainees who are now scientists, educators, and private-sector professionals committed to meeting one of the world’s most pressing long-term needs,” said Avissar. 

One of those graduates, Daniel Benetti, Ph.D., ’92, is now professor and director of aquaculture, working closely with John Stieglitz, Ph.D.,’14, who studied with Benetti and is now a research assistant professor. Their focus is developing sustainable technologies and farming systems to provide seafood for the world population while maximizing coastal resiliency. 

The Rosenstiel academic and research program began in 1968 as a cooperative initiative with private industry to cultivate shrimp and pompano. In the 1970s and ‘80s Professor E.S. Iversen continued building the program, and published numerous studies on marine species.  “I was fortunate to study with Dr. Iversen, who was a pioneer in this field,” said Benetti, who joined the Rosenstiel faculty in 1998.  Since then, Benetti has expanded the school’s Aquaculture Program as well as the Experimental Fish Hatchery, which is advancing technologies to support all developmental stages – from egg to market.  

Developing commercial partnerships

One of the Aquaculture Program’s priorities is developing two-way commercial partnerships to help translate the school’s research findings and technology development into sustainable strategies for increasing production of seafood while preserving wild fish stocks worldwide. About 110 billion more pounds of seafood will be needed by 2030 to meet population growth and increased seafood demand, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 

“This goal can only be achieved through sustainable aquaculture,” said Benetti. “We are now involved in sustainable aquaculture projects in the U.S., the Caribbean, Latin America, Australia, Europe, and Asia”. Since 2012, Rosenstiel researchers have been providing genetic material from a cobia breeding program to Open Blue Sea Farms, a commercial fish farming operation off the coast of Panama. A 2019 published peer-reviewed study showed that the facility’s open-ocean environmental impact is minimal. “This strategy offers the best option for producing wholesome seafood for human consumption with the least footprint,” added Benetti. 

Rosenstiel researchers have also been collaborating with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to spearhead advanced technology for hatchery and sustainable aquaculture development in the Southeast U.S. and the Caribbean. “Open-ocean aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico and throughout U.S. waters has great potential,” said Benetti, adding NOAA’s Gulf Aquaculture Plan allows up to 20 offshore aquaculture operations to be permitted in federal waters over a 10-year period.  

Using state-of-the-art technology

At Rosenstiel School’s experimental fish hatchery, Benetti, his staff and his team of graduate students use leading-edge technology to study marine species and apply that knowledge to commercial production.  “We are using artificial intelligence (AI) tools to optimize feeding and larval rearing protocols at the hatchery, and collaborating on research in cellular aquaculture - the next frontiers in our field,” he said. “We focus on commercially important species, such as mahi-mahi and red snapper, and work with collaborators that culture their stem cells in the lab to develop strong tissue lines. The researchers are also breeding the most healthy fish to provide producers with the “best of the best” eggs, larvae and fingerlings, said Benetti.

Nutrition is a crucial component of Rosenstiel’s Aquaculture Program. “We focus on producing ecologically and economically efficient feeds aiming at solving one of the biggest challenges facing aquaculture - finding sustainable food sources for raising fish without removing smaller fish from the ocean,” Benetti said. “One aspect of this research is that we are currently investigating insect meal as a replacement for fish meal in aquafeeds.”

Another issue involves the harvesting of fish raised in a controlled setting. For instance, mahi-mahi have extremely rapid growth rates, reaching 1 to 1.5 pounds in just three to four months. “At this point, they can be served as plate-size fish, rather than fillets,” Benetti said. “That is an ideal time for harvest, why go through the time and expense to grow a larger fish, and throw away 60 percent of it just to serve a fillet?” 

Raising red snapper

In the past decade, aquaculture companies have invested millions of dollars in trying to raise red snapper with limited success, according to Benetti. But the Rosenstiel program, with support from an ongoing $1 million grant from NOAA, is changing the game for reef species, such as red snapper, Nassau grouper and hogfish. 

“NOAA-Sea Grant has been a strong supporter of the University of Miami Aquaculture Program for the last two decades, beginning with an R&D program for cobia, now a commercial reality,” said Benetti. “This partnership has been crucial for the development of technologies and training of professionals who are now leaders in the field.”

In the first year of the grant, the Rosenstiel team was able to produce 30,000 juvenile red snappers, which were given to producers in Florida and the Bahamas for commercialization. “We are making a collective effort to produce market-size red snapper at the age of eight to ten months,” Benetti added.   “We are also growing Japanese flounders in our hatchery. Along with groupers, flounder represents enormous potential for land-based aquaculture in the US.”

Today, many wild fish stocks are threatened in the U.S. and around the world, said Benetti. To supply a growing demand, the U.S. imports more than 80 percent of its seafood, and more than two-thirds come from fish farms. “This poses a threat to our self-sufficiency and food security, and leads to a yearly seafood trade deficit of about $15 billion,” added Benetti. “We believe aquaculture should be encouraged to increase production in coastal, open-ocean settings, and to support releasing selected species in scientifically managed restocking projects.” 

Integrated solutions

As the world’s population continues to grow, there is an urgent need to fill the gap between seafood supply and demand in a sustainable way. However, there are numerous challenges associated with the development of marine aquaculture in coastal communities.  “By utilizing an interdisciplinary approach to marine aquaculture development in the U.S. we have an opportunity to address issues facing the industry in a comprehensive way” said Stieglitz. 

The University of Miami, through the UM Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge (U-LINK) initiative has been supportive of this work.  Recently, Stieglitz and a team of collaborators from UM received funding through the U-LINK initiative to develop integrated solutions for sustainably feeding the world, improving coastal water quality, and building resiliency in coastal communities.  

For instance, the team is exploring ways in which aquaculture of species at different points in the food chain, sometimes referred to as integrated multi-trophic aquaculture (IMTA), can provide protein for human consumption, help restore ecosystems, and provide sustainable jobs in coastal regions.  “Aquaculture offers opportunities to help resolve many of the most pressing issues facing coastal communities throughout the world,” added Stieglitz.   

Building for the future                                                  

Looking ahead, Avissar believes in the importance of a “quantum leap” for the Rosenstiel Aquaculture Program and its research and commercial partners around the world. “The growth of commercial aquaculture ventures in the United States has been far from optimal,” he said. “But we have the scientific and educational expertise to make a major contribution to the future of this vital sector.”

With funding from federal agencies, commercial organizations and philanthropy, a self-sustaining Aquaculture Program would expand the school’s current hatchery, laboratory and classroom infrastructure. It would also support the development of a data distribution platform to provide the U.S. commercial aquaculture community with the best available science and applying advanced technologies to help solve many of the current challenges in the industry, such as the use of AI in aquaculture.  “We need AI tools to convert the extensive data collected over the years into knowledge,” Benetti said. “The applications for AI encompass all stages of the production cycle.”

The Rosenstiel aquaculture team would also address current barriers to market entry, such as the supply of ecologically responsible and efficient fish feeds, high-quality eggs and fingerlings to provide greater support to this emerging sector, and prepare the future leaders of aquaculture science and commercialization.   

“Today, most of the world’s fisheries resources are over exploited or depleted,” said Avissar. “Aquaculture is increasingly recognized as the best, if not the only, alternative to increase animal protein production to feed the world in the decades to come.”