Diversity in Aquaculture: Q&A With Imani Black

We sat down with Voyages: Chapter 2 lead scientist Imani Black to learn more about aquaculture in the Chesapeake Bay and her work to create a more diverse, inclusive seafood industry.

  • Conservation

As a young girl growing up on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Imani Black has a memory of telling her parents her big plans for the Chesapeake Bay. She was going to create a serum, she explained, that would clean up the Bay, removing pollutants from the water to make it crystal clear and restore populations of native species.

Imani's dreams of being a marine biologist began at 7 years old, and although this passion hasn't changed over the years, it has been funneled into a career path she didn't quite expect. As a shellfish aquaculture biologist, Imani has worked for oyster companies in Maryland and Virginia, helping to restore the populations of these mollusks in order to improve the health of the Bay.

We sat down with Imani—the lead scientist for our Voyages: Chapter 2 event on November 17—to learn more about aquaculture in the Chesapeake Bay and her work with Minorities in Aquaculture, an organization she created to empower and support women of color in the aquaculture industry.

Tell us more about aquaculture—what is it and how does it positively impact the environment?

Aquaculture is the same thing as farming that we all know of, terrestrially, but just in the water. It's basically water farming; the cultivation and production of marine organisms and seafood.

It was introduced into a lot of areas because wild fisheries had declined or were fluctuating too rapidly for that to be the only source of seafood. So, in a lot of ways, it's for restoration, but also to be able to continue to fulfill the demands of the seafood industry without continuously harming the wild natural populations that we have in, let's say, the Chesapeake Bay.

In oyster aquaculture—one oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, and an average oyster farmer puts out 2 million individual oysters a year. Even if those oysters stay in the water for up to a week, they still have had impacts on that environment.

Is aquaculture new to the Chesapeake Bay?

Globally, aquaculture is not something that's new; it's something that's been part of the practice for many, many generations. But in the United States, particularly in the Chesapeake Bay, around the 1990s is when it really got introduced again as something that could restore the wild populations but also fulfill the demands of the seafood industry.

[Aquaculture] was introduced right after the huge crash of the oyster industry when oyster diseases—in combination with overharvesting, habitat degradation, all of those things—wiped the population out to less than 1% of historical numbers.

So, aquaculture was something that was introduced because it'd been happening globally and was thought to help restore and preserve [the population] in a lot of ways.

What is your vision for the future of aquaculture in the Chesapeake Bay and beyond?

I think we're already heading into a time where aquaculture will be the only source of sustainable seafood in the entire world. But within that, I think it's also super important that everybody just knows what aquaculture is, how it connects with them, and how they can continue to advocate for it and promote it.

There are a lot of misconceptions about aquaculture and there are a lot of bad things that are happening in aquaculture. Just like any industry—there's no industry that is unscathed by different things that are more harmful than they are good, or that are opposite of what the original plan or goal or objective was going to be. I'll never say that aquaculture is 100% perfect because I don't think that it is. I just think as an industry that we should strive for that.

So, my hope for the future of aquaculture is that it just continues to be something that is a sustainable avenue for us, and is something that helps with food security and food sovereignty, but I also hope that everybody starts to understand their connection into aquaculture and how much it's really going to start to be a part of their everyday engagement when it comes to seafood.

Where do you see room for improvement in the aquaculture industry?

Our lack of communication about what's going on in aquaculture, our lack of showing the world what we're doing. I think that there are so many great things that are happening in aquaculture, there are so many great people working together trying to really elevate aquaculture in a lot of different ways.

Aquaculture is really something that is actually more sustainable than terrestrial farming, as far as our diet and nutrition value, but it doesn't get the same amount of recognition. And I don't think that that's all aquaculture's fault, but I think it's our responsibility to put the information out there so that people can make that decision for themselves.

Was there something specific that inspired you to get involved in aquaculture?

I don't think that there was something that really drove me to do aquaculture because I really kind of stumbled upon it, even though I'm from Maryland. I had heard about oyster farming, but I never really dove into it. I think it really had started to escalate, particularly in the Chesapeake Bay, when I was in college. I was more focused on oceanography and tropical biology and things like that at the time; it wasn't until I did an internship with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Virginia, working with their oyster restoration team, that I was like, "Oh, I forgot that this existed."

And then my boss at the time told me about Virginia Institute of Marine Science and their work in the oyster aquaculture industry and how they had an internship that I could do if I was interested in the oyster industry but wanted to see what the commercial side was like.

That summer was my first introduction into aquaculture. I'm just really drawn by things that are really physical; I love being on the water. I was a student athlete, I've been an athlete my whole life, so it's not foreign to me to push my body into super intensive things. I just loved how active it was.

Can you talk about how your experience in the aquaculture industry led you to start Minorities in Aquaculture?

I had been working in aquaculture for six years and I was just really frustrated with the things that I had experienced with my career as a woman of color, and sometimes the only woman, sometimes the only person of color, in those spaces.

I think the biggest catalyst was in January of 2020, I was randomly watching Netflix, the show "Chef's Table," about a chef named Mashama Bailey in Savannah, Georgia, who took one old, segregated Greyhound bus station and turned it into a restaurant called The Grey, which is a five-star, African-American, fine dining [restaurant].

The first scene was her out on a boat. And then the first like five to six minutes was her and these Black oyster farmers, a father and son duo in Georgia, out on their farm, handling oysters. I rewound that first part probably 10 or 15 times. I'm not even kidding! Just to make sure that it was actually real.

So, long story short, I sent them an email and then we got on the phone, and I asked them, "How many other Black or people of color do you see?" Because I'm just in Maryland and other than that I've only worked in Virginia. So, is it just where I am?

And the father, Ernest McIntosh, Sr., said, "Well, you know, we're the only speck of pepper in a sea of salt." And that to me just stamped it in—like, okay, this isn't something that I'm just imagining. This is something to look into. So, it kind of just took off from there.

Voyages: Chapter 2 Artists Patrick McMinn and Jessica Keyes Standing With Lead Scientist Imani Black
Voyages: Chapter 2 artists Patrick McMinn (left) and Jessica Keyes (center) with featured scientist Imani Black (right).

Is there an overarching message that you hope Voyages: Chapter 2 guests walk away with?

I am guilty of being a part of the group of people who are from the Chesapeake Bay region who grew up not appreciating it as much as I should have. I was one of those people who didn't want to stay in my hometown. But over the course of my career, every single thing reminded me of my roots, of where I came from. I've wanted to be a biologist since I was 7 years old—that has not changed since then—but I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do.

I think that we really have to start to appreciate where we come from, whether we want to stay here or not. I think when we live somewhere that is so special and just so meaningful, like the Chesapeake Bay or any coastal community, that's a very unique place to say that you're from. And I just feel like for some reason that wasn't something that I took pride in.

But today, who I am is a 28-year-old master's student, founder of Minorities in Aquaculture. I wear that badge very proudly. I will proudly say that I'm an Eastern Shore girl, born and raised, and whether I don't come back here for years, that will always be my origin and I will never forget that. So, I just hope that people come to Voyages and have felt a spark of appreciation for where we come from and what they get to experience.

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