So far this year, he has sold four tons of fish for food and almost 5,000 fish to be stocked in ponds.
"At this stage, I can say I'm solvent," says Tiralla, who works full-time as an engineer for AT&T. To make a living from the operation, he must sell 500 pounds a week, and he is half way to his goal.
FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION
Jerry Redden started out as a chicken farmer on the Eastern Shore, but was looking for a way to diversify. Now his wife tends to the chickens, and he looks after 16,000 hybrid striped bass and 5,000 tilapia that are growing in tanks in Somerset County.
He scatters a handful of Purina Trout Chow over the surface. The striped bass surge upward, grab the pellets and then slosh water with their tails as they dive back to the bottom of the 4-foot-deep tanks. By February, the fish will be large enough for the dinner table.
Redden and his partners established the operation with the help of two Maryland Industrial Partnerships grants. The matching grants enabled them to research the best production methods. Then, with an $88,000 grant from the state Department of Employment and Economic Development and $250,000 of their own, they built an elaborate tank system that has recirculating water and controlled temperatures.
The 70,000-gallon environment will yield the same number of fish as 15 acres of outdoor ponds, Redden says. Because fish grow twice as fast in the tanks as in the wild, they will be ready for market in less than a year.
Redden has found buyers for his fish for the next three years. The challenge he now faces is keeping costs low enough to insure a profit.
That same challenge confronts the whole aquaculture industry, says William P. "Pete" Jensen, of the state Department of Natural Resources.
He questions whether aquaculture is economically viable in a state where labor and land costs are high. Of all the aquaculture operations in Maryland, only two or three are providing a living, he says.
Jensen believes an operation needs to produce 100,000 pounds of seafood a year to be viable, and reaching that level requires an investment of $500,000 to $750,000 over a two-year period. It is an investment few individuals can afford, he says. Furthermore, banks have been reluctant to provide loans for experimental aquaculture ventures.
But Bradley H. Powers, aquaculture coordinator for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, says that a person can get into the aquaculture business with as little as $500. Aquaculture can be profitable, Powers says, though he concedes that some beginners have underestimated the work involved.
"It's akin to dairy farming," Powers says. "You must be there every day, 24 hours a day. You can't just dig a hole in the ground and throw fish in."
While not every fish farmer will be able to earn a living from aquaculture alone, it can supplement the incomes of farmers growing other products, Powers says.
The biggest obstacles to the aquaculture industry are political, he believes. Before aquaculture can succeed, questions about use of the bay and the role of state government in aquaculture and commercial fishing need to be answered:
Aquaculturalists want the state to make more underwater land available for oyster leases, but watermen are concerned that corporations will buy up all the leases and create monopolies where waterman cannot compete.
Aquaculturalists are opposed to the state subsidy to promulgate oysters in the bay, a program that helps watermen. The state pays a private contractor $3 million to move young oysters to bars where the oysters will grow more quickly. A gubernatorial task force has examined the subsidy issue and the group's report should soon be made public.
The aquaculture industry would like to see fish pens permitted in the bay, but watermen are concerned that the pens could cause pollution and interfere with boating.
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Waterman's Association, says he is hopeful that aquaculturalists and watermen can work out their differences.
"Throwing stones at one another is not the solution," he says.
"As time goes by, more and more watermen are going to have to find a supplement to their income," and practicing aquaculture might be the way, Powers says.