Scientist banks on fish farm

UMBI researcher develops indoor saltwater system

September 03, 2006|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun reporter

In a basement lab at the Inner Harbor, one of the world's most intensely studied fish is swimming in a computer-monitored tank - a journey designed to end on a dinner plate.

For years, the gilthead seabream, a Mediterranean delicacy fished nearly to extinction, has been the focus of research at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute's Columbus Center.

To try to mass produce saltwater fish indoors - away from the ocean - scientists have been probing what they eat, how they mate, their growth rate, the water temperatures they prefer and techniques for ridding the massive tanks of their waste.

Now they believe they've figured out how to do it - and make money.

"The beauty of the system is that the tanks can be installed in warehouses and placed anywhere - in the Midwest, near an airport or railway, in an inner-city neighborhood where jobs are scarce," said Yonathan Zohar, director of UMBI's Center of Marine Biotechnology and godfather of the decade-long project.

Zohar and colleagues have also performed the ultimate experiment on their seabream - arranging taste tests in Baltimore restaurants.

"It always sells well. People think it's great," said Kevin Bonner, executive general manager of McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant.

So now Zohar's team is looking for a corporate partner to market and build a UMBI-designed fish farm.

The "closed loop" system is the first of its kind - a recirculating tank farm that loses almost no water and produces a saltwater fish, Zohar says.

Other tank systems produce freshwater fish, but Zohar says a saltwater system ensures higher-quality fish with a wider range of health benefits.

Fish farming is hardly new. The Chinese have raised them for thousands of years. U.S. biologists have raised trout since the 1880s and catfish and tilapia since the 1970s. With sturgeon, Atlantic salmon, hybrid striped bass and a variety of shellfish thrown in, U.S. fish farming is a $1 billion a year business, federal officials say.

The problem: Many of these fish farms are based in oceans, ponds, estuaries and streams where they're subject to the vagaries of weather and where the waste creates environmental headaches, experts say.

With the latest government dietary guidelines promoting the health benefits of seafood, America's fish consumption is expected to increase from 11 million tons last year to 14 million tons by 2025, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

Meanwhile, the U.S. already imports 70 percent of its seafood, and demand is increasing - one reason Zohar thinks the time is right for UMBI's project.

"Obviously we're running out of fish - that's the main concern," he said. "The oceans cannot give us any more."

Environmentalists prefer tank systems like UMBI's because they don't pollute waterways with densely accumulated fish waste.

Tank systems also avoid the possibility of farm-raised fish escaping and mating with wild fish, creating a hybrid species, said Rebecca J. Goldburg, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund.

"As long as the energy costs are kept in line, it's considered the preferable way," she said.

Federal officials diplomatically say there's need for all types of fish farming. "All of these technologies are a step in the right direction because we need seafood," said Michael Rabino, who runs NOAA's sea farming efforts and has toured UMBI's lab.

But experts warn would-be fish farmers to tread carefully. Like raising cattle, hogs and other animals, it's more complicated than novices expect - and more than a few entrepreneurs have gone belly-up.

"I'm a little concerned people underestimate the difficulty involved in trying to operate these closed-loop systems," Jim Carlberg, president of Kent SeaTech Corp., which produces hybrid striped bass in San Diego.

Scott Lee, who operates Deale Aquaculture, a wholesale fish operation in southern Anne Arundel County, started a tilapia farm in the 1990s, using tanks and filters he set up in a 10,000-square-foot concrete warehouse.

The system, based on technology different from UMBI's, never worked as promised, he said.

"Instead of raising 200,000 pounds a year, we were lucky to produce 30,000 pounds," he recalled. "The system looked good, but there were flaws that people coming into the business for the first time couldn't have seen."

At one time, there were 10 to 12 tilapia operations in Maryland, hoping to cash in on a fish promoted for its health and market potential, he said. But they're all history now.

Lee survives as wholesaler, selling fish to markets in the Washington area and using his 32 tanks to store fish, instead of raising them. Burned once, he has no intention of getting back into fish farming.

"I don't care how much money I had - I would never raise fish. If Maryland would tell me they would give me a system, I'd say no thanks," Lee declared. "I wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

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