Innovative fish farm research underway off White Island

UNH raising finfish and shellfish as demonstration project for future industry

Jack Driscoll

Shaped like a "flying saucer", it's home for 50,000 cod off Rye coast.

What's wrong with this picture:  A fishing boat loaded with about 5000 cod is seen leaving Rye Harbor and heading out to sea.

Welcome to the world of aquaculture.  It probably will be a picture we'll be getting used to in the years ahead.

The University of New Hampshire is doing "live" research off of Rye, growing finfish and shellfish in ocean waters, hoping to stimulate an economically and environmentally viable industry in the near future.

The US already has to play catch-up, according to Dr. Richard Langan, director of UNH's Open Ocean Aquaculture Project, who testified before a Senate Subcommittee in Washington in April.  He presented harsh facts:

(For more detail on his testimony, go to:


A roughly 8-inch wide orange vacuum hose snakes aimlessly across the commercial pier at Rye Harbor.  A flatbed truck carrying two white wooden containers pulls up, and suddenly a half dozen men, led by project manager Mike Chambers, spring into action.  They attach one end of the hose to a container on the truck and the other end to the top of a similar container aboard a fishing vessel tied up at the pier.  

Old-fashioned gravity feed whooshes some 5000 juvenile Atlantic cod—about 5 to 6 inches in length—into the UNH boat in a matter of minutes.

Mike Chambers facilitates flow of cod into container on UNH boat.


Over a two-day period this process was re-enacted until 50,000 cod had been off-loaded, having come from Great Bay nursery pens in Newington.

The UNH research vessel—that looks a lot like most other fishing boats in the harbor—transported the cod to a point about six miles out and a mile south of White Island, the southernmost end of the Isles of Shoals, where UNH has two fish cages moored on a grid (designed for four cages) some 60 to 180 feet below the surface, according to Dolores Leonard, director of public relations.

(The recently acquired UNH boat at right is named the Meriel B., in honor of Meriel Bunker, the OOA's business services representative who handles all the accounting.  One of the students involved in the cod loading at Rye Harbor described her as "upbeat, always positive, helpful to everyone, always cheerful…"  So they named a boat after her.)

The cod cage is 80 feet wide and 50 feet high (Chambers:  "They look like flying saucers."), plenty of room to spread their fins, so to speak.  Life is good.  They are fed like clockwork three times a day, thanks to the engineering of an automated system. Until they grow up, they are kept in a nursery cage inside the big cage, with a zipper on the side that will be opened when they graduate to what Chambers calls "pre-school"; that is, they have to be big enough not to slip through the outer-cage mesh.

Cod are "quite smart," according to Chambers, so that even though the solar-powered feeder is "very quiet",  they actually learn the times of day when the feeder begins its distribution.  They also appear to have an acute sense of smell.

Cameras keep an eye on them, their surroundings and even the surface.  And they are serviced by a variety of research mechanisms that check everything from chlorophyll levels to water temperature to the effects of rough seas. Maybe a year or so from now some of the cod will go to market.  Chambers hopes that for the first time some will be live, while those that don't survive the harvest will be iced, in the usual manner.

The project, underway since 1997, has also raised and studied summer flounder, Atlantic halibut, haddock and mussels.  In fact, the UNH demonstration project two years ago produced "the first halibut ever grown offshore in deep water cages," according to NOAA Magazine.

"We have designed the offshore mussel culture technology with local/regional fishermen in mind and concentrated our efforts on transferring technology to them and providing technical assistance for startup operations," Langan said in response to a question about the future of fishermen from New Hampshire and Maine.

Some of the blue mussels are harvested next to the cod cage and others are off Seabrook.  They can be raised as close as 2 ½ miles from shore, Chambers said.

Langan, who has been a commercial fisherman, an oyster farmer and a seafood business owner, is sensitive to the immediate needs of local fishermen, stating, "We are also looking for ways that fishermen can get involved in small scale, part-time cod culture and will be experimenting with small cage design that can be operated from most of the local fishing boats.

"That does not mean there won't be companies that will pursue this as well, but…there's a lot of ocean out there and plenty of room for everyone."

The issue was dramatized this spring when New England commercial fishermen were further restricted (by 8 percent) in the number of days at sea and became subject to stricter catch limits by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Interestingly, cod and yellowtail flounder are the species whose stocks the agency says have become depleted in N.E. waters.


Aquaculture was first practiced in China in about 2500 B.C., according to Wikipedia,com.  But that was strictly in fresh water.  Now, 4500 years later, China produces 70 percent of the world's aquaculture supply as compared to 1 to 2 percent of the global total in the US, according to the Washington Post.

As a followup to the enactment of the Open Ocean Aquaculture Act of 2005, Dr. Langan called on the US Senate panel in April to authorize "an independent, scientifically verified"  research and development program to guide what he calls "this fledgling industry".

"It is clear the world will not wait for us in this matter," Langan said.

Feed buoy looks like giant jacuzzi with electronic panels.

Photos at sea reprinted with permission from UNH's Open Ocean Aquaculture program; see

Photos at Rye Harbor commercial pier by Jack Driscoll.

June, 2006