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National Geographic features Blue Ridge Aquaculture
Magazine brings worldwide exposure to local company
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This a photograph from the National Geographic article that features Blue Ridge Aquaculture of Henry County. The photo shows Karl Sharp tossing feed pellets into a tank of tilapia at Blue Ridge.
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Sunday, May 25, 2014

By AMANDA ALDERMAN - Bulletin Staff Writer

A local company is receiving worldwide exposure in the latest issue of National Geographic magazine.

Blue Ridge Aquaculture, which is based at the Martinsville Industrial Park, is featured in a story in the magazine’s June issue called “How to Farm a Better Fish.” The piece is part of an eight-month series on food security and sustainability.

The story focuses on aquaculture — the growth of aquatic animals and plants for food — as the future of the seafood industry. It includes interviews with more than half a dozen people, including a fish geneticist in Shanghai, a company president in Panama, and Blue Ridge Aquaculture President Bill Martin, at what the writer describes as “a dark, dank warehouse in the Blue Ridge foothills of Virginia.”

Writer Joel K. Bourne Jr. begins the piece with Martin.

In the dark warehouse, Bourne writes, “Bill Martin picks up a bucket of brown pellets and throws them into a long concrete tank. Fat, white tilapia the size of dinner plates boil to the surface. Martin ... smiles at the feeding frenzy.”

That smile could be heard in Martin’s voice Thursday as he discussed the exposure that comes with National Geographic’s 5.1 million worldwide circulation.

After the print edition hits newsstands Tuesday and the online edition gains traction on social media, Martin expects to hear from people interested in investing in the company. It’s happened before, such as when Blue Ridge was featured in Delta’s Sky magazine and in numerous industry publications, he said.

“It is outstanding exposure, not just for our company but for the industry itself,” Martin said of the National Geographic piece, which follows an April 7 story on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”

Martin told the interviewers that he sees indoor fish farming as the future of aquaculture, citing its benefits over similar facilities based at sea or on lakes. Unlike those operations, his method avoids ocean pollution, disease and the need for antibiotics and pesticides, he said.

Bourne notes that all of those are common problems in Asia, where 90 percent of fish farms are located.

Martin’s operation is not without environmental effects. As Bourne reports, it requires “a water-treatment system big enough for a small town,” uses electricity that comes from coal and produces waste that heads to sewage treatment and a landfill. But Martin is working to recirculate 99 percent of his water — he stands at 85 percent now — and to produce his own electricity from methane in the waste, Bourne writes.

Martin said those efforts are part of plans for the company that include expansion in Martinsville and on the West Coast, where Blue Ridge is in negotiations to open a new facility. He believes those efforts will add jobs that won’t be in danger of being outsourced.

The company now employs about 50 people.

“I see jobs, I see prosperity, and I see a lot of it happening in Martinsville-Henry County,” Martin said. “And God knows we need it.”

Blue Ridge currently ships about 11,500 pounds of live tilapia up the East Coast each day, said Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Jim Franklin. He declined to say how much the company makes per pound of fish sold.

Tilapia is not the firm’s only focus; Blue Ridge has been working for several years on shrimp production. Currently, only a few hundred pounds of shrimp are sold in New York at a time, Martin said, but “the market response has been overwhelming,” and he plans to expand that soon, as well.

Not all of his plans will materialize overnight, but Martin, 66, feels certain that the company’s future is bright. Its present isn’t bad, either, considering the recognition in National Geographic.

“If we’d been in the National Enquirer, it would not be quite the same thing,” Martin said with a laugh. “It’s very flattering that we’re the lead in the story. But we are the story — we are the story in the seafood world. It’s not that we’re geniuses or anything; we just got on the right track early on. We’ve taken a lot of beatings, but we’ve persevered. In my lifetime, it will be a huge company.”


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