UM scientists create fish farm in Fells Point warehouse tanks

Advance holds promise for inner-city industry


February 18, 2000|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

University of Maryland scientists have figured out how to make commercially valuable fish spawn and grow to market size in a closed system, a discovery that could lead to a flourishing inner-city aquaculture industry.

A team from the university's Center of Marine Biotechnology at the Columbus Center downtown successfully raised gilthead sea bream, a popular Mediterranean fish, in tanks filled with treated tap water in a Fells Point warehouse.

The principles they used can be applied to mass produce other fish species, taking the fishing pressure off those in the wild, Yonathan Zohar, the center director, said at a news conference yesterday to announce the discovery.

And the system of recirculated water can be located anywhere, he added.

With global fish stocks declining, "it is clear in our minds that aquaculture is the only alternative," he said.

"This will provide clean seafood which will allow us to leave fish stocks alone in the wild to recover."

The ability to grow fish in a contained system indoors could lead to new jobs and businesses throughout the city, said Bert D'Logof of Offspring Marine, which is joining with New York-based Stark Microbiotics to invest $3 million to $5 million to build a commercial indoor fish farm in the West Baltimore Empowerment Zone.

"There are a significant number of warehouses out there," he said, with rental rates low enough to give the city a "tremendous advantage over other locations."

And although aquaculture doesn't provide many jobs, it could lead to fish-processing plants, which are labor-intensive, he said.

Aquaculture, a $1 billion-a-year industry nationally, is the fastest-growing segment of agriculture in the world, said Brad Powers, Maryland assistant secretary of agriculture.

It is a $20 million-a-year industry in Maryland, employing about 200 people. For the most part, it is limited to catfish ponds in rural areas, Powers said.

By using a controlled system indoors, growers can raise the same amount of fish in 10,000 square feet -- about a quarter-acre -- as they can in a 40-acre pond.

The closed system also is environmentally friendly because there are no discharges into the Chesapeake Bay or its tributaries.

The researchers re-created the environmental conditions -- salinity, water temperature and so forth -- necessary for spawning in tanks in the warehouse on Wolfe Street, but they couldn't get fish to reproduce until they learned that captive fish don't produce the same hormones as those in the wild.

The scientists engineered the hormone and planted it in the fish, which soon spawned.

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