Fish with funny name catching on as crop Aquaculture: Tilapia, fish with a nondescript taste, have emerged as the fastest growing segment of Maryland's aquaculture industry.

March 06, 1997|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

POCOMOKE CITY -- At first glance, Aquamar Industries looks pretty unassuming -- just a couple of big gray sheds in a clearing off Route 113 in Worcester County.

But those gray sheds house the leading edge of aquaculture in Maryland -- 130,000 or so tilapia, a fish with a funny name, a biblical past and a future so promising that it's been dubbed "the broiler chicken of the fish industry."

Tilapia, virtually unknown in Maryland five years ago, are now the fastest growing segment of the state's $20 million-a-year aquaculture industry. Aquamar, a small but ambitious company with seven employees, is the state's biggest producer of tilapia, selling 7,000 to 10,000 pounds of live fish each week to restaurants and grocers in the Northeast.

"This was the fish believed to be found in the Sea of Galilee at pTC the time of Christ," says Brad Powers, assistant director of the state's Department of Agriculture. "Tilapia is a fairly nondescript-tasting fish. It's very mild. We call it the broiler chicken of the fish industry."

Between 1994 and 1995, tilapia production increased 577 percent, outstripping the growth rates for striped bass, catfish, trout, ornamental fish and everything else. The state anticipates continued rapid growth of tilapia, predicting that production will total around 1 million pounds for 1996 and almost double that this year.

Aquamar, which is planning a major expansion, hopes to be a large part of that growth, says the company's general manager, Jerry Redden.

"We'd like to quadruple our volume in the next year," he says. "We'd like to get up to 2 or 3 million pounds a year -- three or four times what we do now."

Redden is not the only one in Maryland with high hopes for tilapia. In the next year or so, at least half a dozen tilapia farms are expected to expand or open new facilities, says Powers. A new operation is planned for Kent County, and a fish farmer in Caroline hopes to expand his operation. There's a farm in Frederick, one in Cecil, one in Harford and one planning a major expansion in Anne Arundel.

"There are a lot of other smaller ones, too," says Powers. "I don't know how many -- maybe six to 12 new facilities planned for the next two to three years."

On the lower Eastern Shore, the parallels between tilapia and chicken, the biggest industry in the area, are deliberate. When they began Aquamar in 1986, Redden and his investors looked long and hard at how Salisbury-based Perdue Farms Inc. had shaped and built the chicken empire that dominates the area's economy.

"The Delmarva Peninsula is already a world-class meat competitor," Redden says. "We ship chicken all over the world. Hatcheries, feed mills, processing plants -- we already have those."

With chicken as a model, Aquamar spent three years working with the state university system, using a mix of Maryland Industrial Partnerships grants and private money to figure out how best to raise tilapia on the Eastern Shore.

Tilapia are grown all over the United States, notably in California, Florida and Arkansas. They are also popular with fish farmers in Central and South America, Asia and Indonesia, Redden says.

"The only way we were going to be a serious international competitor in the market was to look at developing technology," Redden says. So Aquamar's first three years were spent in research and development, devising a recirculation system for the fish tanks, studying fish breeding and feeding techniques for the tilapia hybrid Nilotica aurea that the company sells.

In 1990, Aquamar set up a pilot facility in Pocomoke City at the present site on Route 113. In 1993, Redden says, they began commercial-scale farming of tilapia (they also do a little striped bass for diversification). Now they're ready to expand again.

The industry's growth has been helped by two other factors. One, much of the world eats fish as its main source of protein, and the demand for fish in general and tilapia in particular remains far ahead of the existing supply. Two, tilapia are a relatively hardy fish that are suited to farm raising.

"The nice thing about tilapia is it appears they can be grown in higher densities than other types of fish," says Powers. In fact, if the tanks don't have enough fish, tilapia get territorial and start fighting each other, Redden and Powers say. Their breeding behavior is another plus for the fish farmer: Unlike other fish that spawn seasonally, tilapia will breed "every month of the year," says Powers.

Aquamar starts out with tilapia that are about an inch long. The fish are fed and monitored, and then sent to market when they reach 1.5 to 2 pounds each about a year later.

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