Twenty-five years ago, Richard Langan fished for cod off the Gulf of Maine.
But the cod fishery collapsed. Langan is now on the vanguard of an effort to establish offshore aquaculture in U.S. waters.
"There's a lot of real estate out in the ocean," he told Alaska state employees and a handful of Juneau residents Wednesday afternoon at Centennial Hall.
Langan, director of New Hampshire's Cooperative Institute for New England Mariculture and Fisheries, described his research group's successful foray into offshore shellfish farming and attempts with finfish aquaculture.
Because most of the U.S. coastline is developed and its occupants are unlikely to support fish farms, "the expansion (of aquaculture) in the United States will likely take place offshore," Langan said.
"It's a better environment for the fish," said Langan.
In the past five years of his group's research in the Gulf of Maine, no fish reared in their large underwater cages have escaped or contracted diseases, he said.
But Langan said he has not been able to evaluate the economics of farming Atlantic cod, halibut and other fish species in offshore cages.
"It's a lot harder to do. I think it's just a learning curve," he said.
His group's projects with mussels have yielded tidy profits and two new commercial enterprises have sprouted in the Gulf of Maine this year.
The mussels are grown on ropes suspended from submerged, anchored long lines. The ropes can handle 12,000 to 14,000 pounds of mussels per line and the product sells for $1.25 per pound, Langan said.
Shellfish aquaculture is legal in Alaska's state waters and is promoted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Nonprofit finfish hatcheries that release native salmon to commercial and sport fishermen are also legal.
A federal official said at Wednesday's meeting that his agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) wants to know if Alaskans want to do more with aquaculture - either offshore or in protected, inland waters.
"Maybe there are some species that don't compete with your wild species," said Michael Rubino, NOAA's aquaculture coordinator. "Does Alaska want to reconsider finfish aquaculture?" he asked.
Rubino said Alaska's offshore waters may be inhospitable for fish farms.
"What about other areas?" he said.
Langan said that it wouldn't be impossible to build offshore farms in federal waters off Alaska's coast, "but there's a lot of water that's protected (such as bays) that would be more attractive."
So far, the answer from the state and its fishermen has been a resounding "no" to the latter question.
Dale Kelley, executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association, said her organization adamantly opposes fish farms.
"Setting aside the environmental issues, what kind of benefit does it provide to our state?" she said. "What benefit does it provide to our coastal communities?"
She said that the aquaculture industry is dominated by international firms, which are rapidly consolidating into fewer and bigger ventures.
"If the United States wanted to be the heavy hitter, we'd be there already," Kelley said.
Rubino and Langan noted a paucity of funding for aquaculture development in the United States - a total of $4 million for research and staffing.
Langan said it is unlikely that financing would come together for large offshore aquaculture ventures in the Northeast. The opportunities are better for small, niche-oriented and medium-sized farms, he said.