Photo: Open BlueOpen Blue, a Panama company, says it has the largest open-ocean fish farm in the world and is the largest supplier of cobia. Open Blue was started "under the tutelage" of UM aquaculture director Daniel Benetti.
Aquaculture in Florida
Pompano and circumstance
Florida's aquaculture sector has lagged even as demand for seafood has increased. Some see a future in farming fin fish like cobia and pompano.
Aquaculture vs. Other Crops
Aquaculture includes the production of ornamental fish, mollusks, alligator meat and hides, aquatic plants and farmed fish for eating. Commercially caught seafood isn’t considered aquaculture. With $69 million in overall production, Florida ranks seventh nationally in overall aquaculture among the states. Here’s how the sectors of aquaculture compare with other Florida crops.
Christopher Schaefer, executive chef at Brandon’s Palm Beach restaurant in the Kimpton Tideline Ocean Resort & Spa, was among a few Florida chefs invited to cook for an August “Beachside Glamour” dinner at the prestigious James Beard House in New York.
Schaefer planned to serve a Florida pompano fillet in a sourdough crust. But pompano has a drawback: Commercial fishermen don’t regularly show up at the docks with boats full of it. “It’s just so sporadically available,” Schaefer says. Faced with trouble getting pompano for his James Beard dinner, he went with cobia instead.
Joseph Cardenas hopes to fill that gap between sea and table. A commercial banker until the fall of 2015, Cardenas had an entrepreneurial itch and began scouring the economy for a niche that promised growth and return. His service on a Florida Atlantic University advisory board had put him in touch with FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, and his board seat on Palm Beach County’s tourism council brought him in contact with restaurateurs, resorts and chefs.
Those contacts, and an entrepreneur’s eye, led him to agriculture, then aquaculture and, finally, to pompano. Cardenas went to trade shows, read scientific papers and talked to researchers. He’s raised $1.2 million of the $4 million he reckons he needs for his company, Aquaco Farms, to open an aquaculture facility on the Treasure Coast to raise pompano.
Cardenas is going fishing at an opportune moment. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says the world needs 27 million more metric tons of seafood by 2030 just to maintain the current per capita consumption level. Meanwhile, wild-caught harvests have been flat for 30 years, and 30% of wild fish stocks are being fished at unsustainable levels.
Aquaculture has become the fastest- growing form of food production globally — in 2013, production of fish and other seafood eclipsed production of beef. In the United States, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the nation’s aquaculture support entity, wants to expand the volume of U.S. ocean-species production by at least 50% in the next four years.
In Florida, however, aquaculture has a way to go. The state has well-established operations producing tilapia, sturgeon (for caviar), alligators, catfish, shrimp and clams, and a few entrepreneurs like Cardenas are branching out to species not usually farmed [“Aquaculture Ventures,” page 100]. But the overall production of farmed fish is small — the state generates more dollars from growing wheat than growing fish.
Florida has advantages — warmer weather means farmers don’t have to heat the water in the tanks at fish farms. And the state has assets in the form of universities, institutes and schools such as Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Sarasota, FAU’s Harbor Branch and UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science on Virginia Key in Biscayne Bay.
At UM and the other schools, the focus is how to grow fish economically. “If at the end of the day it doesn’t make money, the industry isn’t going to adopt it,” says John Stieglitz, a post-doctoral research associate at the Rosenstiel School.
UM researchers explain the fundamentals of fish-farming along these lines:
» As in other kinds of farming, yield is paramount. One UM research effort involves manipulating the reproduction of fish so that only females hatch. Females grow faster, and male fish, once sexually mature, tend to kill each other and some females as they compete to breed.
» In aquaculture, the point is not to grow fish as big as possible — in general, fish farmers shouldn’t try to grow trophy-sized fish any more than poultry farmers should try to raise 30-pound chickens. The object should be to grow a quality fish to market size — about 1.25 pounds to 1.5 pounds, for example, for pompano. Daniel Benetti, the school’s aquaculture director, explains the efficiency of “plate-sized” fish. Once fish grow bigger than that, he says, they grow slower and consume more feed because they begin burning energy on reproducing. “Everybody wins with plate-sized” fish, he says.
