A number of years ago I learned a very valuable lesson from a wise individual, "When you point the finger of blame towards someone there are three pointing back at the real problem"
When I started to write this particular column I was working on a project with a group that are seriously investigating the shellfish industry. They are developing a business process based on the inefficiencies they see within shellfish husbandry, processing and distribution.
As I was compiling the report I started to realize that many of the challenges that were there when I first started in aquaculture in 1994 are still there have actually amplified into larger issues hindering the success and forward movement of the industry. With the advent of our aquaculture list servers and news services I have noticed more and more finger pointing.
The following comments may not sit well with a number of individuals or groups, however there are others the information will ring very true, unfortunately they comment very quietly and do not speak out as often as they should.
So lets start, keep you head low and listen carefully to see if you can identify whether you are part of the problem or part of the solution.
Problem #1 For years I have heard from growers that they do not have enough tenure or lease area to compete successfully, although there may be some truth to this however it would only be for the top 5-10% of the industry. The truth is that the largest percentage of growers are inefficient, recent reports from both coast pertaining to this are simply astonishing.
Oysters growers that are in the top 5 - 10% of production of Virginica on the eastern side of North America and Gigas on the western side, agree that gross revenues per acre per year using advance husbandry techniques are in the range of $125,000. Keep in mind that this is the production of a high quality product for the under serviced half shell market. Net revenues can be anywhere from $40,000 to $70,000 per year. However results of the majority of farms is an a pitiful $800 to $1800 per acre.
I had to re-read the reports several times to fully understand that yes indeed these figures were accurate. It shows that farm acreage efficiencies are more of a problem then actual amount of acres available per region. Species growout technologies and regions all play in to adjustments of these numbers, but the bottom line is that farm efficiency is more to blame then acreage availability.
While this could be politically motivated, in discussions with many it would seem that there are a lot of growers that are not growing shellfish for profit but more for the lifestyle.
There was a recent news article that stated that the Apalachcola Bay (Florida) oystermen were having problems surviving due to the competition of the US northwest and that the real problem was Japan because that's were the oysters originated from. (Sounds a little like the US auto industry of the 70's) This statement was aimed at the shucked market, which puts oysters into the commodity bracket.
The price of the oysters from the gulf have not changed much over the years because in that part of the world oysters are more of a main steam food item then they are in other parts of North America and are treated as a commodity.
Whereas the Gulf oyster has a wholesale dockside price of 8 -12 cents the oysters from the North West sell from 30 - 45 cents each. Because the North West uses different growing methods the oysters are more consistent in quality and the industry promotes their product as a higher quality with numerous brands and therefore as a more costly product.
Apalacacola Bay oystermen have the same opportunity for product development as the North West or for that matter anywhere, in fact we are working with other Gulf and South Atlantic growers to make the change to get out of the commodity markets and focus on production of a quality, safe, branded, marketable product.
My point is that there are those in the industry who would rather improve the way they do business then criticize other for their lack of success.
To quote J. Burroughs - "A man can fail many times, but he isn't a failure until he begins to blame someone else. "
An example is the US catfish farmers who understood the power of having public opinion on side but had one of the toughest task. When they started the consumer's impression of their product was very negative. They looked beyond their horizon and quickly understood what the objective was and then made an executable plan to achieve it.
Unfortunately there are not enough success stories like this because when you consider the adage that "a smart person learns from their mistakes and a really smart person learns from the mistakes of others" one could study the catfish farmers and discover that in order to achieve what they have done they made a few mistakes along the way. Their model can be adapted to other sectors without the need to make those costly mistakes again.
There was another news article from the mid Atlantic states stating that there was no market for clams, yet I know of a grower in Atlantic Canada that exports all of his product under a branded name and can only service 80% of his clients needs. I am sure that there may be some broker pressure here however there is a reason that the branded product has more market appeal.
Problem #2 Science and academia are still directing and making policy for this industry when commerce should be driving it. There is no doubt that we need the science to better understand now and in the future on how to be more efficient and in tune with the environment however not very often is there much thought given to efficient commercial aspects.
I have witnessed many papers researched and written on shellfish that have so little consequence on the industry that their value is noted by the amount of dust on the many shelves they occupy. Our own reference library is bulging at the seams and I have seen many that are similar in my travels. The amount of duplication by these groups on the same topics and issues really opens your eyes to how much redundancy there is in the system.
Academia would like the industry to believe that they have all the answers. Do we need learning institutions for aquaculture? Absolutely, but let them focus on economics and engineering instead of their self-serving treatises.
The way that these groups consume available money at present is frightening and in a few cases, shocking. If you want to question my statements on this look no further then all the aquaculture related conferences that are being held around the world and check the number of actual growers that attend or watch the next time aquaculture funding awards are released and who receives the most money.
Problem #3 Government agencies have become so layered that the objective becomes lost in an attempt to find new directives so that they can justify budget increases, there are two issues that deserve comment here. 1/ there are some great individuals that are fresh to the game that sincerely are committed to what they are doing and approach it with the common sense that it deserves. 2/ Political motivation or lack of, sets the tempo for bureaucrats.
The definition of government as explained to me by a senior bureaucrat is to administer the money collected by taxes to the masses in a sensible logical manner that will benefit all. This is a topic upon which many have their opinion on but we will save this issue for a later date.
Politicians depending on the country or regional system of government, support aquaculture with a wary eye because as much as you try and weigh the pro's and con's they have a greater chance of having their political future jeopardized by well funded NGO's, environmental activist, junk science believers, the press etc. then the seemingly few benefits of supporting aquaculture.
I could go on and on as there are many other groups and or issues that finger point including distribution, press, upland owners, fishermen etc, etc.
It is interesting that the group I am working with at present understands the issues and the history of food production and are looking to associate themselves with lease holders and participants that want to improve and would like a partner to help them succeed in the global market. There efforts may just be the beginning of organized change.
The reality of things is that it is going to take effort and recognition that if you work together and are committed to the outcome change can take place. This industry will continue to grow, how you and the people of your region or country approach it will make the difference, remember the three fingers pointing back.
You can be part of history either way!
I have opened myself to a lot of feedback both positive and negative in this column that I hope you the readers respond to, so drop me a line and let me hear your thought from your position.