College: Brooklyn College
Awards: Fulbright U.S. Student Program,
Fishing for Sustainability
Google "health benefits of salmon" and you'll find articles listing four, or seven or 10 reasons to eat it. Beneficial omega-3 fatty acids always top the list. In the wild, salmon get omega-3s by eating smaller fish and insects, which get them by eating microscopic, free-floating plants called phytoplankton.
But fewer salmon and other fish come from the wild. Habitat destruction, pollution, climate change and overfishing have diminished ocean fish populations. Since 2013, fish farms have served up more than half the seafood on the world's tables, but not without controversy. Farmed salmon raised on artificial diets have less of those cherished omega-3s, while fish farms are faulted as environmentally unsustainable.
Which brings 2015 Fulbright Fellowship winner Nathaniel Sibinga, to flies.
"Fishing in the wild can't produce enough to meet demand, so fish farming is here to stay, whether people like it or not," says Sibinga (Brooklyn College, M.A., Biology '15). "The question is: Can we find a way to farm fish in a more environmentally friendly way?" He hopes that novel food sources will bridge the gap between factory-style fish farms and "whatever the fish equivalent of a grass-fed cow is."
With his Fulbright, Sibinga will join AquaFly, a study led by the Norwegian National Institute of Nutrition and Seafood Research. As its name implies, AquaFly feeds salmon proteins and fats that are derived from insects that ate omega-3-rich plants. His laboratory research at the University of Bergen will examine how fish metabolize a beneficial plant protein.
After earning the equivalent of an associate degree at tuition-free Deep Springs College, a highly regarded nontraditional school in rural California where no more than 26 students also work on a ranch, Sibinga got his bachelor's in marine biology at Brown University.
There, he delved into the fundamental difficulties surrounding management of ocean fish stocks. "It's not as though you can ethically prevent subsistence fishing communities in the Philippines or Mexico or even Japan from trying to find something to eat. You have to give them a viable alternative."
Sibinga's research led him to Brooklyn College Distinguished Professor Emeritus Martin P. Schreibman. He champions urban aquaculture (growing fish in small-scale city locales) and aquaponics (using fish waste to fertilize hydroponic vegetables, which grow in water, not soil). Could Schreibman's approach hold the key to reducing overfishing?
Schreibman, semi-retired, was reluctant to take on another student. But Sibinga emailed, phoned and then "started showing up at his office until I convinced him to let me work with him."
Over the past three years, they've grown tomatoes and cucumbers in concert with tanks full of fish, raised composting red worms as a potential fish food and investigated feeding protein-rich duckweed - a pond-killing scourge - to farmed tilapia.
For that project, Sibinga harvested buckets of duckweed from the Prospect Park Lake and carted it on the subway back to Brooklyn College. In his lab, he turned duckweed into pellets that the resident tilapia adored.
"I've been here a long time," Schreibman says, "and Nate is one of the best students who have come along. He's quite the star."