» The biggest cost for fish farmers is feed, which makes up 60% to 75% of a fish farm’s costs. “The holy grail is one to one,” Cardenas says — a pound of feed to produce a pound of fish. Farmed fish are fed a mixture that includes fishmeal and fish oil, critical but relatively pricey ingredients. Researchers and growers know how to efficiently feed species like salmon, which have been farmed successfully for a long time.
But there’s still room for much bigger strides in ecological and economic efficiencies in feeding newer farm-raised species like cobia and pompano.
The scientists experiment continually with different combinations of feed — and with alternative ingredients that will grow fish quickly while still providing both the flavor and the nutrition profile that consumers value. UM aquaculture nutrition program leader scientist Jorge Suárez and a research team, for example, found that a particular soybean product could cut a farmed cobia’s consumption of fish meal and fish oil from 48% of overall feed to 41% without triggering a drop in fish quality.
That seven percentage point difference could mean up to a 20% savings on feed costs.
» For the time being, in the United States, fish are more likely to be farmed on land rather than in pens in the open sea. NOAA opened federal waters, which begin nine miles off the Florida west coast, in the Gulf of Mexico for the first time this year to fish farming but has had no takers. Benetti says he favors farming there but then sketches such a lengthy list of challenges and concerns — regulatory approvals, securing permits, the cost of transporting feed nine miles to pens — that it sounds implausible.Plus there’s the risk that possible oil spills or hurricanes would create for open-water fish farmers.
Benetti says Latin American, Greek and Turkish aquaculture companies have talked with UM about starting production in the U. S. But investment overall has been moving at a snail’s pace. Some Florida companies have found it more economical to operate abroad.
Cardenas is seeking a six-acre site to prove his concept — 15 to 25 acres for full production — but for now his business is located at FAU’s Tech Runway business incubator. Cardenas says his research shows strong potential demand for pompano. He also researched aquaculture business failures and concluded the flops weren’t inherent in fish-raising, resulting instead from the traditional reasons businesses fail or because operators banked on an R&D breakthrough that didn’t materialize.
Cardenas plans to buy 10,000 fingerling pompano a month from a local hatchery, at a point when nearly all will survive, grow them out to 1.5 pounds in seven months and sell them. (For comparison, pigs add 200 pounds in 100 days, a chicken puts on five pounds in five weeks.)
Once ramped up, he anticipates needing 110,000 to 120,000 fingerlings a month. He’ll experiment with tank sizes but expects grow-out tanks to be a minimum of 20,000 gallons. He expects he can turn out 1.2 million pounds of pompano a year, nearly double the entire wild-caught commercial harvest of pompano in Florida in 2015.
He’s confident of quality. Experience has shown that quality feed and treatment equals excellent flavor, Cardenas and researchers say.
He’s also confident about price — his research shows pompano brings $1.20 to $1.50 per pound more at wholesale than farmed cobia and salmon, and $5 more than tilapia. Pompano also has less competition and more demand as a menu item while costing, he estimates, about $3.57 per pound to produce.
In 2015 in Florida, pompano, as a commercial catch, sat near the very top for finfish, fetching as much as $5.11 per pound, more than grouper and tuna — though various clams, stone crab and spiny lobster rule the top among all seafood in value.
Cardenas also expects to have negotiating power, since his “catch,” unlike that of a commercial fishing boat, can’t spoil as long as he keeps it swimming in the tank.
Nonetheless, he and the industry have challenges beyond the operational. Some consumers believe, and some advocacy groups argue, that farmed seafood is bad for the environment and lacks flavor.
NOAA says those perceptions are based on outdated or inaccurate information. On-land fish farms use what everyone in the industry refers to as “RAS” — a recirculating aquaculture system — in which water from grow-out tanks is filtered to remove solids, ammonia and other organic and inorganic wastes. The water is then oxygenated and reused, dramatically cutting the amount of water and space needed.
Sea-based farm pollution has been an issue in some nations. But properly sited pens in open waters, placed where strong currents and greater depth dilute runoffs, have been proven to have no significant environmental impact, Benetti says.
As for flavor, Benetti frequently refers to a Washington Post article in which chefs in a blind tasting favored farmed salmon over wild. (The top-rated came from Costco.) He cites a New York Times story in which the newspaper tested eight “wild-caught” salmon portions sold at markets and found six of them were actually farmed.
