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Experimental Farm Could be the Future for Fish, Veggies

That fish gracing your dinner table now is either caught in the wild - or raised in offshore cages. But with demand growing, researchers are looking for new alternatives to raise food. We take a tour of an experimental farm run by Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. There, fish - and vegetables grown using fish waste - are being raised far inland from the Gulf of Mexico. 

Some day, that fish on your plate at a fancy waterside restaurant may have spawned at a place like Kevan Main's experimental farm.

"So this building is where we have the breeding systems," she says, taking me on a tour of the facility. "Every room is separate from the others. It has its own filter system and its own water temperature control system, so that we can accommodate the needs of the different fishes. For example, this room has red drum in it, and they're being conditioned for spawning now."

This is an experimental breeding program at Mote Aquaculture Park, run by Mote Marine Laboratory. Main manages the Marine and Freshwater Aquaculture Research Program. What that title means is she's trying to re-jigger the future of fisheries.

This is a completely "closed" system. The nutrients in the salt water used to raise the fish are recycled "downstream" to nurture plants - some of which are sold to local restaurants.

"My new project that I started about a year and a half ago is what we call marine aquaponics - and that's where you're using both fish and plants together in the same production unit," she says. "And what we're able to do with that is clean the water up and produce two products at the same time in that sustainable system."

We're nowhere near the Gulf - we're in a landlocked laboratory 20 miles inland from Mote's headquarters on Sarasota Bay.

Not that they're totally disconnected from the Gulf. Main's closed-system  is also growing snook, which will be used to stock wild populations in the Gulf, and flounder, which is being used for a Mote study on how fish react to oil spills. And one of Mote's projects - raising sturgeon for caviar - has been sold to a private company.

Main says it's inevitable that fish will be farmed far from the coast. As the number of people increase - and with it, their appetite for fish - over-fishing would collapse stocks - like what's already happened in the Gulf with her red drum.

"We're currently importing 91 percent of the seafood we're eating in this country," she says. "It's crazy. We have all this ocean around us and all this potential for aquaculture that could be happening with wonderful species like Florida red drum. Yet the red drum being sold in our markets today are coming from Vietnam and from Mauritius, off the coast of Africa. I had a wholesaler the other day who said he was buying red drum from Vietnam, and he wanted to start buying from me."

Juvenile fish
Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
Juvenile fish

Katie Sosa co-owns Sammy's Seafood in St. Petersburg. They're a wholesaler for sustainably-raised seafood.

"In the end, that food - that's fresh and traceable and is grown in the backyard - it costs a little bit more," she says.

The farm-to-table concept is a hot commodity right now in foodie circles.  Sosa says Main is developing a niche product - but it's too early to tell if the economics will work just yet.

"There's still a cost involved, where even if they start off strong, sometimes the appeal starts to fade a little bit. And that's what we're finding out right now with the red drum. It started out real hot, it was new, and people were willing to do it and buy it. And then it started to fade out," says Sosa. "And that has a lot less to do with the chef, and a lot more to do with the people pulling up at the table."

But she says once the price becomes comparable with wild-caught fish, projects such as Main's will catch on.

"And I think what she might be able to do is take what she does and take it to another place and another place and have it available in lots of other areas," Sosa says. "Because her space didn't take up that much space, her product's a great product, and we sell a ton of her final product, which is the salt wort, and the sea purslane."

That's the downstream part of Main's research. All those nutrients produced by the fish are soaked up by the roots of plants, which end up gracing the tables of local restaurants.

"These are the vegetables of the future," says Main. "These are one of the products that people will be eating in the future will be produced in saltwater. And in the sustainable systems, we get the fish, the vegetables, and we also produce fertilizer that is used for wetland plant production."

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News
Sea purslane

Main says she's working with several local chefs to figure out how to use the sea purslane as a side dish or a compliment for seafood.

She says it tastes kind of like spinach.

"It's got a salty tang to it, and it's nice and plump," she says. "It's really great on salads - you can put it on there as a garnish on a salad. Or you can sauté it, and put it into pasta, all sorts of different recipes."

Sea purslane is one thing - but Sosa says finding a market for something called saltwort might be a tougher sell.

"Yeah, saltwort doesn't sound like something you'd want to be catching at the dinner table," she says.

Main kind of agrees.

"So saltwort is a great name when it's a coastal plant. It's not so great when it's food," she says. "So I'll have to work on a new name for that one."

New name or not, time will tell whether these fish or veggies can make the transition from an experimental lab to the family dinner table.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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