UMBC’s Yonathan Zohar to lead $10 million partnership to scale land-based salmon aquaculture

Published: Oct 7, 2021

(IMET exterior. Photo by Marlayna Demond '11 for UMBC.)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has awarded $10 million, the maximum allowable amount, to a set of projects, led by UMBC’s Yonathan Zohar, targeted to solve specific aquaculture challenges.

For decades, Zohar, professor and chair of marine biotechnology, has made steady progress toward making large-scale, sustainable land-based aquaculture—raising fish on land—a reality. Sustainable Aquaculture Systems Supporting Atlantic Salmon, known as SAS2, will address a range of remaining hurdles hindering the success of these emerging aquaculture platforms. SAS2 includes several academic and federal research institutions and nine industry partners from across the U.S., plus partners in Iceland and Norway. 

“The mission is to enable an innovative, effective, and sustainable U.S. Atlantic salmon production platform that will transform the U.S. food and aquaculture systems and secure and increase high-quality and affordable seafood production for the world,” says Zohar, director of the Aquaculture Research Center at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET) on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Land-based aquaculture systems are self-contained, avoiding the risks of environmental pollution or farmed fish escaping and interbreeding with wild stocks. They can be built anywhere, reducing the carbon footprint and cost of transporting fish. The water composition (salt and other minerals) can be optimized for different species, based on their natural habitat. Controlled light and temperature cycles ensure optimal year-round fish performance and production and entrain spawners to breed at different times of year, resulting in fish coming to market size year-round. 

As demand for seafood continues to rise, innovative systems like this pave the way for producing a much greater quantity of seafood in a more sustainable way.

Yonathan Zohar observes a tank at the Aquaculture Research Center, located at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology.

Filling the knowledge gaps

SAS2 builds on another Zohar-led project, the Recirculating Aquaculture Salmon Network, or RAS-N. “RAS-N has been developing a prioritized list of the challenges we need to address and where we should invest resources. It asks: What are the gaps in knowledge? What are the main hurdles in technology, biology, and engineering?” Zohar explains. “And now, with SAS2, we’re taking that information and implementing it.”

Two-thirds of the project funding is dedicated to research. The remaining third is split evenly between education/workforce development and extension/community engagement. Professionals from all of these areas are co-directors on the grant.

SAS2 includes 17 objectives, each addressing a particular remaining challenge to the large-scale implementation of land-based salmon aquaculture. For example, one priority is developing a domestic brood stock, so aquaculture facilities in the U.S. aren’t solely dependent on importing salmon eggs from Europe. Another objective is biologically treating the tons of solid waste (fish poop) the facilities produce and converting it to fuel-grade biogas. Others focus on developing environmentally responsible feeds and ensuring optimal fish quality. 

Two people kneeling next to fish tanks
Yonathan Zohar (l) and Jorge Gomezjurado (r) at IMET’s Aquaculture Research Center.

From research to workforce

Also, Zohar says, “Workforce development is a huge bottleneck, because with these facilities popping up like mushrooms, there aren’t enough skilled workers available with the right kind of training.” These huge facilities rely on skilled technicians that can think creatively to troubleshoot problems on the spot. Aquaculture industry leaders, such as George Nardi, vice president for aquaculture services at Innovasea, are partners on the grant to assist with this and other parts of the work.

“I was impressed with the breadth of the workforce development in this proposal—everywhere from high school to university,” Nardi said at a kickoff meeting for SAS2. “My experience tells me that in aquaculture we need a great variety of skillsets to succeed,” he added. “And this project, with the enormous amount of talent surrounding it, is going to help the industry move forward.”

Extending the impact

In addition to UMBC, the other primary academic partner is the University of Maine, whose Aquaculture Research Institute is a leader in aquaculture on the East Coast.

“The Aquaculture Research Institute (ARI) at UMaine is excited to continue working with UMBC and implementing the lessons learned from the RAS-N network,” says Debbie Bouchard, director of the ARI. “Working with other institutions on the grant, we are focusing on integrated workforce development pathways that incorporate not only industry priorities and results from the research objectives, but also diversity and inclusion values that are important to advancing a sustainable RAS industry and rural development.”

The team’s collaborative and transdisciplinary approach to the project will create opportunities to transform the industry by addressing key bottlenecks that thus far have created challenges in scaling up land-based aquaculture. Both RAS-N and SAS2 “have always been stakeholder-driven,” Zohar says. “We are not in the ivory tower of academia telling businesses ‘you should do this and that.’ Instead, it’s us asking the industry, ‘What do you need to ensure success?’.”

Extension is an important part of the project, too. As aquaculture facilities can take up a significant physical footprint, “One of our objectives is community engagement, being totally transparent and keeping a dialogue going.” That is happening already as AquaCon, another industry partner on the grant, works with Zohar and other colleagues to implement salmon aquaculture facilities on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Poised to succeed

Fish in a tank at IMET’s Aquaculture Research Center in Baltimore.

The new $10 million grant is part of a National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) program, which includes everything from corn to beef. The fact that an aquaculture project was selected and awarded the maximum amount indicates the priority the federal government has placed on innovative, sustainable food production strategies for the future.

“The goals are for it to be transformative, to be collaborative, to be synergistic, and to cross boundaries,” Zohar says. “The USDA program is called sustainable agriculture systems, so it takes a systems approach and goes from basic science to the translational.”

“It’s an exciting time for aquaculture in Maine and the nation,” Bouchard says. “I’m looking forward to seeing all the great things that are going to come out of this over the next five years.”

Banner image: The Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology in Baltimore. All photos by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.

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