Back in 1970, when Ray Drawdy and his son, Donald, decided to try their hand at farming fish, the venture entailed little more than digging a few dirt ponds in the front yard of their Polk County homestead, filling them with amenable breeders and letting nature take its course.
Today, the dime store guppies and platys and swordtails that once stocked the ponds at Imperial Tropicals
have been largely replaced by a growing inventory of rare, high-end exotics that reproduce only under exacting conditions, accompanied by a marketing plan that has shifted from catering to distributors, to courting new private collectors on the Internet.
"It's a big risk, but we're focusing on the hobbyist," says Mike Drawdy, who now runs the business started by his father and grandfather nearly half a century ago. "We're reaching a territory that's never been reached before."
It's a risk that's paying handsome dividends and may well reverse a decade-long downturn in what was once a rising niche in Florida agriculture.
Hillsborough and Polk counties continue to lead the nation in the production of tropical fish, outstripping balmy Miami-Dade, where the domestic tropical fish industry was born.
"It has to do with transportation infrastructure and climate," says Stephen Gran, executive director of the Hillsborough County Extension Service.
By the turn of the millennium, Imperial Tropicals had ascended to the top tier of an industry that peaked in 1999 at $50 million in annual sales in Hillsborough County alone. Little more than a decade later, tropical aquaculture has plunged to half that value, swamped in a perfect storm of market and cultural forces.
"We've gone from 300 farms in Central Florida, to 15 or 20 big farms left," Drawdy says.
Craig Watson, director of the University of Florida's Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory
in Ruskin, attributes some of the decline to the real estate bubble of the early aughts, when fish farms along the Interstate-75 corridor were gobbled up for housing developments. At the same time, big box stores like Walmart, PetSmart, Petco and others supplanted mom and pop pet shops, changing the retail landscape for aquarium suppliers. Then, too, the economy in general tanked, and cheap imported tropicals flooded the U.S. fish market.
But perhaps the single most significant factor was the paradigm shift brought about by the electronics revolution: In the realm of hobbies -- and fish-keeping is a hobby -- aquariums were hard-pressed to compete with virtual worlds like FarmVille, World of Warcraft and Angry Birds.
"The Internet changed everything," says Drawdy.
A Powerful Epiphany
By 2008, Drawdy had begun to embrace his nemesis. He established a website and filled it with photos of his fancy fish. He started making YouTube videos, established a Facebook page and dipped his toe in the waters of social media.
Still, it was a tentative effort. The website was very basic, and Facebook languished, unused, for a couple of years. Then came a breakthrough earlier this year, an epiphany of sorts: The photos were the key.
"I've been taking pictures for years, but didn't really know what I was doing," Drawdy says. "I can put a fish on a list that's never been bred before in captivity, but if people don't know what it looks like, they're not going to buy it."
Drawdy bought a new camera and learned how to use it: the settings, the lighting, the composition. He put the new photos up on Facebook without watermarks. The stills went viral, and the response to the videos on YouTube was "overwhelming," averaging 400 views a day.
"Basically we're introducing these fish to the fish world. I've been selling out and we're getting worldwide attention," he says.
Multiple Tank Syndrome
Drawdy spends a lot of time on fish forums, promoting fish-keeping in general. The online forums have helped him and others fill a void created by the emerging dominance of big box stores, which rarely have knowledgeable staff on hand to tell new fish owners what they need to do to maintain a healthy aquarium.
"The big chains have unfortunately hurt us by not having good customer care," he says. "Most people think that keeping fish is so hard because they've never had success at it. They'll go to Walmart and buy a guppy and an Oscar."
Which is kind of like buying a mouse and a boa constrictor and expecting them to cohabit happily evermore. Without guidance -- the kind once offered in the near-extinct mom and pop pet shops -- there may be few happy endings for today's fledgling aquarium hobbyist.
By catering to hobbyists and collectors on the Internet, Drawdy hopes to inspire his customers with exciting fish and the tools to help them thrive, something that often results in what is known as MTS -- multiple tank syndrome.
"That's when you have so much fun with the first tank, you get a second and a third -- and then you're in the fish business officially."
And nothing inspires MTS more than when your fish start making babies.
"I try to make sure they get a male and a female," he says. "That's the key to getting people hooked on fish -- babies. The whole family gathers around and it's like a family activity."
Tradition Meets Innovation
Ten full-time workers, in addition to four family members tend to some 3 million fish on the 20-acre farm outside the Lakeland city limits. Feeding time is a four-hour task. Most of the fish occupy outdoor ponds, but there are indoor facilities for the most valuable creatures, like the Hypostomus Luteus from Argentina, which sell for as much as $1,000 each.
Here, too, the Internet is employed to conduct market research that helps determine price, both retail and wholesale, for what Drawdy calls his "cooler" stock, like Jenysia, a livebearer from Uruguay that is being bred commercially for the first time at Imperial Tropicals.
"When we get a new fish, we like to put them on the Internet at auction to see the reaction. These sold really well."
Meanwhile, Drawdy is "very close" to producing his own homegrown luteus stock from wild breeders he brought in from Argentina in the spring of 2012. Success will rest on his ability to replicate the conditions of its native habitat, deep in the jungles of South America.
But it is no longer enough for Drawdy to breed and sell. He plans an expedition there in February, along with a contingent of like-minded scientists and fish-aficionados, to collect his own luteus breeding stock and -- hopefully -- to capture a fish so rare it has only been caught one time before: hypostomus argenatus -- a " spectacular-looking" black and gold armored catfish.
The search for the elusive fish in the remote jungle will be documented on video and shared with the world on YouTube.
"There's not another farmer that's be crazy enough to go down there to catch fish. It's exciting."
Jan Hollingsworth is a Valrico-based freelance writer who has reported on agriculture for two decades; the Florida Farm Bureau named her agricultural writer of the year in 2007. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.