Fish Futures

Consumers Schooled In Benefits Of Seafood Are Far Outstripping The Wild Supply. That Means Net Profits For Farmers.

April 23, 1997|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

Yonathan Zohar loves fish. He likes cooking them, he likes eating them, he could watch them swim for hours. But most of all, he likes to grow them.

In a nondescript warehouse on the waterfront in Fells Point, Zohar is growing lots of fish -- in one tank, more than 100, 2-pound juvenile rockfish swim in swift unison, building up their muscles. Nearby, breeder fish, weighing up to 45 pounds (that would be Bertha) meander around, too content to chase the food pellets Zohar tosses into the water.

It isn't obvious from this industrial setting, with all its wires and pipes and conduits and containers of all sizes, but Zohar and his fish are on the leading edge of a culinary revolution.

Thanks to overfishing of U.S. waters, increased demand at American tables, and a lack of a natural supply of the fish most people consider fit to eat, there's a declining supply of wild fish to meet current demand. With Zohar's research, and with the knowledge and experience currently being gained, a new industry is taking shape: that of raising food fish in captivity -- fish-farming, or aquaculture.

"The USDA says 70 percent of marine fish are over-exploited or depleted," Zohar said recently at the sparkling new University of Maryland marine biotechnology facility at Columbus Center at the Inner Harbor, where he is a professor and aquaculture coordinator. "At the same time, consumption is growing."

Nutritionists and health professionals are encouraging people to eat fish because it is a good source of protein and it is low in fat, and has the "right" kind of fat (omega-3 fatty acid) that doesn't exacerbate heart problems.

"Because of the continuing increase in consumption," Zohar said, "there is an increasing gap between demand and supply." Estimates are that the demand for fish and seafood will double in the next two decades, while the supply of fish from the wild will at the most stay the same, he said.

So, after slowly gaining speed in the last two decades, fish-farming is now racing toward becoming a big business. In 1984, U.S. production was 167,864 tons; by 1994, the figure was up to 332,817 tons, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service of the U.S. Commerce Department.

Aquaculture is also becoming big business in Maryland, where fish farmers produce tilapia, catfish, striped bass and hybrid striped bass, and trout -- as well as such related items as ornamental fish and algae. In 1995, the latest year for which statistics are available, Maryland produced 300,000 pounds of tilapia alone. (Tilapia is an exotic, mild-flavored fish that originated in Egypt and is now grown all over the world.) That represented a 577 percent increase over the previous year (less than 100,000 pounds).

Brad Powers, assistant secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture for marketing, animal industries and consumer services (i.e. everything having to do with food), said estimates are that the state will have produced a million pounds of tilapia in 1996. And this year, the state estimates nearly 100 percent growth to 2 million pounds.

At this point, more than 200 fish-farming permits have been issued in the state, though Powers said "only a handful" are commercial enterprises. Most are "new and experimental."

Most of Maryland's production of tilapia goes -- as live fish -- to Asian markets and suppliers in New York and Toronto. Boston, Baltimore and Washington get a little of it.

But farm-raised tilapia, salmon, catfish, striped bass and trout are also showing up at seafood markets, in supermarkets and specialty stores, and on restaurant menus.

"Our salmon, tilapia and catfish are all farm-raised," said Dana Spatafore, manager of Graul's market in Ruxton. "Salmon is probably the most popular fish we sell, in both places -- in the fresh-fish case and in the meals-ready-to-go section. Salmon prices have been really moderate in the last couple of years, because it's one of the biggest farm-raised fish."

With wild fish such as tuna and swordfish, Spatafore said, "the market fluctuations can be pretty high. Farm-raising can control the amount and the quality and the prices." Farm-raising can also control the size of the fish, and that's something chefs, especially, appreciate.

"The thing with farm fish is consistency," said Tom Brown, executive chef at the Polo Grill in the Inn at the Colonnade in Charles Village. "Sometimes it's hard to get [wild] fish in 2- to 3-pound size. If you order 24 fish, you'll get some that are 4 pounds and one or two that are 1 1/2-pounders."

As for complaints that farm-raised fish are less tasty than wild ones, Brown said, "Yeah, a little bit." But consistency -- and consistent supply -- easily override a small difference in taste, he said.

Spatafore noted that growers control the diet of the fish, thus controlling the fat content, the color and the flavor.

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