Chambers’ Journey to
Michael Chambers grew up on a hobby farm not far from Lake Superior. He spent a lot of time outdoors—fishing, hunting, and building corrals, barns, and chicken coops. He studied biology at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, near the Wisconsin River.
He landed a job in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, where he worked on the barrier islands studying the growth and propagation of sea plants. After that, he headed up to Bar Harbor, Maine, to work at the Ira C. Darling Center, where he studied lobsters with a dive team on a 24-foot houseboat.
A colleague put him in touch with a group of treasure hunters in the Northern Mariana Islands. Chambers went there to dive on Spanish galleons lost at sea with archaeologists searching for artifacts, bringing up porcelain, pottery, rubies, and diamonds. He made a trip to Southeast Asia, catching up with friends he’d made while diving in Saipan.
He traveled to the Florida Keys, working with Mel Fischer, who discovered the Spanish shipwreck the Atocha. He put his biology degree to work as manager of a shrimp hatchery on Summerland Key, Florida. They grew post-larval shrimp, which were sent to Honduras to grow even bigger.
He learned how to keep marine life healthy for transportation to aquariums at his next job in Tavernier Key, Florida. He would motor out to capture a wide variety of sea life—nurse sharks, angel fish, and Florida lobsters.
Chambers stayed in Florida through Hurricane Andrew before heading to Texas A&M where he received his master’s degree in mariculture, the farming of the ocean. There, he developed cage aquaculture on abandoned oil platforms. He lived in Hawaii for five years, working at the Oceanic Institute in Oahu, where he continued working with open ocean aquaculture—cages completely submerged 30 feet below the surface.
“In Hawaii, I did a lot of Extension work, helping fish farmers set up land-based aquaculture systems,” Chambers recalls. They grew “Moi,” once known as the preferred fish of Hawaiian kings.
Growing steelhead trout off the New Hampshire coast may prove fruitful for New Hampshire fishermen
Cutting through the waves of the Piscataqua River by Fort Constitution and Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, a young seagull follows the boat to a point off New Castle beach, watching carefully as it edges closer to a set of cages bobbing lightly in the current.
Beneath the surface, more than 1,200 steelhead trout swim in circles, pink and silvery flashes of skin breaching the water in anticipation of feeding time. Floating away from the cages with the current are brownish-grey sugar kelp and lines of mussels of varying sizes.
As UNH Cooperative Extension Aquaculture Specialist Michael Chambers jumps off the boat, the seagull watches intently as he grabs a bucket of food pellets. Chambers, who has been in New Hampshire since 2000, is working with local fishermen to determine if there are alternative ways they can make a decent living fishing off the New Hampshire coast. Steelhead trout, mussels, and kelp might be good possibilities.
The road to New Hampshire
New Hampshire wasn’t Chambers’ first stop on the road to helping Seacoast fishermen. He grew up in Wisconsin and worked in Mississippi, Maine, the Florida Keys, Ecuador, Hawaii, and the Mariana Islands on a variety of ocean and aquaculture ventures before landing in the Granite State.
He came to manage the UNH Open Ocean Aquaculture Program. He also helped build the oyster aquaculture industry in Great Bay and conducted research at the Jackson Estuarine Laboratory.
When the open ocean aquaculture program ended in 2009, Chambers began to focus more on the plight of New Hampshire fishermen, who were facing diminished fishing days and a declining harvest of traditional fish and shellfish. Working with Hunt Howell, professor of zoology and UNH Coastal Marine Laboratory director, Chambers began investigating the potential for small-scale aquaculture to supplement fishermen’s dwindling incomes.
They decided to raise a few compatible species together—what is known as multi-trophic aquaculture. They settled on steelhead trout, mussels, and sugar kelp—a symbiotic trio; the mussels and kelp filter the excretions of the trout while gaining nutrients, Chambers explains. This bio-filtration helps keep the pens and the surrounding environment clean.
Chambers says it was natural to think of steelhead trout as the “go to” fish. They are relatively easy to raise and, importantly, they can move from freshwater to saltwater and back. This unique trait lets platform managers control sea lice populations in their cages and the surrounding waters. Sea lice bedeviled early aquaculture efforts because of their impact on aquatic ecosystems surrounding aquaculture cages. Since sea lice can’t survive in freshwater, the steelhead’s ability to maneuver in and out of salinity makes it a sustainable choice.
Twice each year at the mouth of the Piscataqua, the team transfers the trout into a two-minute freshwater bath. The parasites die and drop to the bottom of the pool.
Chambers says the relatively short season for raising steelhead—spring to fall—is another boon for fishermen. “They don’t have to wait very long to reap the benefits,” he says.
Raising the fish
Working with Howell and Chambers, New Hampshire lobstermen Vinnie and Billy Marconi and their sons Chris and Will, along with two other fishermen—Erik Anderson and Chesley Severance—first tried raising the steelhead-mussel-kelp trio in the Piscataqua River in 2012. They reinvested the proceeds of the 2012 harvest into this year’s effort.
“When we first started this project, we looked at six sites off the coast,” Chambers says. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the current demonstration/research site with four cages.
The fishermen involved in the project visit the pens each day to feed the fish. They harvested the first batch of 2013 trout in early November. The larger fish weighed about six pounds.
They harvested the kelp earlier this year from late spring to early summer. The Black Trumpet restaurant in Portsmouth used some of the kelp to create a seafood dish, according to Chambers. Kelp can be eaten raw or dried and used as a spice for soups and other dishes. The mussels collected and grown on the trout cage platform were placed into modified lobster pots for relaying offshore for the winter. They will be brought to market next spring.
Seafood consumption is growing. In 2012, U.S. consumers spent $10 billion buying seafood imported from other countries.
“We’re trying to build aquaculture here and throughout the country,” Chambers says. “We try to provide the information people need to decide whether or not they want to try it.”
The steelhead trout already have a market waiting for them. Last year, Seaport Fish in Rye and Sanders in Portsmouth sold the trout for roughly six dollars a pound, a “very fair” price, Chambers says. The fish mongers fillet the trout and sell the product for more than $12 a pound. This year, Taylor’s in Kittery has joined Seaport and Sanders in moving the fish locally. Some local restaurants may also offer the fish on their menus.
Vinnie Marconi wants to see the production grow so future generations can make a better living at sea.
“It’s interesting work, we like it, and it’s fun just to watch the fish grow,” he says. “We’re hoping it will eventually help the boys’ lobster fishing income.”
Photos: The first steelhead trout were harvested earlier this month by the New Hampshire fishermen involved in the project with UNH Cooperative Extension Aquaculture Specialist Michael Chambers.