Fish farmers sink in perilous waters of Md. aquaculture

After heavy losses, some blame leader of state advisory panel

September 09, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Scott and Donna McCardell saw a chance to get in on an industry of the future.

In rural Cecil County, where farming often means cattle or corn, the husband-and-wife team set out to raise fish. And when they joined forces with a longtime leader in the business -- the chairman of the state's advisory panel on aquaculture, no less -- they confidently bet virtually everything they owned on the venture.

"It wasn't going to make us rich," said Donna McCardell, "but it was going to be a nice, comfortable living."

Now -- barely a year after stocking an innovative network of tanks with fish, only to see them die by the tens of thousands -- the McCardells' WilDell Farms has gone, well, belly up.

The demise of their business, which in some ways was a model for the future of Maryland aquaculture, underscores the seductive, yet risky, nature of the fledgling industry.

But the McCardells -- and two other farmers in similar straits -- also question state officials' actions in promoting aquaculture.

Those officials, the McCardells say, steered them toward an unproven "recirculating" water system developed by Douglas C. Burdette Jr., an Aberdeen fish farmer who was chairman of the state's Aquaculture Advisory Committee, and then helped them secure a low-interest loan to buy Burdette's system.

Recently, the McCardells filed notice of their intent to sue the state, alleging fraud and breach of contract.

"The problem we have was that people in the state were backing this guy from Aberdeen and saying this was the wave of the future," said Scott McCardell. "That's all well and good, but the system was unproven."

The owners of two other troubled businesses that used Burdette's system also said state officials endorsed Burdette's technology.

"Basically, they told me it was the best system in the world," said Anhsiang "Scott" Lee, an Anne Arundel County man.

State officials, however, denied endorsing Burdette's system, saying they merely referred the McCardells and others to it.

"I did not tell them that it works," said Bradley H. Powers, an assistant secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "We tell everybody this is the riskiest business in agriculture today."

Burdette, meanwhile, says the McCardells failed to operate the system properly and didn't have the money to withstand start-up difficulties.

Powers, who characterized the McCardells' failure as a "severe blow" to the state's $17 million-a-year aquaculture industry, clearly had high hopes for the venture.

"We honestly felt this could be the system we could hold up to the world as photogenic and successful," he said. "We never dreamed that it would not be."

Some businesses have flourished in the industry, growing aquatic animals or plants for a variety of uses -- from restaurants and markets to ornamental ponds and bait.

In Maryland and across the nation, the industry has developed some well-established companies, such as Burdette's, while continuing to attract entrepreneurs.

Still, after more than a decade of state efforts to promote aquaculture, the industry is not as far along as many had hoped.

"It's a tough industry to break into," says Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a member of the state's Aquaculture Advisory Committee and an Eastern Shore Republican. "I'm glad for the optimists who jump in with stars in their eyes.

"But the reality is the technology hasn't developed to the point where there's a guaranteed result."

`Something neat to get into'

Starry-eyed might be one way to describe the McCardells. The idea of raising fish first hit them about seven years ago, while they were on a camping trip to southern Pennsylvania. They drove past some fish farms, and the notion took root.

"You read about it, and you actually come upon [fish farms] and it's like, `Wow, that would be something neat to get into,' " said Donna McCardell, 37, who worked as a cook and waitress at her sister's restaurant.

A few years later, when her father, Edward Wilson, bought 40 acres from his in-laws' estate, the McCardells began to seriously consider a future in aquaculture.

In 1996, they called the state's aquaculture office and talked to Powers. He recommended they use an indoor, self-contained system of tanks.

He said that recirculating systems, unlike ponds, made a year-round growing season possible. They also eliminated the need to discharge large amounts of water.

The McCardells said Powers referred them to Burdette, who until June was chairman of Maryland's Aquaculture Advisory Committee. Burdette, 56, was described in a 1993 article in The Sun as a pioneer whose computerized tank system had captured the attention of federal officials, researchers and fish mongers nationwide.

In connection with the deal to buy the system, the McCardells were provided by Burdette with a plan for his company, Aquatic Technologies Inc., to build his recirculating system on Donna's father's land near Port Deposit.

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