Fish farming research to get real-world tryout

Biotech startup tests indoor aquaculture technique developed by University of Maryland scientists

July 19, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

A technique developed by University of Maryland scientists for cultivating seafood indoors is slated to get its first real-world tryout under a licensing agreement with a newly formed Baltimore company.

The technique, in which fish destined for the dinner table are bred in captivity and raised in large tanks of artificial sea water, has been licensed to a biotechnology startup called Maryland Sustainable Mariculture, University System of Maryland officials say.

It's a watershed for Yonathan Zohar and his team of scientists and technicians, who've been working for years to perfect their "recirculating marine aquaculture system" in the Columbus Center at the Inner Harbor.

"It's the culmination of what I've been trying to push for many, many years — production of clean seafood," said Zohar, director of the newly formed Department of Marine Biotechnology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He had been director of the Center for Marine Biotechnology at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute until that was disbanded last year in a university system reorganization. "For me, it's like a dream come true, for sure."

Maryland Sustainable Mariculture was formed by Zohar and some of his colleagues and associates to commercialize the technology, said David D. Wolf, a retired Baltimore insurance executive who is business adviser to the fledgling venture.

The organizers are seeking private investors to finance the enterprise, Wolf said, which aims to produce branzini, or European sea bass, and daurade, or sea bream. Those two fish are popular in Europe and have caught on among high-end American chefs. The plan is to start by raising about 100,000 pounds of fish a year, then scale up to as much as eight times that.

"Our expectation is the first [production facility] will be here,'' said Wolf, formerly executive vice president of Carefirst BlueCross BlueShield. "But our plan is both to have it go nationally and ultimately internationally, because we think the need is worldwide."

Zohar said he and his team have demonstrated that their technology can produce premium fish in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way, with microorganisms cleaning the recirculated tank water and producing methane that can be used as a supplemental energy source.

"The Gulf of Mexico oil spill, unfortunately this huge disaster ... shows you need to find ways to produce clean seafood that does not risk being polluted and contaminated by whatever goes into the oceans," Zohar said. Now, he says, he wants to prove it can be done profitably as well.

University system officials and Wolf declined to disclose the terms of the licensing agreement. Wolf said the company was still negotiating the royalties it would pay the University System of Maryland for the use of the technology. Zohar would serve as the venture's chief scientific adviser, Wolf said.

An earlier version misstated the name of Maryland Sustainable Mariculture. The Sun regrets the error.

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