New sustainable advances help reimagine fish farming: "It's really the wave of the future"

New technology brings changes to fish farming
New technology brings changes to fish farming... 06:01

Fish farms haven't always had the best reputation, but that seems to be changing fast. Many scientists and chefs believe fish farms may be the future of food due to a combination of factors, including overfishing in our oceans and a global population that keeps rising.

Dr. Kevan Main leads Mote Aquaculture Research Park in Sarasota, Florida. The park is 20 miles away from the ocean but has seawater running through it constantly. The water is recycled and reused 24 hours a day. 

The fish are quarantined when they first arrive. "That is when we first bring them in from the wild. We have to keep them by themselves and have to check them and make sure they're healthy and put them through some treatment," Main told CBS News' Jeff Glor.

At the farm, Main is raising Red Drum, Snook and Almaco Jack. Almaco Jack are also known as Longfin Yellowtail, have very sharp teeth and are also very adaptable. Main originally found the fish about 100 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico. They've been raised to be perfect, healthy large breeders.

"We got males and females in here, and at least three to four times a week, they will reproduce in this tank," she said.

Fertilized eggs rise to the surface, and are sent out via tubes, to a collecting tank before being sent to a hatchery, then eventually to be cooked and served on a plate.

Farming fish isn't new—52% of fish consumed around the world come from onshore or off-shore fish farms.

Many people commonly think of farm-raised Salmon, but the industry has been hampered by a history of bad practices, including overuse of antibiotics, overcrowded facilities releasing waste into the environment, and lax regulation.

"Fish farms have faced opposition. Why do you believe those protests are misguided?" Glor asked.

"Because they're based on technology that has been going through a change, moving from learning how to do it to learning how to do it better," Main said.

Which is what Main is working on at the farm. She said depending on the size of the fish, the water in tanks could be used, filtered, and reused again in as little as an hour.

After it leaves the pools, it's sent to an outside filtration system which eliminates any toxic nitrogen put out by the fish but keeps the nutrients.

From there, the water travels into a plant house, where it's used to grow a second crop like Purslane. That process also serves to clean the water before it's returned to the fish.

It seems development of these new technologies couldn't come at a more crucial time.

"It's critical that we provide protein to feed the world. And there is no more sustainable protein that's produced than through fish farming," Main said.

Scientists like Main are getting support from rising chefs around the country, including Steve Phelps, who has become an outspoken proponent for healthy, farm-raised fish.

"To watch how an operation works where I can have my protein and have a salad on the same plate, right now it's fascinating," Phelps said.

Over the last 60 years, global demand for fish meat has more than doubled, while global supply has dropped. According to Main and Phelps, it doesn't have to be that way, and consumers don't just need to buy wild.

"No. The numbers are staggering in how much we're overfishing and what's great for a restaurant, and a chef like me is we've got consistency in product like this. They're fed the same thing, they're in the same environment, they're harvested at the same size, so when I go to create a menu, I can always guarantee that I'll have a 2-pound fish on it or whatever's necessary," Phelps said.

For Phelps and Main, the key to ensuring a future for farm-raised fish is getting the right information out there about the process, where the food comes from, and what it will take to make sure it lasts.

"One thing I've learned is that we've got to communicate more with the public. When people come here, and they see how it's actually operating, they're comfortable with it. It's a fresh product. It's local. It's going right here to your restaurants. And the chefs know the product. The grocery stores know it. It's really the wave of the future," Main said.

Main believes that wild fish won't be going away and that many wild fish are caught sustainably, especially if caught in U.S. waters.

Currently, a majority of the farmed-raised fish we eat in the U.S. is imported. Main hopes that fish farms like hers can be a model for expanding the domestic fish farm industry, making it local and sustainable.