Location, location, location. That phrase which describes all things related to real estate is also a major impediment to the development of marine - or salt water - aquaculture in North Carolina.

But that may be about to change with the development by North Carolina State University of the Marine Aquaculture Research Center near Marshallberg in rural Carteret County on the North Carolina coast.

The center, which officially opened Dec. 11, was made possible by a $500,000 gift from I.J. and Sue Won of Williston, N.C. It is located on land owned by the Wons. The North Carolina Agricultural Foundation, the fund raising arm of North Carolina State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is leasing the site from the Wons.

It is the location of the center that makes all the difference, said Tom Losordo, a professor of biological and agricultural engineering and a North Carolina Cooperative Extension specialist. Losordo is an expert on aquaculture systems that recirculate, or reuse, water. He has developed recirculating systems for fresh water aquaculture farms in North Carolina and around the world.

Aquaculture, or fish farming, has grown rapidly in North Carolina over the last 20 years and is now a $55 million a year industry, said Losordo. But aquaculture with marine fish species – salt water fish – has not grown as rapidly as with fresh water species.

Losordo said the slow growth of marine aquaculture is largely a matter of economics. Marine aquaculture requires access to salt water, and most North Carolina coastal sites with ready access to salt water are prohibitively expensive. An acre of waterfront property typically costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said. That kind of upfront cost makes it economically impractical to start a marine aquaculture operation on the coast.

The six-acre Marine Aquaculture Research Center site is not waterfront, and therein lies economic feasibility.

“This site is perhaps two miles from the mouth of Marshallberg Harbor,” said Losordo. “We’re at the headwaters of Sleepy Creek, which leads into Marshallberg Harbor.” Sites like this can be purchased at a much more reasonable cost, he added, while land similar to the Sleepy Creek site is readily available throughout coastal North Carolina.

The center consists of a 4,200-square-foot building that houses one large and four smaller wet lab rooms equipped with fish tanks, pipes carrying freshwater and saltwater to each tank and a low-pressure air system to aerate the tanks. The building also includes a dry lab to conduct water quality analysis and a small office.

The center is also equipped with a water intake system that will take water from Sleepy Creek and clean it so it is suitable for aquaculture research. The water will go to the tanks in the building, where fish will be raised. Water then flows to large, round treatment tanks outside the building, where it will be treated to remove fish wastes. The quality of the water leaving the facility will be as good as or better than that of the water coming from the creek. The water will then be discharged to the edge of the salt marsh that borders the site. The water, in effect, irrigates the marshland. An experimental wetland, which will be part of a water-treatment study, has also been built outside the building.

At first, researchers will experiment with hybrid striped bass and red porgy, while part of a blue crab study will also be located at the site. Eventually, Losordo said, researchers will likely work with species such as southern and summer flounder and black sea bass. A central element of center research will be the treatment of water once it leaves the facility. Losordo hopes to demonstrate how to treat water leaving the facility so that marine aquaculture can have zero impact on the coastal environment.

I.J. Won, who joined with his wife, Sue, to provide the funding that made the facility possible, is a former North Carolina State professor. He left the university in the early 1980s to found Geophex LTD, a successful company that he recently sold.

He said during the Dec. 11 grand opening ceremony that during more than 20 years as a recreational fisherman in North Carolina coastal waters, he has seen fish populations decline. He said the gift and the center are an effort to help stem that decline.

Losordo said it is hoped the center will become a model for North Carolina coastal marine aquaculture, demonstrating the economic feasibility of aquaculture with marine fish species on the North Carolina coast.

“The work conducted here should make coastal aquaculture with marine species a reality for many citizens of North Carolina,” Losordo said.