SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — Sunday morning began like a trip to another world, as dozens of scientific representatives geared up safely in blue and white space uniforms to tour the Freshwater Institute to see the facility’s progress on food production sustainability.
Visitors ranged from scientists to fish farmers and international supply representatives who came as part of the 10th annual International Conference on Reticulating from Roanoke, Virginia.
While visitors came from many parts of the world to tour the institute, the blue and white moon suits did their part to unify everyone.
The Freshwater Institute, located in Shepherdstown, was built in 1988 as a way to study aquaculture research for food sustainability, according to Joseph Hankins, director and vice president of the FWI.
Currently, the FWI rears Atlantic salmon as a part of its food sustainability program and has been growing salmon for four years, Hankins said.
As visitors finished suiting up in an effort to prevent transferring diseases to the fish, Hankins expressed satisfaction to the number of visitors who showed up to the event.
“It’s always amazing to see the response we get. They are just passionate about growing fish,” Hankins said. “We’re not well known in the community, but we’re well known internationally.”
Hankins said the research for the food sustainability program is part of the investment effort by the FWI to keep seafood consumption in the United States.
In order to begin addressing consumption needs, the FWI has worked on narrowing down ways to increase and consistently produce the salmon, Hankins said.
As opposed to net pens, which expose the fish to disease, environmental factors and unusual changes in temperature, the salmon are kept indoors with controlled temperatures, under a consistent environment and monitored for diseases, Hankins said.
In addition, the FWI has cut a year away from the time it takes net pens to rear the Atlantic salmon from egg to full market size, Hankins said.
“This is the future of fish,” he said.
However, while the salmon are kept in the same tank all of their lives, Steven Summerfelt, professional engineer and director of aquaculture systems research, explained that since the fish are a schooling animal, they are fine being close together all the time.
The salmon tank holds 20,000 pounds of fish.
During the tour around the tank, every few seconds a splash would come from the pool, as fish popped in and out of the water.
“If we didn’t have nets, most of our salmon would actually be dead from all of them flying out. They are still quite wild,” Summerfelt said.
The salmon reared inside the FWI are raised from egg to market size and then either sent to a local market, donated or used for further research, Hankins said.
A market-size Atlantic salmon weighs around 14 pounds, according to Summerfelt.
Last year, the FWI produced 40 tons of Atlantic salmon, or 80,000 pounds, according to Hankins. FWI donated 7,000 pounds to DC Central Kitchen, an organization in Washington, D.C., that provides meal distribution and culinary job training.
As the FWI has been open for nearly 26 years, Hankins said safety procedures have paid off. FWI has never had to shut down due to any diseases or issues with the salmon and “has a consistent record of not having any problems,” according to Hankins.
While the food sustainability is one of the major programs at the institute, another aquaculture program at FWI is freshwater filtration and water recycling.
Karen Schroyer, environmental laboratory manager at FWI, said the facility does water quality testing for West Virginia pollution on a weekly basis.
Schroyer said the Environmental Protection Agency created standards to test the water once a month in 2003, but in 2013 the standards were changed to once a week.
However, Schroyer described the water at FWI as very clean.
“We have a lot of biofiltrations, so as you’ll see the water going out is almost as clean as the water coming in,” Schroyer said.