Wolfgang Birk, executive chef at seafood restaurant Area 31 at Kimpton’s EPIC Hotel in downtown Miami, is likewise convinced that most people, in a blind taste test, will pick farmed fish. For him and other chefs, farmed fish also solve the problem of consistent portions, price and availability. “I see it here even on the water. We have times when good fish is not available,” Birk says.
One particularly difficult challenge is Benetti’s goal of convincing Americans, who are accustomed to buying fillets, to buy whole fish, as Asians, Latin Americans and Europeans do.
Not throwing away two-thirds of the fish “is the only way we can be more ecologically and economically efficient and make aquaculture work in the USA,” he says.
Cardenas plans to sell whole fish off the farm and eventually integrate a processing facility where he can offer fillets. He projects breaking even at 24 to 28 months. At $9.5 million to $10 million in sales, he projects $3 million in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization.
What happens then will depend on investors, he says. His own preference would be to farm three or four additional species over 10 years and build a farmed fish brand.
First, however, he must succeed with pompano. Unlike salmon, tuna and snapper, pompano isn’t a standard menu item. Mild, good at absorbing seasonings, pompano lends itself to a variety of cooking methods — grilling, sautéing, baking — and has omega-3 oil. And it’s local, at a time when consumers want local.
Birk says that when he has pompano, wahoo and cobia as specials, they move. When he puts them on the regular menu, they don’t. It may take time to educate consumers, he says. With its oil and fat content, “it’s a beautiful fish to grill.”
» Fish Tale, Homestead
In south Miami-Dade at Oceanus Seafood, founder Jon Milchman earlier this year harvested and sold his first crop of pompano. He harvests 1,000 to 2,000 pounds every Thursday and, through distributors, the fish are on restaurant plates in Naples and Orlando on Friday and Saturday.
But pompano is only the means to his end. Milchman aims to be the first on the planet to farm tripletail, a particularly tasty fish that grows to five pounds in the time it takes a pompano to put on a pound.
“I was the guy growing up that had 19 fish tanks in his bedroom,” he says. An aspiring law student who says he “didn’t take very long to realize the world didn’t need another lawyer,” he became a Keys fishing guide. Over the decades, he says he saw firsthand the dramatic declines in fish even in the world’s most protected waters. “If we want to continue to eat fish, we have to stop pillaging the oceans,” he says.
» FishEye Aquaculture, Dade City
Jonathan and Amanda Foster founded Fish Eye in Pasco County in 2008. They typically have “several thousand of multiple species” marine ornamentals — aquarium fish — in their pipeline. Supplying distributors for the retail market as well as some of the nation’s best known attraction aquariums, his fish range from $3 to $200 each. A new development has been its “aqua cultured display collection” from which it supplies major aquariums with hundreds and even thousands of schooling fish or other animals usually found only in major aquariums or with collectors. Summers are slower for sales, but during the rest of the year, fish generally sell as soon as they’re mature enough to leave. There are waiting lists for some species. “Every year is better than the last,” Foster says.
» Gatorama, Glades County
Mostly known as an attraction, Gatorama also is a working alligator farm, among the first permitted when alligator farming became legal. The 13.5-acre farm is home to 2,500 alligators, both those on exhibit and those grown for harvest. In normal market years, the farm hatches 800 to 1,000 alligators to grow-out over two years for harvest for meat and hides. Co-owner Allen Register says with a spike in egg prices — now $60 to $70 for a fertilized egg up from $20 to $25 three years ago — he’s selling lots of eggs rather than hatching as many. Louisiana had a drop-off in egg collection, leading to higher demand for eggs. “The hide market is really strong right now,” he says. There are more than 60 alligator farms in Florida, from Starke in the north to south Florida.
» Placida Gold Aqua Farms, Placida
In a word, “tough.” That’s how Barry Hurt of Placida Gold Aqua Farms near Charlotte Harbor describes his effort to bring back and commercially farm Sunray Venus clams, a once popular indigenous species along Florida’s Gulf Coast heavily harvested after World War II. For more than a decade, Hurt engaged in aquaculture of hard clams, but he’s near retirement now, has cut back his operation and began working with the Sunray Venus a couple of years ago as a focused project. “We’re in a learning process of trying to figure out how different this animal is from other clams. It’s significantly different. We’ve had mixed results so far.”
