At this year’s Florida State Fair, the agriculture scene is on full display. As you might expect, cows, goats and pigs are available for fairgoers to feed and pet. But this year’s agricultural exhibits also include another of the state’s prosperous, but lesser-known commodities: aquaculture.
The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory is hosting an exhibit to teach the public about the large and diverse aquaculture industry. The exhibit also includes a host of UF/IFAS restoration and research information.
Of the water-based plants and animals that Florida produces, ornamental fish and plants -- those one would find in a fish tank or water garden -- are the most popular and bring in the most money.
“We have about 70 tropical fish farms across the state, and that’s our number one aquaculture product coming out of the state of Florida,” said assistant lab extension scientist, Eric Cassiano.
Aquaculture brings in around $100 million to the state every year, and tropical fish account for about half of that. The farming of ornamental fish is especially important in Hillsborough and Polk counties.
“It's unique, prosperous, and employs thousands of people and in this part of Florida, (aquaculture) has a history that goes back to the 1930s with the tropical fish industry,” said lab director, Craig Watson.
Florida’s recent battle with red tide isn’t something one would think would affect the farming of fish and other aquatic farming since the water sources can be controlled, but the opposite is actually true.
“The claming industry down in Charlotte Harbor has been closed for a year and a half,” said Watson. “The clams aren’t suffering. They’re growing and doing fine. But because of the red tide, the farms can’t sell their product.”
Pricing, said, Cassiano, is another concern of the industry.
“Tropical fish and shellfish have remained relatively stable for the past 20 years or so,” he said. “Even though the price of producing those commodities has gone up, the actual price that the producer is getting per unit has stayed the same."
The UF/IFAS Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory is focused on research to enhance the knowledge of students and farmers interested in aquaculture, which includes restoration efforts.
"This is a section of aquaculture that is pretty new,” Cassiano said. “It’s about preserving seagrass beds, oyster reefs, and coral reefs throughout the state of Florida.”
The lab grows aquatic species that have been affected by a number of issues, including red tide and climate change, and then introduces these species back into the state’s waterways.
Though aquaculture isn’t the largest Florida commodity, it remains important, according to Watson.
“We've got the climate from the panhandle to the Keys that allows us to produce everything from sturgeon and ornamental fish to clams, oysters, alligators, aquatic plants,” he said. “There's no other state in the nation with that (kind of) diversity.”