Watermen's hopes reside in Fells Point warehouse State opens aquaculture research facility

November 20, 1993|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Staff Writer

As Maryland's watermen struggle against declining catches in the Chesapeake Bay, the state opened a research center yesterday dedicated to finding a cure, and perhaps alternatives, for the troubled fishing industry.

The University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute held a grand opening for its $1.2 million aquaculture research center -- a drab-looking metal warehouse in Fells Point that houses dozens of high-tech fish tanks and the hopes of Maryland's watermen.

Experiments on fish and turtles in the blue plastic tanks are designed to find cures for the diseases wiping out bay oysters, save the Maryland terrapin, grow farmed striped bass faster and give the National Aquarium an alternative source for scarce tropical fish.

"This is the future," Rita R. Colwell, the institute's president, told about 150 researchers, business people and politicians at the dedication.

One of the center's important missions, she said, will be to find cures for diseases that have cut the bay's 1.5 million-bushel annual oyster harvest to 120,000 bushels in the last 10 years. The diseases have driven hundreds of oystermen out of business.

Other researchers will seek better ways to grow striped bass in tanks, so that a new breed of fish farmers -- or "aquaculturists" -- can make a living selling pricey rockfish.

And, state and city officials said, the new laboratory is designed to save another endangered species: city jobs.

Michael Seipp, executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said the facility is the first laboratory for the $160 million Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research and Exploration, slated to open at the Inner Harbor in 1995.

The city hopes that the waterfront research centers will spawn new companies and new jobs for Baltimore, he said.

"This will provide a future for our young children," Mr. Seipp said.

Although some have criticized the expense of the new biotechnology projects, Gov. William Donald Schaefer praised the centers as providing an economic boost to the city, state and bay.

"Our watermen are having a tough time," he said. "The amount of money we pay for something like this is small compared to what we pay for a ballplayer."

The new center hasn't created any jobs yet, but the institute said the extra room for experiments should help land more grants, which mean more researchers and technicians.

Yonathan Zohar, a researcher of striped bass, said he'll finally have room and facilities to try to trick the fish into spawning out of season.

Unlike other aquaculture research centers in Maryland, the new facility has fresh and salt water tanks that can be heated or lighted to simulate any period of the year, he said.

Dr. Zohar said he hopes to make striped bass think it's spring all year, thus increasing production of baby rockfish for fish farms.

And because the tanks recycle their water, he can try to develop vaccines for marine diseases without fear of releasing drugs into the bay.

The facility already has 18 tanks -- some big enough to hold a dozen people and some only a few feet across -- and Dr. Zohar says he plans to add several more as more grants for experiments are won.

And Bruce Hecker, curator of fish for the National Aquarium, said he will install tanks so researchers can breed display fish such as colorful neons.

"Marine fish are extremely difficult to breed," he said. The aquarium needs the room in the new facility because a good breeding system requires space to grow everything in the food chain from algae all the way up.

By breeding display fish, the aquarium can help preserve endangered coral reefs by leaving wild fish alone, he said.

Anne Arzapalo, a fisheries biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in West Virginia, said she and a few others have also been been trying to trick striped bass into spawning off-season, but haven't found the solution.

"It is a really important project" because striped bass populations have declined dramatically, and the fish is one of the brightest hopes for fish farmers, who need plenty of viable fish eggs, she said.

The fish's once-a-year spawning habit a major obstacle in making bass farming work, she said.

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