CAMBRIDGE – Andrew Lazur had no trouble finding Nemo. Helping the lovable little clownfish grow in captivity was a bit harder.
Lazur, an associate professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, has been perfecting techniques for growing Amphiprion ocellaris – Nemo’s scientific name – more easily in a hatchery, reducing the need to raid fragile coral reefs to stock people’s aquariums with the fish, which is prized for its dramatic coloring and high level of activity.
But Lazur’s motivation is as much about money as it is conservation.
To survive in a global market, aquafarmers need to find higher-value products or new markets for the ones they have, he said.
“Aquaculture is at a critical time in Maryland,” Lazur said during a tour on Monday of the Horn Point lab in Cambridge where he works. “The potential is there, we just need to develop the technology.”
For aquafarmers, ornamental plants and fish frequently provide both.
A farmer growing fish for food can expect $5 a pound for his product, at best, Lazur said. In contrast, the $8 wholesale price for a clownfish weighing a 0.18 ounces works out to $1,200 per pound. The premium carries through to retail. That same medium-sized clownfish retails for $15.99 at the Petco in Annapolis, which buys its clownfish from a commercial hatchery in Florida.
Lazur has had some success raising clownfish, tweaking their growing conditions to find their ideal food source, supplemental pigments to enhance color, salinity and temperature. The research is being done in collaboration with Roger Williams University in Rhode Island and two private producers.
Maryland’s aquaculture industry is small, but diverse. Aquaculture producers brought in nearly $3.4 million in 2003. Ornamental plants and fish dominate the trade, accounting for 88 percent of sales in 2003, the most recent statistics available from the state Department of Agriculture. Florida, whose aquaculture industry leads the nation, posted $95 million in sales in 2003.
Maryland aquafarmers grow food, such as tilapia, hybrid striped bass, oysters and soft crabs, and ornamental fish such as koi and goldfish. However, aquatic plants are the bulk of the business, accounting for $2.3 million in sales in 2003.
The business is fairly static right now, but aquaculture advocates see potential for growth, spurred by a law passed by the General Assembly last session that streamlines the permitting process for aquaculture start-ups.
Howard R. Crum, former president of the Maryland Aquaculture Association, said attitudes toward aquafarming have changed lately. “For a long time there was a real mistrust of aquaculture,” he said. “Until recently, it was almost impossible to get into the business, because the clamps were on so tight in this state.”
Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier, D-Baltimore County, chairman of the aquaculture task force, said changing the perception of aquafarming was the point of the new law. “We need to somehow get them out in the public eye and make them a bigger part of the Maryland economy,” she said.
Karl Roscher, coordinator for the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Aquaculture Advisory Committee, said the dominance of ornamental fish and plants over food fish is about profitability. Given the high land costs in the area, successful farmers have to get more money for their product. The market for tilapia is flooded by cheap imports, driving domestic farmers out of business. “At one time, there were 10 farms raising tilapia [in Maryland], but it’s phasing out,” he said.
The ornamental business, on the other hand, has remained steady, helped by efficient shipping and improved methods of handling the plants and fish. Maryland aquafarmers in these niches benefit by being close to major retail markets for their products, such as fish hobbyists and upscale homeowners who want water gardens.
Richard Shuck, owner of Maryland Aquatic Nurseries Inc., also sells primarily to out-of-state customers. His Jarrettsville company, founded in 1987, specializes in ornamental plants. The most popular is the water lily, which wholesales for $16 to $17 a plant.
Like other types of farming, the work is seasonal. “You have to make a whole lot of money in three months to survive for the rest of the year,” Shuck said. He relies on part-time and temporary employees to handle the load.
Shuck’s farm covers two acres in Jarrettsville, and he leases another acre in Churchville “Most water plant nurseries are quite small,” he said.
His sons are carrying on the family business–but in South Carolina. Their nursery, Charleston Aquatic Nurseries, is three times the size of dad’s. –30– –10-14-05–