Aquafarmers look to ornamental fish, plants

Regional news


CAMBRIDGE -- Andrew Lazur had no trouble finding Nemo. Helping the lovable little clown- fish grow in captivity was a bit harder.

Lazur, an associate professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, has been perfecting techniques for growing Amphiprion ocellaris - Nemo's scientific name - more easily in a hatchery, reducing the need to raid fragile coral reefs to stock aquariums with the fish, which is prized for its coloring and high level of activity.

But Lazur's motivation is as much about money as it is conservation.

To survive in a global market, aquafarmers need to find higher-value products or new markets for the ones they have, he said.

"Aquaculture is at a critical time in Maryland," Lazur said during a recent tour of the Horn Point lab in Cambridge where he works. "The potential is there; we just need to develop the technology."

Maryland's aquaculture industry is small, but diverse. Aquaculture producers brought in nearly $3.4 million in 2003. Ornamental plants and fish dominate the trade, accounting for 88 percent of sales in 2003, the most recent statistics available from the state Department of Agriculture. Florida, whose aquaculture industry leads the nation, posted $95 million in sales in 2003.

Maryland aquafarmers grow food, such as tilapia, hybrid striped bass, oysters and soft crabs, and ornamental fish such as koi and goldfish. However, aquatic plants are the bulk of the business, accounting for $2.3 million in sales in 2003.

The business is fairly static now, but aquaculture advocates see potential for growth, spurred by a law passed by the General Assembly last session that streamlines the permitting process for aquaculture startups.

Howard R. Crum, former president of the Maryland Aquaculture Association, said attitudes toward aquafarming have changed.

"For a long time there was a real mistrust of aquaculture," he said. "Until recently, it was almost impossible to get into the business because the clamps were on so tight in this state."

Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat and chairwoman of the aquaculture task force, said changing the perception of aquafarming was the point of the new law.

"We need to somehow get them out in the public eye and make them a bigger part of the Maryland economy," she said.

Karl Roscher, coordinator for the Department of Agriculture's Aquaculture Advisory Committee, said the dominance of ornamental fish and plants over food fish is about profitability. Given the high land costs in the area, successful farmers have to get more money for their product. The market for tilapia is flooded by cheap imports, driving domestic farmers out of business. But the ornamental business has remained steady, helped by efficient shipping and improved methods of handling the plants and fish.

Mary Ellen Slayter writes for the Capital News Service.

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