Face Of This Place

Norman McCowan, President Of Bell Aquaculture In Indiana

As the world’s population continues to grow, so does our appetite for seafood as a healthy food source. At the rate we’re going, the rapidly depleting stocks of wild fish will not be able to sustain our ever-increasing demand for much longer. As a result, aquaculture, or fish farming, is bridging the supply gap.  

The Fund’s Freshwater Institute is helping to revolutionize the seafood industry. We are a leader in finding sustainable solutions for managing our water resources, especially in the engineering of cleaner and more efficient aquaculture systems on land. Over the past two decades, we’ve developed closed-containment harvesting techniques that produce high-quality fish for food without vaccines, harsh chemicals or antibiotics. This technology will help the seafood industry compete with supply and demand, and we’re helping innovative commercial companies, like Bell Aquaculture in Indiana—the nation’s largest producer of yellow perch—improve the sustainability of their fish farming operations.  

Norman McCowan, the President and COO of Bell Aquaculture, talks about his company’s partnership with the Freshwater Institute. 

yellow-perch-istockphoto-300x200lYellow perch, the fish farmed at Bell Aquaculture. After the fish are harvested, they’re held in cold water, then filleted and frozen within 48 hours to hold the freshness. Because of the natural low fat content, yellow perch doesn’t lose any flavor during the freezing process. Bell Aquaculture is based in Indiana; that’s not the first state that comes to mind as a source of fish. How is Bell able to be the nation’s largest producer of yellow perch?
The company started in 2005 with a vision to bring the local and personal favorite, yellow perch, back to the area. The yellow perch are grown indoors using Recirculating Aquaculture System (RAS) technology. We nurture our fish from egg to full-grown in closed-containment systems right at the farm, so there’s no danger of outside contamination. Farming this way can increase production five to more than a hundredfold because the fish are able to mature more quickly. The closed-containment system allows us the ability to grow fish anywhere, so production can be located close to the market. In 2009, we built our headquarters and processing facility in Redkey, Indiana, which is where we are today, and our production facility sits on family-owned land just 6 miles south of our headquarters. 

For someone who’s never heard of closed-containment systems, can you explain why this form of fish farming, the kind Bell is now using, is so important?
Land-based closed-containment systems are the most sustainable way to raise fish and have a very low impact on the environment. Closed-containment minimizes the need for large volumes of water and captures all of the solid waste. Our fish live in water that is purified on-site to almost the same standards as a municipal water supply. Also, we’re able to separate farm fish and wild fish, which prevents the spread of disease and a controlled environment excludes pathogens and chemicals and reduces the need for antibiotic or pesticide treatments. Not only is our business a sustainable way to feed people, we are responsible with every aspect of our operations. 

How did you first hear about The Conservation Fund’s Freshwater Institute?
I first learned of the work of Steve Summerfelt and Brian Vinci at the Freshwater Institute by reading the 2nd edition of “Recirculating Aquaculture Systems,” a book they coauthored. I then met Steve when I attended a regional aquaculture workshop in Bayfield, Wisconsin. Steve was presenting on innovations in the technologies to farm fish in closed-containment systems on land. I was thrilled to meet him.

Has the Freshwater Institute played an important role in the success of your company?
It’s played a great role in our success. Before meeting with the Freshwater Institute, we were using technology that had inferior water quality and high energy costs.  The Freshwater Institute has given us superior water quality in which we can raise our fish and they’ve helped us to implement technologies that have contributed greatly to reaching our return on investment goals. Our fish are able to reach market size four months faster than before; we’ve also been able to reduce our electric consumption by threefold and reduce our water consumption by twentyfold.  It’s been remarkable.

You run one of the most successful aquaculture companies in the nation, how did you get interested in aquaculture?
In the mid-80’s, I raised bait fish. This was my hobby and passion; I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was aquaculture. Learning the water chemistry and fish husbandry in an effort to keep bait fish alive so that I could trout line Indiana’s Wabash River was my first step into aquaculture.  At this point I was working in the automotive industry where I really learned about efficiency. I was approached for some consulting work for Bell Aquaculture because I knew about fish husbandry and eventually was hired on full time. My drive to push efficiency into the business and my passion to expand aquaculture is ultimately what led me to be named as president and COO in 2010. 

Visit the Freshwater Institute to learn more about their aquaculture research and technology being developed at its facility in West Virginia. 

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