A Fish Out Of Saltwater

Pompano and tilapia are two fish that would never meet in the wild.

But the saltwater and freshwater cousins are chasing after each other in landlocked tanks as scientists try to find new ways of meeting the worlds' growing appetite for seafood by raising fish outside the ocean.

"All reports indicate that our wild resources have hit a plateau. There's just not enough fish in the ocean," said industry analyst Howard M. Johnson. "So aquaculture provides a big opportunity."

The average American ate nearly 16 pounds of seafood in 2002, up 7 percent from the year before, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Johnson predicts that by the year 2020, an additional 1.1 billion pounds of seafood will be needed annually to meet the growing demand.

Researchers at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute believe new technology in the aquaculture industry promises to help create that needed supply.

In addition to pompano, a species with tight controls on its catch, researchers are working with flounder and black sea bass in less-salty water — building off the species' natural tendencies to wander away from their traditionally salty habitats.

The technology would allow the marine fish business to move away from the expensive coastline, giving more farmers across the country a chance to expand or convert their farms.

"You go to a state like Kansas or Missouri and the idea of having fresh fish and shrimp on the dinner table every night is very appealing to them but that option isn't always available," said Kenneth Riley, Harbor Branch's director of aquaculture education. "This is definitely giving you more options than the beef and chicken diet."

The switch from saltwater to freshwater is only one way Harbor Branch researchers are working to boost production. Along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they're developing ways to encourage fish that might spawn once or twice a year in the wild to become more productive.

Flounder, for example, spawn in the winter, but tanks in greenhouses with controlled temperatures and lighting can trick the fish into speeding up their natural instincts.

"The fish will think it's winter in the middle of a Florida summer," Riley said.

Other techniques to boost production include breeding fish within a species that have shown to be faster-growing, more nutritious or more disease-resistant.

"In the chicken industry, they grow them faster, fatter and cheaper. And that's what eventually will happen in aquaculture," Johnson said.

Fish farming could help stabilize the struggling commercial fishing market. Commercial fisherman have been hurting since the state's 1995 net ban, which has sharply limited the amount of pompano and other fish they can catch.

"The two industries complement each other," said Bob Jones, executive director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association. "Pompano is the gold fish. We just don't catch that many, so it would be good to have them reared and put on the market for us."

Farm-raised fish could eventually dominate that market, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Johnson's research. The aquaculture industry has seen a 300 percent increase in the last two decades and has become the fastest-growing segment of U.S. agriculture production.

By 2020, the four most popular seafoods — shrimp, salmon, tilapia and catfish — will likely come from the aquaculture industry, Johnson said.

Shrimp farmers such as Don Schumann are part of the reason. Faced with declining profits, Schumann converted his Vero Beach citrus grove to a shrimp farm in 1998. That change came after researchers in the early 1990s found that shrimp can be acclimated from saltwater to fresh water.

Farms for freshwater shrimp and prawns are now run across the country, particularly in warmer Midwestern and Southern states.

Schumann produces 2,000 pounds of shrimp a week, year-round, and sells the fresh seafood to high-end resorts and restaurants.

"It's a wonderful business. It's good for the environment. The volume of food produced is very high," said Schumann, president of Indian River Aquaculture.

"There were four generations of farmers before me in the family, so it kind of was second nature to me to stay in farming. This just kind of fit in nicely."