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A new way to farm fish and feed the world

By Timothy B. Wheeler Baltimore Sun reporter

Article from The Baltimore Sun

Scientists at Columbus Center hope to show viability of 'greener' aquaculture

A branzini being prepared for delivery
A branzini being prepared for delivery. (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum / June 26, 2009)

Yonathan Zohar beams like a proud parent as he cradles the freshly netted fish in his hands.

He didn't catch this glistening branzini. He raised it - and thousands more - in large fiberglass tanks at the Columbus Center at the Inner Harbor.

"This is a happy moment here," says Zohar, director of the Center of Marine Biotechnology at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute. "Green fish, as good as it gets. Clean, environmentally friendly, sushi-quality fish, delivered to the restaurant a few hours after harvesting."

Zohar and his team of scientists and technicians have been laboring for years to perfect techniques for captive breeding and rearing of fish as quickly and cleanly as possible. For marine species like branzini, otherwise known as European seabass, they make artificial sea water, then recycle nearly all of it, filtering out waste and even capturing methane to offset some of the energy used in raising the fish in captivity.

With public interest growing in sustainable seafood, they hope to demonstrate the commercial viability of their fully contained, land-based, indoor fish farm.

"This is the next wave of seafood development," Zohar predicts. "We know we are running out of fish. We know we cannot continue to hunt and gather."

Experts have been warning for some time that the Earth's oceans can no longer be relied upon to meet the global demand for seafood. According to U.N. estimates, 75 percent to 80 percent of wild fish stocks worldwide are overfished or nearly so.

While gains have been made in recent years in managing harvests, the seemingly insatiable demand for seafood has fed an explosion of fish farming. Nearly half the fish consumed worldwide were raised rather than caught, the United Nations says.

Aquaculture, though, has produced its own environmental issues, including water pollution from the concentrated fish waste and potential contamination of the fish. Some decry the sacrifice of vast quantities of less valuable fish to feed the pricier farmed ones.

UM's marine biotechnology center has worked out a better way to farm fish, Zohar contends, which addresses the complaints of many of aquaculture's critics. The fish swim in 12-foot diameter tanks holding 3,200 gallons of water, the temperature and suitability constantly monitored by computer.

Not a drop of the water comes from the Inner Harbor, and not a drop gets into it, the marine scientist points out. The artificial sea water is recirculated after being filtered and treated to remove fish waste and excess food. By maintaining high water quality, he says, the tanks are able to hold denser concentrations of fish than the typical open-water fish farm but without the disease or parasite problems that can plague them.

The center also is developing and testing new recipes for fish food made from plant material and algae, instead of ground-up fish.

"These fish are as clean, green and organic as you can get," say Zohar, who has bred and raised striped bass and blue crabs in the Columbus Center laboratory. He's focusing the center's efforts on fish that he believes have commercial potential, such as branzini, a popular European fish that is farmed extensively in the Mediterranean to protect what remains of the wild stock. But Zohar notes that he's raised daurade, or sea bream, another Mediterranean fish, and recently began working with cobia, a popular sport fish also prized for its flavor. Staff members are preparing to try bluefin tuna in larger tanks.

Shawn Martin of Martin Seafood Co. in Jessup says he thinks there might be an opening for someone to produce a popular restaurant fish like branzini, which are now flown in from Europe and sell wholesale for $5.50 to $6 a pound. And if they can be branded as sustainable, they could command a premium price, Martin says.

"There's a big swing toward seafood sustainability," Martin says, "and there have been quite a few restaurants trying to serve only fish products that are sustainable. ... It's become a new niche market."

It's a tough business, though, for an entrepreneur to break into, notes Doug Lipton, a fisheries economist at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"The prospects are there. The technology is fascinating," he said, but relatively few finfish aquaculture operations in the United States have been able to attract investors because of the vagaries of the global seafood market.

But Casson Trenor of Greenpeace says Zohar could be onto something. The environmental group's seafood sustainability campaigner says a closed-loop fish operation like the UM center's could ease harvest pressure on the world's wild fish stocks without generating the environmental problems that crop up in open-water fish farming.

"This sounds to me like they are really innovative, moving in the right direction," says Trenor, who adds that Zohar is smart to try to compete with a popular import like branzini. European farming of the fish is "high waste," the Greenpeace activist says. If the UM scientists can raise their fish without feeding them pellets made from other fish, so much the better, he adds.

Damon R. Hersh, head chef for Kali's Court and Mezze restaurants in Fells Point, says he was "absolutely blown away" by the UM center's operation after touring it recently.

Kali's Court, which bills itself as an upscale, Mediterranean-style seafood restaurant, carries whole, grilled bronzini (an alternate spelling) as one of its premier entrees, at $34 a serving. Hersh says he serves 200 to 300 a week and has been getting his supply flown in from Greece via Philadelphia. But after tasting some provided by Zohar, the chef says he would love to have a local source that is hours away instead of days, as long as the price is right.

"The texture is a little bit firmer, the flavor a little bit more alive," Hersh says. "The coloration is gorgeous. And, of course, the shelf life is fantastic - they're fresh."

Hersh is so enthusiastic that he invited chefs from area restaurants to tour the Columbus Center fish operation on Tuesday.

"I'm very excited," the chef says. "If this is the direction or wave of future aquaculture, then I'm all behind it."

Zohar says he's finishing a business plan that envisions producing 200 tons of fish a year in tanks that can be housed in a modest-size warehouse nearly anywhere; the only water needed comes from the tap. He's aiming to produce the fish for $4 to $5 a pound, he says, with a premium for their "freshness factor."

Once he demonstrates the viability of the system, Zohar hopes to see others replicate and expand it.

"I'm not a businessman," he says. "What really drives me is ... feeding the world."

Copyright © 2009, The Baltimore Sun


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