» Cedar Key Aquaculture Farms, Cedar Key
Cedar Key Aquaculture Farms and smaller farmers it works with brought 25 million clams to market last year, supplying Costco’s eastern stores and others. “Close to 90% of all seafood consumed in the United States is imported. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to get involved. We had an opportunity to produce something in the United States that consumers in the United States wanted to buy,” says company president and partowner Dan Solano. The company was born in the years when Florida was trying to find new work for displaced oystermen. Lots more players jumped in when the net ban put more people out of work and into clam aquaculture. “There was a lot of trial and error we all went through, primarily error,” Solano says. Much more now is known about how to hatch and grow clams in Florida, and the state’s long growing season gives it an edge. “We can come to market about three times faster with our clams over the same clams in Massachusetts or Long Island. There’s our market opportunity.” The next big thing: Oysters, Solano predicts. State Ag Secretary Adam Putnam and the rest of the Cabinet were quick to support the new aquaculture industry, but it took the federal government a long time to clear the regulatory way for oyster aquaculture here, he says. However, the way is now open and his company is growing and selling oysters. Gulf of Mexico oysters can grow in half the time it takes Chesapeake oysters to grow, he says. “There’s a big opportunity with farmed oysters. Over the next 10 years, it will dwarf clams. The oyster market is a lot larger.”
Florida’s Marine Science Infrastructure
» Mote Marine, Sarasota
Most of Mote Marine’s aquaculture research takes place at its 200-acre Mote Aquaculture Research Park in eastern Sarasota County. Mote researchers focus on designing filtration technology for recirculating systems and on developing methods to spawn and grow fish from egg through grow-out for both marine and freshwater species.
Recirculating systems conserve water, protect farmed animals from disease and assure them good quality water along with moving ocean fish farming to land, eliminating regulatory issues that come with sea-based fish farming. A recent Mote project raised red drum, a saltwater fish, while using the waste water involved to fertilize sea vegetables also sold for food. Kevan Main, director of the Mote Aquaculture Research Park, started the project and recently was honored with the Fellow of the World Aquaculture Society Award at the society’s annual conference for her achievements in the field. She’s a past-president of the society.
» Harbor Branch, Fort Pierce
Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute has been the home of groundbreaking work in clams, shrimp, pompano, cobia and other species.
A recent key research area has been what’s called an integrated multi-trophic aquaculture system for land-based farms. The idea is to use a recirculating system to grow plants and animals in combination, using the same recirculating water to turn one species’ waste into another’s resource. All recirculating systems lose water, but Harbor Branch’s system is efficient, research professor Paul Wills said in a recent talk.
Associate research professor Susan Laramore, meanwhile, is the in-house expert on shrimp culture.
Harbor Branch scientists recently began a $3-million project, funded by a grant from the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, to design and test an experimental project to grow bonefish to enhance stock. Bone fish populations have been in decline.
In 1995, Florida voters banned the use of entangling nets near shore. It was devastating for Cedar Key’s commercial fishing industry, which still struggled with lost jobs from the federal closing of a oystering operation in the Suwannee Sound that had been contaminated by bacteria from septic tanks. Septic tanks were removed with the help of taxpayer funding, allowing the shellfish area to reopen. Then IFAS aquaculture expert Leslie Sturmer, with federal job retraining dollars, worked to teach displaced workers to clam farm. According to UF, Cedar Key has become one of the most productive clam farm areas in the nation.
UF researchers recently found a way to farm Pacific blue tang — “Dory” of the summer movie fame. And UF researchers at the UF/IFAS Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory in Ruskin studied the suitable of farming arapaima, a fish consumed regularly in South America, in the United States. It grows to more than 200 pounds in the Amazon. They found it could grow outdoors only in south Florida’s warmer weather.
» Jacksonville University, Jacksonville
Students at Jacksonville University raise tilapia and hybrid striped bass and plants in a student designed and managed 700-gallon recirculating aquaponics system, says Gerry Pinto, a research scientist with the JU Marine Science Research Institute. Researchers and students found peppers and micro greens grow best in the system.
» University of North Florida, Jacksonville
Biology professor and comparative nutritional physiologist Gregory Ahearn focuses on how lobsters and shrimp digest and absorb nutrients. He then looks for ways to accelerate it to boost animal growth rates and thus increase farmer profits.