Welcome to AquaCulture Shock, my blog for the coming year as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow. For the next 12 months I’ll be visiting countries with well developed and/or rapidly growing aquaculture industries to learn more about the diverse infrastructures and various human perspectives that have contributed to the success of aquaculture on a global scale. (Perhaps my incredibly funny and ingenious pun-based title makes more sense now?)
I’m a few days away from leaving for my first destination: Thailand. I’m ecstatic, nervous, curious, a bit daunted, and still figuring out how to pack everything (I think) I need. As I prepare to leave on this great adventure, I thought I’d dedicate my first post to a description of my fellowship project. Think of this as an extended “about” section.
What’s a Watson Fellowship?
I’ve been awarded an incredible fellowship to travel around the world for the coming year and pursue an independent research project entirely of my own design. I decide where I go, who I talk to, when I want to change course, and everything in between. There are only three major requirement for the fellowship. First, the project must be done outside the U.S. The next time I’m back in America will be July 2017. Second, I cannot visit any country where I have spent significant time (+3 weeks), so Spain is (regrettably) not an option. Third, I cannot visit any country with a US state Department travel warning or a CDC level 3 classification.
Perhaps the most exciting part of the fellowship is that I am not required to deliver an official final report or paper to the Watson Foundation. Although I do not have a specific end-product in mind, I’ll be taking copious notes and using my camera whenever I can and I get to choose how I’ll process all the information I collect.
As an American and avid seafood consumer, my exposure to aquaculture in the United States has been rather limited. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) estimates that aquaculture constituted just under 10% of American seafood production by weight in 2013. Much of American aquaculture is regionally and species-specific. Catfish from the American South constitute about half of American produced aquaculture. Other key commercial species such as shrimp, salmon, and tuna are still overwhelmingly caught at sea or imported from other countries.
On a global scale, aquaculture plays a much more prominent role. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN report that aquaculture now produces half of all fish consumed by humans. The United States imports 91% of the seafood it consumes, connecting us to aquaculture through seafood imports from foreign countries with large aquaculture industries. Despite America’s relatively small domestic aquaculture industry, aquaculture in other countries is still highly influential in determining what seafood arrives on our plates.
When we also consider America’s history of overfishing and the dramatic collapse of once prolific American fisheries, ocean ecosystems, and the communities that relied upon them to make a living, aquaculture seems like a promising alternative to continual fisheries collapse.
Aquaculture, nicknamed the “blue revolution”, has the potential to create environmentally and socially stable food systems that can help alleviate pressures on wild fish populations. Naturally, there are some caveats. Although aquaculture has tremendous potential, there are instances where fish farming actively contributes to environmental degradation and reinforces social and economic inequality. It depends to a great degree on the fish and shellfish species that are farmed, the local context and infrastructure where aquaculture is practiced, and the resources available to farmers as demand for seafood continues to grow.
Given my limited exposure to aquaculture as an American but my entanglement in aquaculture as a seafood consumer, the threat of overfishing and total fishery collapse, and the diverse ways that aquaculture can be practiced in local context, I am motivated to try and make sense of the many moving parts that go into creating a successful aquaculture industry.
How will I carry out my project?
Aquaculture is an umbrella term for an array of fish/shellfish farming practices in various local contexts rather than a description of a singular, monolithic industry. I expect that the meaning of “local context” will be defined and redefined throughout the year through the shifting significance of multiple factors. Based on preliminary conversations and readings, I know that adjacent fish farms in the same country, and even the same region, can produce significantly different experiences and narratives. These differences can emerge due to variance in species, size of the farm, local topography, and hydrology. Similarly, farms in disparate regions or countries may share similar experiences because they harvest the same types of fish/shellfish or are navigating similar governmental infrastructures. I will be documenting these experiences throughout the year in an attempt to capture narratives of aquaculture at the boundaries between farms, regions, and countries.
My main approach will be participant-observation. I will be an active participant in aquaculture activities, including farming, research conferences, informal interviews, or through volunteer work. I will observe daily rhythms of farming, regional zoning and planning, and environmental inspection. My specific day-to-day activities are not set in-stone; as a participant-observer I will remain open to the various opportunities that may arise while I’m abroad.
Where will I be? And When?
I’m allowed a great deal of flexibility in my travel dates and destinations, but as of now here is my general plan:
July – November………………Southeast Asia (Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia)
December – February………..New Zealand
February – May………………..Norway
May – July………………………Scotland
If you have country suggestions and contacts, I’d be very grateful to hear them and to try and work them into my itinerary.