Over the course of his 36-year career at USF, Peter Betzer was skilled enough at persuasion — in both the academic and political worlds — that he accomplished big things. Under founding dean Betzer, the school’s College of Marine Science became a research powerhouse that encompassed six other agencies and several hundred employees.
Retired since 2007, Betzer still thinks big. Among other activities, he serves on the advisory board of Sea Grant, a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and 33 universities in states along the coastlines and Great Lakes. Sea Grant allocates grants that fund marine-related initiatives, including habitat restoration, educational programs — and aquaculture initiatives.
At a recent Sea Grant advisory board meeting, Betzer says he heard a presentation about a new, privately owned facility in rural Wisconsin that Sea Grant-related scientists had a hand in developing. The business, called Superior Fresh, couples aquaculture with hydroponics, integrating a fish farm that produces Atlantic salmon and trout with a greenhouse that produces leafy green vegetables and herbs.
The details of the facility were so impressive that Betzer’s too-good-to-be-true alarm began ringing. He approached the scientist who gave the presentation and told him, “I don’t believe you. I have to see this.”
And so he did. And he believes he got a glimpse into the future of feeding the world — a future he thinks Florida ought to embrace.
Here’s the story. Brandon Gottsacker, a 2011 grad of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point with a degree in biology/ fisheries/aquaculture, is distantly related to members of the Wanek family, which owns and operates Ashley Furniture, a $4.6-billion manufacturing and retail firm that’s among America’s 100 largest corporations. (The company’s founder, Ronald Wanek, now lives in St. Petersburg.)
At a family reunion in Wisconsin, where Ashley has a furniture assembly plant, Gottsacker met with Todd Wanek, Ronald’s son and the company’s CEO, and his wife, Karen. Gottsacker couldn’t have picked a better chance encounter. The Waneks, it turned out, had developed an interest in sustainable food production and in aquaculture in particular. Gottsacker’s dream had been to establish a sustainable aquaculture facility; ultimately, they put together a business plan and, with the Waneks’ support, developed Superior Fresh on a site the Waneks owned in rural Wisconsin.
The operation consists of an enclosed fish farm where the fish are housed in tanks, integrated with a hydroponic greenhouse that uses supplemental LED grow lights to produce leafy greens year-round. The plants are fertilized using the recycled wastewater and nutrients from the fish operation. The fish farm, in a one-acre sized building, will produce about 160,000 pounds of Atlantic salmon and steelhead a year. The vegetable farm, about 3 acres under glass, will produce more than 1.5 million pounds of greens annually.
The facility discharges no production water into the area’s surface waters or groundwater, operates with virtually no waste and needs less than 10 gallons of fresh water a minute. The greens, which can be grown year-round, are certified organic. The fish — the first Atlantic salmon to be commercially produced at a land-based facility in the country — are produced without hormones or antibiotics.
The operation is extremely efficient: Gottsacker says a pound of fish food generates nearly a pound of fish and 10 pounds of greens. Superior Fresh has been selling greens for several months; the first crop of salmon went on sale in retail outlets in Wisconsin in July.
Gottsacker says most of the recirculating-water technology the facility uses is not new; the trick, he says, is the proprietary way the company has integrated it to maintain the conditions needed by Atlantic salmon, which are difficult to grow. “We’re doing some things that I know no one else in the world is doing,” he says.
The initial investment in plant and equipment, Gottsacker says, has been around $20 million. The company will be profitable in its first year. It’s already constructing a new greenhouse and is looking at sites nationally to expand.
Florida ought to be interested in having Superior Fresh or something like it in the state. As Florida Trend reported in 2016, wild-caught fish harvests, globally, have been flat for 30 years, and 30% of wild fish stocks are being fished at unsustainable levels. The massive decline in both population and average size of the grouper and snapper in Florida waters is well documented.
Globally, aquaculture has become the fastest-growing form of food production — in 2013, production of fish and other seafood passed beef production. But not in the U.S., which gets 90% of the seafood we eat from abroad, amounting to some $21.5 billion in imports in 2017. (The U.S. exports only about $5.4 billion in seafood.) Only about 1% of that imported seafood is inspected, by the way. In Florida, most of the salmon we eat comes from Norway or Chile.
There’s some aquaculture in Florida, but economically it’s small potatoes — around $100 million annually, half of which comes from sales of tropical fish for aquariums. There are small, established operations growing tilapia, clams, catfish and shrimp. The state has several small fish farms, but none with much scale, and none that have integrated a hydroponic farm.
Whether Superior Fresh ends up with a location in Florida, the need to develop sustainable, low-impact sources of protein is only going to increase. And Florida, with its considerable resources in marine and agricultural research, needs to stay near the cutting edge — and thinking big. “Aquaculture is a way to address what has become an important global issue — an ever-increasing demand for seafood,” says Betzer.
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