PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -With limited open space but plenty of water, Rhode Island is looking to follow Maine and other New England states and tap into a new kind of agriculture: fish farming.

Aquaculture is a $1 billion industry and is the fastest-growing agricultural activity in the country. Fish farming generates nearly $200 million annually in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine. New Hampshire has about 30 fish farms.

In Rhode Island, the industry is limited to shellfish, and farmers made just $478,000 last year, according to David Alves, aquaculture coordinator for the Coastal Resources Management Council.

Last year, the state received a $1.4 million federal grant, lobbied for by U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., to jumpstart the industry.

“There’s no reason why we can’t get in on this,” Kenneth Ayars, the state Department of Environmental Management’s chief of agriculture, told The Providence Sunday Journal. “There’s some money in the state … and the time to develop it is now.”

Ayars believes aquaculture can help farms remain economically viable and at the same time preserve a valuable commodity in the densely packed state: open space.

The state is seeking to generate interest. Last Monday, DEM sponsored a workshop in Scituate on fish farming. Sixty people from across the state showed up.

“We were surprised by the turnout,” Ayars said. “But it shows the interest is there.”

Experts told those in attendance that Rhode Island is well suited for fish farming. The Ocean State has plenty of clean fresh water, the experts said, and it also is in the middle of one of the largest food fish markets in the world.

Also, Rhode Island last year ranked first nationwide in the percentage of farm produce that was sold directly to consumers, Ayars said. That means Rhode Island farmers excel in the kind of small business operations – such as roadside stands – that could be used to market and sell farmed fish.

Successful farmers will have learned a new trade.

“Fish aren’t something you just plant in the ground and come back for in three months,” said Randy Mickley, the University of Rhode Island’s new finfish aquaculture extension agent.

AP-ES-05-04-03 1316EDT

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