Hundreds of baby Siberian sturgeons are jostling each other and sticking their tiny heads out of the water as they swim in a simulated fast-moving river stream. They have no idea that they're not in the cold frozen North, but here in tropical Sarasota housed in enormous fish tanks that are covered in mesh so they can’t accidentally jump out. Automated systems control feeding times, temperature and light, creating the perfect environment for happy and healthy fish.
The sturgeons are part of Mote Marine Laboratory
’s 200-acre Aquaculture Park, the largest recirculating aquaculture center in the country. Part research facility and part commercial prototype, this man-made fish farm in rural eastern Sarasota is located 17 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico to demonstrate an important point: You don’t need to purchase expensive waterfront land or pollute sensitive marine environments to farm-raise fish.
"We're basically growing marine fish on land in big tanks with automated monitoring systems and using environmentally friendly technology that cleans and reuses the water by running it through a variety of filtration systems,'' says Dr. Kevan Main, director of Mote's Aquaculture Park
and president-elect of the World Aquaculture Society.
None of the water leaves the park. Neither does the solid waste produced by the fish, which is used as fertilizer to grow plants. It's a novel and completely self-sustained system. "We're are on the frontier of where aquaculture is going to be 10 years from now,'' says Main.
One of Mote's main goals for the Aquaculture Park is to develop the technology and help boost the aquaculture industry in Florida.
"Aquaculture has been around for thousands of years but, except for catfish and a few other species like trout, it's not a major agricultural industry,'' says Main. "Less than 5 percent of the fish we eat in the U.S. is produced here. Yet we have an enormous $10 billion seafood trade deficit in this country. There is a big opportunity to determine what type of fish needs to be grown and the best methods to develop them.''
Both freshwater sturgeon and saltwater pompano, snook and red drum are being raised on the Mote farm. The saltwater fish are grown primarily for research. That includes the development of breeding techniques and "green'' technology required for environmentally sound seafood production, as well as methods for replenishing wild fish populations. In partnership with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
, Mote has released some 51,000 snook into Sarasota Bay since the late 1990s.
Mote is also partnering with Sarasota-based Aquatic Plants of Florida in using fish waste to grow red mangrove, saltwort and other saltwater plants, which are then used in wetland conservation efforts. This past summer, some of those plants were used to help restore North Lido Beach
in Sarasota County.
The University of South Florida is yet another Mote aquaculture partner. Still in the development stage is a USF-sponsored business incubator at Mote that would support startup companies in the aquaculture field. "There are lots of side business opportunities that could come from our research here, such as companies that make sensors or other equipment for breeding the fish,'' says Main.
The freshwater sturgeons are part of a full-scale sustainable farm and commercial demonstration program. According to Mote estimates, about 85,000 pounds of sturgeon meat and 1.8 metric tons (about 54 million eggs) of caviar were produced at the park in 2011.
The sturgeon filets are sold to restaurants and individuals locally and on the east coast, while the caviar, which has been endorsed as a high-quality product by purveyors like Petrossian Paris in New York City, is sold nationally. Whole Foods is one of the newest outlets for Mote caviar. Sale of the fillets and caviar goes back into the Aquaculture Park’s operation.
Founded in 1955 by Dr. Eugenie Clark, Mote is an independent, not-for-profit organization with an annual operating budget of $18.3 million, a staff of 195, a large college internship program and 1,300 volunteers. Grants from various government agencies and foundations, donations from ongoing fundraising events, the purchase of Mote "memberships'' and ticket sales to the aquarium help sustain the marine center’s research and operations.
Fighting Infections In Humans
In addition to the Aquaculture Park, Mote has field stations in the Florida Keys and Port Charlotte in South Florida. Its main campus on City Island near downtown Sarasota houses an aquarium that attracts some 350,000 visitors yearly; a hospital for treating and rehabilitating injured dolphins, whales and sea turtles; and labs for marine scientists conducting ground-breaking research in areas as diverse as red tide, coral reef restoration, coastal ecology and monitoring of the Gulf oil spill.
Earlier this year, Mote's Center for Shark Research
, in collaboration with USF, Daemen College in New York and Clemson University in South Carolina, received a $1.3 million Department of Defense grant to study what Dr. Carl Luer calls "an uncanny ability of sharks and their close cousins, the stingrays and skates, to heal quickly without infection.''
"The military is interested in developing novel antibiotics to treat wounded soldiers,'' explains Luer, manager of Mote’s Marine Biomedical Research Program and the lead investigator on the project. "They think there is merit in studying sharks and rays, and so do we. We would never have had the opportunity to do this research without the grant.''
The goal is to identify and synthesize the chemical compound that promotes healing in these marine animals, a step toward creating a new infection-agent for use in humans.
Janan Talafer is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg, FL, who shares a home office with her dog Bear and two cats Milo and Nigel. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.