The Times West Virginian

West Virginia

March 2, 2008

Landlocked fish farm aims to raise salmon

Deep in the coalfields of southern West Virginia, in tanks filled with pure, cold water from under a long-shuttered mine, Atlantic salmon swim.

They start as tiny pink eggs with two black dots for eyes. They surge from fry to fingerling to full-grown in less than a year in a carefully controlled, disease-free environment where antibiotics, hormones and other contaminants are nonexistent. They are trucked out live, ending up on dinner plates up and down the East Coast.

That, at least, is Bill Martin’s vision.

Martin recently bought a West Virginia fish farm that once produced arctic char. After some upgrades, he’ll use it to raise salmon and steelhead trout in low-salinity water hundreds of miles from either species’ natural habitat.

Martin knows how it sounds: Eighty percent of the fresh and frozen salmon consumed in the U.S. comes from net pen farms in coastal waterways around the world, with Chile the single largest supplier.

But near the landlocked town of Man, he has found a recipe for success — a seemingly limitless supply of clean, cold water and a sprawling compound of buildings with fish tanks already in place. All within an easy day’s drive of millions of consumers.

Martin’s company, Blue Ridge Aquaculture Inc., ships 70,000 pounds of live tilapia every week from its farm in Martinsville, Va. It’s growing another saltwater species, cobia, at a farm in Saltville, Va., and hopes to expand into oysters, lobsters and more to feed Americans’ growing demand for heart-healthy seafood.

Inland fish and seafood farms are the future, he says.

“Net pens, they are dinosaurs. They’ve done a tremendous job against insurmountable odds for a long time, but there’s a better way now.”

Environmentalists have long battled net pen salmon farms, complaining that escapees weaken the gene pools of wild fish, spread disease that threaten wild populations and create cesspools of waste in waterways. Some, including the Washington, D.C.-based Pure Salmon Campaign and 1planet1ocean, now advocate land-based, closed-containment systems.

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