Experimenting With Fish

May 15, 1993|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Staff Writer

Some scientists do their work using test tubes; others need 600-gallon, climate-controlled tanks filled with 3-foot-long fish.

Such is the case with researchers from the Center of Marine Biotechnology (COMB) and the National Aquarium, who are sharing the recently opened Aquaculture Research Center in Baltimore.

While the aquarium plans to begin a breeding program for ornamental tropical fish, COMB researchers are conducting research they hope will help Maryland's budding aquaculture industry grow fish for sale in restaurants.

Two hundred years ago on the Fells Point waterfront, the concept of growing fish in large tanks might have seemed ludicrous. Why not just throw a line in and catch a fish?

But given a polluted harbor and a striped bass -- known as the rockfish -- that is still on its way back from an endangered status, the idea of raising fish in a nearby aquaculture facility is gaining acceptance from farmers and consumers.

So a warehouse that once stored imported food products for the Belt's Corp. was turned into a biotechnology center. The warehouse was outfitted with $800,000 in federal funds and $300,000 in state money.

The aquaculture center, which opened in the 10,000-square-foot warehouse in Fells Point, contains a series of large, black tanks with state-of-the-art climate control that allows scientists to vary the salinity of water, temperature and lights in each tank.

Want to make a female striped bass believe it is spring and time to spawn? Then vary subtle characteristics in the climate, inject a hormone, and the fish produces millions of eggs.

The idea, said COMB professor Yonathan Zohar, was to design a way to grow fish faster, have them reproduce on demand rather than once a year and give them vaccines to keep them free of diseases.

As the research is perfected, farmers who grow their fish in large ponds or in very controlled aquaculture facilities can learn from the results. Dr. Zohar said COMB's research would concentrate on species -- such as striped bass, salmon, trout, flounder, black sea bass, oysters, blue crabs and shrimp -- that the state's aquaculture industry is most interested in.

"COMB will now have a state-of-the-art facility for research," he said.

Belt's Corp., which leases the building to COMB, and life sciences boosters hope the aquaculture research center will become an anchor for new biotech businesses.

The company, which owns a number of warehouses in Fells Point, and economic development officials are pushing the area as a home to new companies that spin out of the Christopher Columbus Center, a planned research and educational attraction.

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