MSU awarded $1 million NOAA grant to shore up U.S. aquaculture industry

Contact: Vanessa Beeson

Portrait of Ganesh Karunakaran
Ganesh Karunakaran (Photo by Kenner Patton)

STARKVILLE, Miss—Mississippi State University scientists are receiving a three-year, $1 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sea Grant College Program to establish national economic metrics for the U.S. aquaculture industry.

The project’s lead investigator Ganesh Karunakaran, a Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station assistant research professor, is guiding a team of nearly a dozen university researchers from eight institutions. The research will analyze the economic viability, impact and management measures of the U.S. aquaculture industry to help producers and stakeholders now and in the future. The grant, administered through the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, is one of 12 awarded across the country and part of a $4.7 million investment aimed to strengthen the economics of U.S. aquaculture.

“Our overall objective is to provide basic and comprehensive information about various sectors in U.S. aquaculture. Aquaculture is different from other agricultural industries such as beef cattle or row crops because it encompasses so many species. Production budgets are available for most commodities with the exception of aquaculture, and we’re hoping to change that,” said Karunakaran, who is based at MSU’s Delta Research and Extension Center.

The team will develop comprehensive economic and business planning models for major U.S. aquaculture sectors including catfish; mollusks, such as oysters, mussels and clams; salmonids (salmon and trout); crustaceans; centrarchids including bass; recreational and ornamental fish, and other major offshore and inland aquaculture industries. They also will estimate the economic impact of U.S. aquaculture both before and after the economic effect of COVID-19. Researchers plan to create a farm-level price database for producers and researchers alike.

While Americans consume a fair amount of seafood—about 16 pounds per person per year—much of that comes from waters beyond the U.S. The U.S. imports over 90 percent of its seafood, resulting in a $16.8 billion trade deficit. Karunakaran hopes the project deliverables will eventually help decrease this deficit.

“Aquaculture entrepreneurs require better information about production, marketing and financial risk. Until we act upon and create a basic network of economic information, it will be tough for U.S. aquaculture to compete with other countries,” Karunakaran said. “As aquaculture economists, our team’s goal is to prioritize information that will be useful to domestic producers and contribute to the overall welfare of the U.S. aquaculture industry.”

Project deliverables include creating a network of economists and extension specialists that can provide updated web-based production and market-related economic information for major aquaculture sectors. Karunakaran, who holds an academic appointment in MSU’s Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture in the College of Forest Resources, said the project also will focus on training the aquaculture economists of tomorrow.

“Education and training of next-generation aquaculture economists and marketing specialists, provision of economic analysis training and opportunities for experiential learning are key components of this grant,” he said. “We want to create training for the next generation of this growing profession within the broader field of economics, with an emphasis on increasing diversity and cultivating specialists.” 

Wes Burger, MAFES associate director and interim dean of the College of Forest Resources, said the research is vital to help U.S. aquaculture producers gain an increasing share of the domestic market.

“This project supports the sustainable development of U.S. marine and Great Lakes aquaculture industries through the provision of contemporary and accurate economic, financial and market-level information and by addressing critical gaps in aquaculture economics, knowledge base and training,” Burger said. “It will provide a baseline for aquaculture producers throughout the U.S. to better assess profit expectation and risk when engaging in an aquaculture enterprise.”

 MSU collaborators include Suja Aarattuthodi, assistant research professor and MAFES scientist at the Delta Research and Extension Center, and Benedict Posadas, associate research and extension professor and MAFES scientist at the Coastal Research and Extension Center. Collaborators across other universities include faculty from Auburn, Purdue, Texas State and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State universities, and the universities of Alaska, Florida and Maryland. In addition to this grant, Karunakaran is a collaborator on a $250,000 NOAA grant, administered through the Florida Sea Grant and awarded to the University of Florida, to study the economics of risk in U.S. aquaculture production and markets.

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