Calvert County man has a better fish to fry TALKING UP TILAPIA

September 06, 1992|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

HUNTINGTOWN -- When Larry Entzian envisions his future h sees fish, tilapia fish.

He sees giant bubbling tanks brimming with hot water, stocked with tilapia fish. He sees them growing by the thousands and being shipped by the truckload to markets up and down the East Coast. He sees that he, the son and grandson of farmers, might continue the family tradition in a way his grandfather would never have imagined: fish farming, a burgeoning Maryland industry.

But first things first. Mr. Entzian knows he's selling an exotic product, a fish that originated in Africa whose name few people have heard and even fewer can pronounce. Tilapia -- it sort of rhymes with "still sloppy huh."

"It's taking a while to develop a market," said Mr. Entzian, 41, who works full time in the maintenance department at the Wild World amusement park in Prince George's County. "People are not used to it. They see these fish in this tank and they say, 'That's a pet.' "

So he's been showing up lately at the Calvert County farmer's market in Prince Frederick to talk up tilapia, a mild-tasting, flaky white fish similar to flounder.

Twice a week, he loads a 33-gallon glass fish tank and a plastic barrel into the back of his Chevrolet pickup, fills both vessels with water and tilapia, and drives a few minutes from his home in Huntingtown to the market, which opened July 11 in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

The market offers the customary purveyors of fruits and vegetables, a woman selling honey, a man selling selling pies. Then there's Mr. Entzian and his live tilapia. You can't miss them.

"What are they?" Louise Smith of Lusby asked Mr. Entzian's wife, Julia Ann.

"Tilapia," Ms. Entzian said.

Ms. Smith responded with the sort of look you give someone who reports Elvis sightings.

Undaunted by the unfamiliar name, Raymond Jones of Port Republic stepped up to the truck and pointed to a fish, which Mr. Entzian scooped out with a net and placed in a cooler full of ice to stun it. Sold: a 3-pounder at $2.50 a pound.

"I never heard of it," said Mr. Jones, but "I love fish. I love all seafood. . . . At least it's not polluted like a lot of the other fish."

Mr. Entzian had never heard of tilapia either until a few years ago when he saw an exhibit on fish farming at Epcot Center in Disney World. The more he learned about the fish, the better it looked. He found it can live on a relatively inexpensive vegetable-protein diet and is highly resistant to disease. It is also suitable to a broad U.S. market because it tastes so mild and is easily boned.

Since December he's been raising them in four 800-gallon freshwater tanks in his garage, a system that he bought from a Virginia company for $4,000. The water is heated to about 84 degrees -- the optimum tilapia-growing temperature -- aerated by a pump and cleansed of wastes by bacteria. "It's just a small, simple system," Mr. Entzian said. But it could represent the future of the Maryland seafood industry.

Four years ago, the state Department of Agriculture launched an aquaculture program, encouraged in part by the success of catfish farming in the South, particularly Mississippi. Fish farming there grew so much so fast that oversupply has caused the price of catfish to plummet and pushed the entire industry -- Mississippi's fifth biggest commodity -- into a deep slump.

Roy Castle, aquaculture project manager, said "there was quite a lot of money being made in" fish farming in other states. Maryland wanted to get in on the action, especially since demand for seafood has grown while the yield of the Chesapeake Bay has been "stable or going down," he said.

Mr. Castle's agency, in cooperation with the University of Maryland, has been conducting seminars on fish farming, selling baby fish as tank stock and consulting with new and established fish farmers. In two years, Mr. Castle said, the number of fish farmers in Maryland has grown from 75 to 175.

About 20 of those raise tilapia, most in small operations like Mr. Entzian's. Maryland's tilapia king is AquaMar Industries in Pocomoke City on the Eastern Shore. AquaMar sold 100,000 pounds of tank-raised tilapia last year and plans to expand to 750,000 by late next year, said general manager Jerry Redden.

AquaMar ships just about all its fish to New York City, where tilapia is very popular in Asian restaurants and ethnic markets. Once in a while tilapia can be found in a Safeway or Giant in Maryland, but that's rare, Mr. Castle said.

Untapped markets in Maryland and Washington hold tremendous potential, Mr. Entzian said.

He has put his house on the market and plans to move to a bigger place with room to expand his tilapia operation. He'd like to operate eight 5,000-gallon tanks and sell maybe 100,000 pounds a year.

For now, though, he's testing the waters, introducing his product to the world one tilapia at a time.

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