The future of fish

Sea bream and sea bass raised in tanks

August 02, 2010

If you have a sensitive conscience and palate, eating fish can be tricky. The stocks of large, wild, ocean fish are diminishing. Problems in the environment affect the catch. The recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico occurred in the spawning grounds of giant bluefin tuna. Farm-raised fish have had their issues, both with the questionable tactic of feeding them wild fish and with the waste created when a great number of fish are raised in a contained space.

Finally, there is the question of what happens when fish hits the dinner plate. Wild fish have more flavor, but because of their wide travels they run the risk of picking up toxins. The flavor profile of many farm-raised fish runs, at best, from mild to bland.

There appears to be a ray of hope shining in these murky waters, and it emanates from Baltimore. Yonathan Zohar, a marine biologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, thinks he has figured out a clean way to raise fish in large tanks filled with artificial seawater. Moreover, he and his backers feel there is money to be made by raising fish in tanks in a yet-to-be determined Baltimore-area warehouse. Recently, they formed a biotechnology start-up company called Maryland Sustainable Mariculture to pursue that quest.

Relying on a technique of re-circulating the water in the tanks, the start-up plans to raise about 100,000 pounds of European sea bass and sea bream in the first year, and grow from there. The mature fish, also called bronzini and dorade and weighing about 1 pound each, will be sold to upscale restaurants.

Mr. Zohar and colleagues worked for 15 years to perfect the technique of using microorganisms to clean the recirculating water in tanks set up in the Columbus Center in the Inner Harbor. During that span, he would from time to time sell fish to a handful of area restaurants. Now he wants to expand the operation. In what he called an optimistic scenario, Mr. Zohar said the new commercial operation would have fish in the tanks in six months, and 1-pound fish in restaurants nine months later.

Dr. Zohar's work in Baltimore has caught the attention of Paul Greenberg, author of the newly released book "Four Fish." This book examines wild-fishing industry and aquaculture operations by tracing the history and biology of four iconic fish: salmon, cod, sea bass and tuna.

Mr. Greenberg said Mr. Zohar's work with sea bass is an example of fish farming done the right way. "He has seen both the good things and the bad things in aquaculture," Mr. Greenberg said. "The big question in my mind is, can he make it economically feasible?" The feed ratio — how much food you have to give farmed fish to bring them to market — is a crucial financial component.

While bronzini and dorade are popular in Europe, they are relative new to American diners. To some palates, the locally farmed sea bass and sea bream fall short of the flavor of imported fish. Yet Mr. Greenberg contends that most Americans like their fish mild. It will be interesting to see whether the farm-raised sea bass and sea bream can find a niche in the local marketplace.

Mr. Greenberg is probably correct that — imperfect though it is — aquaculture is going to be an increasingly large part of our future. Worldwide per-capita fish consumption has doubled in the past 50 years, while the catch of wild fish has plateaued. "We need to back off some of the really egregious fish we have been catching, like bluefin tuna. And we need to start looking at both wild and farm-raised alternatives that are a step below what we have been doing now," Mr. Greenberg said. "It is a model that can work."

For years, Maryland has been known for the wild seafood pulled from it waters. Efforts to make those waters cleaner and replenish the catch must continue. But at the same time, Maryland's new tank fish operation could prove to be a productive partner, providing locally grown fish that share the market with wild fish captured by watermen.

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