Brad Morse’s aquaculture system could help other struggling cranberry growers.
Largemouth bass have replaced the thousands of berries once grown at Brad Morse’s cranberry bogs, and the grower hopes the innovative fruit-for-fish trade can help keep his business going.

The 8,000 fish are the latest crop in Morse’s prototype aquaculture system, which uses the water in one of his unused bogs to raise bass. If Morse can prove the system works, aquaculture could be a boon to cranberry growers who are struggling to break even, but don’t want to sell their land to do it.

Morse, a fifth-generation grower, is enthusiastic about the year-and-a-half-old project at his Rochester bog. Now all he has to do is turn a profit.

Last year, the fish grew well and Morse found potential buyers, mainly in the stock fish market. But questions remain about how well the fish endure the winter, how the acidity of the bog water affects the fish, and whether it will actually develop into a robust market. “I need to prove it can work this year,” Morse said.

Cranberry growers have been treading water since a glut caused prices to crash in the late 1990s.

Prices have rebounded to about $28 a barrel, near break-even levels, but growers still must sell everything from gravel to beach plums to make ends meet. Aquaculture could be a lucrative option, considering fish such as largemouth bass typically sell for about $8 to $12 each.

“It’s a way to survive, but also to make their operations more diverse so they can weather these sort of conditions,” said Jeffrey LaFleur of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association.

Morse’s aquaculture pen is built next to the bog, which provides the water that is constantly filtered through the holding area for the fish. The cranberry vines die when the bogs are flooded, but could be replanted if the cranberry market rebounds. The system cost about $56,000, of which $32,000 was provided by a state grant.

Last year, the fish showed good growth rates per inch, though they slowed in the winter, according to state aquaculture coordinator Scott Soares.

Fish kept in warm water in indoor facilities, mainly local schools, grew much faster than those kept at the bog. Morse will probably have to build a greenhouse to keep growth strong in the winter months, Soares said.

The stock fish market is Morse’s main alternative for now, but the fish could be sold for food, once tissue analysis shows the chemicals used in the bogs haven’t affected the fish, Soares said. There’s also a potential market for bait fish, he said.

Overall, Soares said, “It looks like it works.”

Morse said his project is being watched by his fellow growers with interest, and not nearly as much skepticism as they once had.

“I don’t think they think I’m crazy anymore,” he said.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.