Fish farmers net profit

Venture: Business partners trade dreams of wingtips for a reality of rubber boots as they run a Deale fish nursery.

April 08, 1999|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,SUN STAFF

When people walk into the huge rectangular building filled with row upon row of fish tanks, they almost always ask the two young farmers the same question: "Where did you get your degrees in marine biology?"

"We didn't," Randy Mattson says, laughing, looking down at the slimy rubber boots he once would have predicted would be wingtips. "We're not exactly farmers. We're businessmen."

About two years ago, Mattson and his business partner, Scott Lee, were shrewd enough to spot a potential moneymaker. A little-known fish, the tilapia, was gaining popularity. The fish grew fast, was highly resilient, tasted good and was easy to raise.

The West Virginia University business majors became farmers. Fish farmers.

Everything about the two college buddies illustrates -- and flies in the face of -- several trends:

At a time when Maryland farm statistics show only a handful of farmers under age 30, Mattson, 28, and Lee, 29, are feeling optimistic about their half-million-dollar investment in the Anne Arundel County fish farm.

During an era when developers have built unpopular housing subdivisions and strip malls in southern Anne Arundel County, Mattson and Watson are doing the opposite by bringing aquaculture back to the historic fishing and farming village of Deale.

After a string of hard-luck years that contributed to the near collapse of the state's dairy industry and the decline of the tobacco farm, about 250 aquafarms like Lee's and Mattson's have sprung up across Maryland.

In an age when the Chesapeake Bay has been systematically overfished, leaving the crab, oyster and rockfish industries struggling, restaurants and markets are looking for a new fish to sell to customers.

"Tilapia's not a bad commodity to be in right now," said Noreen Eberly, a marketing specialist in the aquaculture division of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "Let's put it this way: They are calling it the `orange roughy of the 90s.' "

In their sprawling fish nursery, where the buzz of high-voltage electricity and the constant pumping of fresh water are background noise, Mattson and Lee are raising about 50,000 tilapia.

The fish, with sharp dorsal fins and thick, rounded bodies, are separated into tanks according to maturity. Tilapia are usually sold after about six months, when they weigh between 1 1/2 and 2 pounds.

Although tilapia have just recently appeared at fish counters in grocery stores like Giant Food, the fish have long been popular among Asian cultures. Lee and Mattson do almost all their business -- selling about 2,000 live fish a week throughout the Washington metropolitan area -- with Asian markets and restaurants.

"The fish is very popular with Asians," Mattson said, "because they are looking to buy a good, live fish and that's how we sell the tilapia. Basically, with our customers, we're selling the fish faster than we can produce them."

Although fish industry experts say the tilapia market is holding its own, it is certainly not as lucrative as it was two or three years ago, Eberly said. Of the 250 aquafarms in Maryland, about 20 are primarily raising tilapia.

Tilapia farmers are spending about $1.25 per pound to raise the fish and are selling to market at $2.50 to $3. Customers pay about $3.99 per pound.

"I'll say this," Mattson said. "We're not getting rich yet, but we're paying the bills."

At the Deale Aquafarm, the tilapia run the place.

Mattson has to feed the fish almost hourly. When he throws food in the tank, fish jump out of the water and swim on top of each other to eat. It is the definition of a feeding frenzy.

While Mattson sticks close to the farm, which sits on 17 acres outside Deale, Lee spends his days delivering the live fish to Chinese markets and Korean restaurants around the Beltway.

Both men are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the deafening alarm that indicates that one of the tanks is not getting enough oxygen or fresh water.

"That alarm doesn't care if it's Christmas Eve or if it's Saturday night and you're out on a date," Mattson said. "When it goes off, you stop everything and deal with it, because these fish are our livelihood."

Mattson and Lee have built a greenhouse on the property. Virtually everything on the farm is recycled -- down to the dirty tank water, which is used to fertilize herbs, Chinese leeks, tomatoes and ornamental plants.

Residents have embraced Deale Aquafarm.

"You wouldn't believe the people that will just poke their heads in here and say, `Hey, you're the fish farmer, huh?' " Mattson said. "They are so curious about what we are doing out here."

But the relationship wasn't always so friendly. Lee's initial business plans for the land included a golf driving range, a prospect that infuriated residents, who envisioned bright lights and added traffic on their narrow peninsula roads. When the zoning didn't clear the county, the driving range became a fish farm.

"A golf site would certainly have conflicted with the character of our area," Mike Shay, a co-president of the powerful citizen group South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development, said on a recent tour of Deale. "But their fish farm is in keeping with this area. It is agriculture. And that's exactly what southern Anne Arundel County was built on."

It's late in the afternoon. Mattson trudges out of the farmhouse for another feeding of his 50,000 fish.

"I guess I'll admit that golf would have been a little easier," he says wryly.

Pub Date: 4/08/99

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