Face Of This Place

Dr. Steve Summerfelt, Freshwater Institute

Dr. Steven T. Summerfelt is Director of Aquaculture Systems Research for The Conservation Fund’s Freshwater Institute in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Founded in 1982, the Freshwater Institute is an internationally recognized program that has been one of the nation’s premier research and development facilities dedicated to sustainable water use and reuse.

You earned your first (of three) degrees in Chemical Engineering; did you expect a career in aquaculture? 
No, I first earned degrees in Chemical Engineering but I really enjoyed working in systems that would help us with our natural resources. I went to do my PhD in Environmental Engineering and that’s when I discovered the study of fish farming. I thought, “Wow, how could anything be cooler than that!”  Working in aquaculture allows me to apply very fundamental engineering solutions that can make a huge difference. 

What does agriculture and aquaculture have to do with our water resources?
In our country, agriculture is the second largest user of freshwater behind hydroelectric plants and it’s the number one polluter of water. As the demand for protein in our diets continues to grow, we need to recognize that while having a strong agriculture industry is great for our economy it comes with a cost to our environment and natural resources. In the U.S., there are few water resources that aren’t already heavily exploited or regulated and we need to protect our remaining natural watersheds.

What is one thing you wish more consumers knew about fish production?
In the U.S., 93% of the fish that we eat is imported from countries that don’t have rigorous enforcement of environmental regulations and they are using chemicals that can’t be used here. Also, we have a $10 billion trade deficit just in seafood. To put that in perspective, we produce 37 million tons of terrestrial animals—hogs, poultry, and cattle—and have record agriculture surpluses in grains, soy and terrestrial animals of about $136 billion annually. So you may wonder why we have this huge difference where we are the best farmers on land but we can’t farm on the water?  

Can you describe how the Freshwater Institute is changing the practice of fish production?
The technology we’ve developed allows us to create a farm that doesn’t tie into a water source. The systems we’re developing at Freshwater prevent (fish) disease, minimize water use, practically eliminate water pollution and allow us to reclaim nutrients that otherwise would be wasted. We can reclaim those nutrients and in a controlled environment use aquaponics to produce lettuce, basil, tomatoes, cucumbers and a wide range of produce. We are creating a large, integrated, system that makes waste products of one process become inputs of the next process and we do it all while increasing the profitability for the farm. 

We also have excellent feed conversions, the best in the industry—one ton of fish is produced for every ton of feed supplied. That ratio is better than any other protein source, hogs and poultry are next best but they are 2-3 tons of feed per ton of animal protein with cattle at the highest 8 tons of feed to produce 1 ton of animal. 

How is Freshwater involved in the seafood industry?
We are no longer just a research facility, now we are working closely with industry and public agencies to make sure the best results are transferred and creating real results on the ground. We have taken an active role to change the way fish are raised while increasing farm fish production in sustainable systems. As a recognized leader in our field, we have representatives from many of the biggest companies from around the world coming to West Virginia to hear about what we’re doing. We’re finding that if we can provide technology that will make farmers more profitable while being sustainable, they will do it.  

What is your hope for the future?
I think the U.S.can shift a large amount of our production of fish to closed-containment systems and we would have excellent quality of fish for consumers to eat.  For example, Americans consume almost 300,000 tons of salmon each year; it would be fabulous to meet that need with land-based, closed-containment systems. It won’t happen overnight but I think it could happen in two decades. At the Freshwater Institute we are at a tipping point: the technology is truly excellent and the more we are sharing the technology with the industry, the more they are seeing that it works. I think in the next five to ten years we will see a tremendous expansion, instead of one to two new fish farms a year, a conversion of ten to twenty a year.  I’m hoping by the end of my career we will see the ability to meet the U.S. demand for high quality fish with land-based closed-containment systems.

Learn More

Freshwater Institute’s Closed-Containment Aquaculture Systems