Our Heroes: Marianne Cufone, Executive Director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition


Marianne Cufone, Executive Director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition.

There’s a tidal wave of activity happening this week in aquaculture and Marianne Cufone, Executive Director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition, is out in front of the wave. Recirculating farms can sustainably grow fish, vegetables, flowers, fruits, herbs and more, in a mostly self-contained, closed system. Considering the issues that plague our industrial food systems, a stable, safe and flexible means of food production is just what our country needs.

The Recirculating Farms Coalition is a collaborative group of farmers, educators, non-profit organizations and many others committed to building local sources of healthy, accessible food. Through research, education and advocacy, the coalition works together to support the development of energy efficient farms that use clean, recycled water to grow food. The farms can create stable, green jobs in diverse communities nationwide, and someday, worldwide.

Marianne chose to establish the Recirculating Farms Coalition in New Orleans, Louisiana. She recently moved from Brooklyn to New Orleans to launch the coalition and will soon create a model aquaculture farm to demonstrate how easily and effectively recirculating aquaculture can be accomplished.

Before Marianne left for New Orleans, we spoke about aquaculture, hurricanes (spoiler: she lost her home, car and boat to one) and her life. Here’s an excerpt from the interview. Click on the audio player at left to hear the entire interview or download a PDF version of the transcript.

You advocate recirculating aquaculture systems as opposed to open ocean systems. Why is that?

There have been a number of concerns associated with raising fish in open water systems, meaning those that are either floating net pens or cages out in the ocean or even in water bodies that are connected to other water bodies, like rivers or lakes. Some of the issues are the pollution that comes from the farms – the cages are opened to the environment. So anything that’s used in the cages—like antibiotics or chemicals--flow straight into the other waters. Also there are issues with waste from the cages. All of that results in some environmental problems.

Additionally there are issues of conflict of use. If you put some big, floating cages out in the ocean, other users--like divers, swimmers, boaters and fisherman--now have to get around these cages and in some instances, they're prevented from being near those cages - some of the farms have buffer zones around them. And so these private uses overtake public access and that’s a real problem as well.

Isn’t there also a problem with the fish escaping from the pens?

Absolutely. Escapement is another huge issue. Farmed fish are often fairly different from wild fish. Even if you're growing similar species that are in the surrounding waters, they're usually bred to be quicker growing, larger because they're for profit. So when these fish escape, sometimes they have revved up metabolisms and eat more than their fair share and can out compete wild fish or intermix with wild fish and change their genetic characteristics. So it can be a really big issue.

What is a typical recirculating farm product and how would I go about finding those products? What kind of fish are grown?

Well, it’s really challenging right now, which is part of the reason this organization is forming. One of the things we're hoping to do is put a map up on a website where people can go and find their local recirculating farm and be able to purchase products from them, either at farmer’s markets or directly from the growers.

There is a whole variety of fish going on right now. I've seen Sea Bass, Tilapia, shellfish--clams, mussels, oysters, shrimps—salmon is under experimentation. There’s been an amazing, growing list of products coming from these systems.

Why did you choose New Orleans to base the organization out of?

New Orleans is just an amazing place. It’s got a character all it’s own. In recent times it’s had some really difficult problems. First, it was battered by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Then last year there was that catastrophic oil spill. So the area’s been really challenged with having fresh food and stable jobs. One of the hopes is that a demonstration project there could really empower the community to get some stable, green jobs in place and for people to be able to provide their own food. The loss of the Gulf of Mexico to fishing for a really long time caused some major heartache down there—it’s one of the major sources of employment and food - the Gulf of Mexico. We're hoping that, in introducing systems like this, there might be a really great boost to both the economy and the folks in New Orleans.