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August 01, 2006

Extension helps abalone farmer set up shop in North Carolina

Tom Losordo and Robert Bishop review blueprints
Extension specialist Tom Losordo (left) and New Zealand abalone producer Robert Bishop are mapping out plans to add a new element to the North Carolina aquaculture industry. (Photos by Becky Kirkland)

Why on earth would a farmer from New Zealand uproot his family, rearrange his business plan and move to North Carolina to set up shop?

One word: “Support.”

So says Robert Bishop, a New Zealand abalone producer aiming to join the state’s burgeoning aquaculture industry. “We just don’t get the support back home that we’ve gotten here, especially from N.C. State. It’s a positive attitude. The people here want to get out and make things happen.”

After nearly three years of planning, Bishop arrived in North Carolina in May, ready to build his farm and start raising abalone, an exotic and popular shellfish used in Asian delicacies such as sushi and sashimi. Helping him is Dr. Tom Losordo, Extension specialist and professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences department of biological and agricultural engineering.

While the two have corresponded by phone since 2003, they first met at a 2004 World Aquaculture Society conference in Sydney, Australia. Losordo, past president of the organization, led a workshop at the conference that Bishop attended.

A regular part of Losordo’s presentation to international audiences is a tongue-in-cheek invitation to come to North Carolina and take advantages of the services offered by the College and North Carolina Cooperative Extension.

“I guess Robert took me up on my offer,” Losordo jokes. As an added bonus, he says, starting an aquaculture business in North Carolina is a much less expensive and time-consuming venture than in most other areas of the world. Instead of taking months and costing thousands of dollars, the licensing process in North Carolina takes about 30 days and is free.

Losordo has connected Bishop to the resources of Cooperative Extension, as well as to College researchers and representatives from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA). He’s also helped introduce Bishop to the broader community of aquaculture producers in North Carolina, largely through the relationships built by Extension agents across the state.

“Together, we’re bringing different ideas from our experience to figure out what will work best for Robert,” says Losordo. “The aquaculture network in North Carolina really comes together through the strong relationship between the College and NCDA. We work as a team, and we help each other out.”

Losordo and Bishop at N.C. State Fish Barn
Losordo and Bishop walk past the tanks at the N.C. State University Fish Barn.

Losordo and colleagues Dennis DeLong, Extension aquaculture specialist, and Matt Parker, aquaculture business specialist with NCDA, have helped Bishop with everything from securing the proper permits to locating a saltwater well. They’re helping tweak the design of his system, and they also are working to develop and implement a wastewater treatment process that will allow Bishop to completely recycle most of the water he uses.

With 16 years of experience raising abalone, Bishop will be the first such producer in North Carolina. The shellfish typically are grown in California and Hawaii. He plans to produce nearly 25,000 pounds of abalone each year and ship them live to major markets such as New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., where abalone are in high demand by restaurants.

“We’re farming fish for a food market,” Bishop says. “By exporting regularly to cities like New York, where there are 500 sushi bars in the city alone, we’ll be able to bring income back to North Carolina.”

His entrepreneurial spirit is contagious and his vision ambitious. Bishop plans to truck the live fish to major metropolitan markets every Thursday, where restaurant patrons will consume them over the weekend. He’ll repeat this process each week, enabling restaurants to offer the delicacy fresh on their menus on a regular basis.

To get started, Bishop will acquire the baby shellfish from a hatchery in the U.S. They’ll grow to maturity in about 18 months, until they reach “cocktail size” of three inches. He’d eventually like to develop his own hatchery and hire three full-time staff, but will focus first on getting his business off the ground.

Currently scouting property in North Carolina’s Piedmont, Bishop plans to build his farm on 10 acres. Using metal-clad fish barns, he’ll operate a completely closed seawater system, which is essentially a series of trays with recirculating water flow.

He’ll join a $54 million aquaculture industry that is growing steadily each year in North Carolina. The state supports more than 2,000 acres of catfish ponds, 760 acres of striped bass ponds and is the third leading producer of trout.

“In each of these ventures, N.C. State has its hands,” Losordo says.

“We’re trying to build the industry one farmer at a time,” he adds. “Robert has been great to work with, and we’re learning a lot from him. It’s a win-win situation.”

–S. Stanard

Posted by Suzanne at August 1, 2006 04:55 PM