In Florida, tasty fish varieties get aquaculture funding from USDA

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For those who love seafood but find local menus lacking, efforts are underway in Florida to boost sources of pompano, redfish and other varieties for fish farming.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has put $2.4 million this year into a new program at Florida Atlantic University. The school's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce will attempt to help reduce the nation's reliance on imports and reduce the seafood trade deficit -- $14 billion in 2016.

Over 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States of America is imported. The main imported species are shrimp, salmon, crab and white fish.

Harbor Branch has taken the lead because "small producers would have to form a large coalition" to expand variety through fish farming, said Paul Wills, associate director for research at the institute. "The cost of developing a new species would have a high cost, [which is] a barrier to entry."

Pompano and redfish, or red drum, were chosen because they're tasty, he said. Both are popular shore-fishing catches in Florida and elsewhere.

"Many people regard pompano as the best-eating marine fish, but it's scarce," Wills said. "We know how to spawn it, and we'll be looking at improving that spawning efficiency and the feedstocks."

The idea, he said, is not to compete with private fish farmers.

"We're doing this to support the entire industry. We won't be producing it commercially for sale. We'll do training and provide seedstock for hatcheries," Wills said.

He acknowledged that the program can charge a nominal fee to recover some costs to the taxpayer under USDA rules, but he said any such fees haven't been imposed.

The institute only knows of one small producer that raises pompano fingerlings, or tiny fish that are sold to be grown out. That's Vero Beach, Fla.-based ProAquatix, which sells to one of the only companies trying to farm pompano in Florida -- Fort Pierce, Fla.-based Aquaco Farms.

Aquaco is a recent startup company by former banker Joe Cardenas.

Since Cardenas is trying to enter the market as a private business, he's leery of publicly funded projects trying to raise pompano. But he acknowledged in an interview that varieties of local Atlantic pompano are extremely limited.

"It can't hurt if they are successful," Cardena said. He said selective breeding of tilapia in the United States is about 15 years along and has resulted in better feedstock.

But Cardenas said good projects and lack of capital are the biggest barriers. He said he's put $3.5 million into his new company.

"Honestly, the state of Florida could do better by providing infrastructure like Hawaii and Maine, which have aquaculture parks for private operators to use," he said.

Wills said the pompano and redfish are only the first varieties for which Harbor Branch will attempt to provide better feedstock. Those two were chosen based on national surveys.

"We want to get those two species up to a level where the industry has more access to them and improve the disease resistance and efficiency of farming by offering better strains that are resistant to common diseases," he said.

The federal government is heavily involved in providing fish stock for the nation's lakes, ponds, streams and oceans. In 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says its network of 70 fish hatcheries released 230 million young fish and eggs, comprising 94 different species, in 46 states.

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