April 19, 2011

Around this time of year, seafood enthusiasts and restaurants rejoice. In observance of Lent, Catholics refrain from eating meat on Fridays. In Louisiana, where shrimp, catfish, crawfish, oysters and crabs reign supreme, this means seafood galore.

While seafood’s spellbinding ways keep palates happy and stomachs full during the Lenten season, the industry, as a whole, continues to suffer. Seafood is the nation’s second-highest trade deficit, next to the petroleum industry.  It all comes down to cost. The United States currently imports more than 80 percent of its seafood, leaving an annual seafood trade deficit of more than $9 billion.     

“It’s cheaper to import seafood from Southeast Asia than it is to grow locally because of the United States’ high labor and electricity costs, as well as its environmental discharge standards,” said Kelly Rusch, LSU College of Engineering’s associate dean of research and diversity.

Rusch’s latest research project, an automated continuous rotifer culture system, represents one innovative step in reclaiming the nation’s seafood industry. The system generates a constant supply of rotifers, or fish food, in a continuous, automatic fashion. This increases the availability of rotifers and decreases the labor costs typically associated with aquaculture production of this nature. In other words, the cost of producing fish food drastically declines and, in turn, the cost of fish does as well.

Aquaculture production is the general term for the production or cultivation of aquatic organisms under controlled conditions. This rapidly growing industry provides the only alternative to harvesting or commercial fishing. Because of population surges and increased demand for seafood, Rusch said that fishermen are overharvesting the nation’s water supplies. When the natural life cycles of seafood, such as fish, crabs, mussels and lobster, are so heavily exploited, the population of commercial seafood declines.

Although aquaculture production is a rapidly growing industry, it currently supplies a very limited amount of fish due to its expensive production costs. In 2008, the Fisheries and Aquaculture Department reported that the total number of fisheries produced in the United States was about 5 million tons, 10 percent of which was due to aquaculture production.

“The aquaculture production industry works on a very small profit margin, so we’re always looking for the development of new technologies that will bring down production costs,” said Rusch.

Her rotifer system does just that. It generates a continuous supply of rotifers for fish larvae to eat during a crucial three-week growth period. In a tank of 100,000 fish larvae, trillions of rotifers are needed to feed the fish over this period of time. Rusch’s system, which applies to marine aquatic organisms, requires virtually no human supervision. Computer software controls everything, from the temperature of the controlled environment to the harvest frequency.

Rusch’s rotifer system, a research project that began in an LSU College of Engineering lab almost 10 years ago, is now in the commercial and marketing phases of production. The system is licensed to Aquaculture Systems Technologies, a New Orleans-based company specializing in aquaculture technology development, fabrication and marketing. After receiving funding from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation and Research grant division, the company received a provisional patent for the system.

“Now, we’re working on advances in some of the process control technology that will allow us to apply for a full patent at the end of the year,” said Rusch. “Aquaculture Systems Technology is trying to turn this into something that’s actually sellable.”

In addition to boosting the nation’s seafood industry, this system has the potential to positively impact Louisiana’s economy. Small businesses are the major source of Louisiana’s revenue. As a small business, Aquaculture Systems Technology is in a position to use this new technology to its advantage.

“This system is providing an opportunity for a small business to be very successful, which is crucial to the economy of Louisiana and its diversification,” said Rusch.

In October 2010, the LSU College of Engineering developed a strategic plan, outlining its research and innovation goals. Blending fundamental research and technological innovation, it strives to address the problems that are of specific importance to the economy and health of the state and/or have national and global impact.

The College utilizes existing expertise in the College of Engineering, such as Rusch’s, to address the following two strategic, broad, interdisciplinary thrust areas, which will have significant impact in the state and beyond.

To learn more about the College’s five-year strategic plan, visit eng.lsu.edu.


Article by Aariel Charbonnet, College of Engineering Public Relations Graduate Assistant

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