by Erika Aldrich
One of the great surprises of my first year as leader of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) was learning of Hillsborough County’s status as the hub of the nation’s ornamental aquaculture industry—and a lab’s vital role in supporting that industry.
Florida ornamental aquaculture, which accounts for 90 percent of all U.S. production, is actually an industry of 1,000 commodities. Each one is a different species of fish prized for its brilliant colors or other physical features.
The industry is built on the hard work of fish farmers. Their hard work is supported by the land-grant university partnership of academia, industry and government.
The science behind the jobs and companies that produce ornamental fish comes out of the UF/IFAS Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory (TAL). Director Craig Watson’s team of scientists figures out how to raise fish no one else knows how to raise, and then shows local fish farmers how to do it — profitably. The TAL team is so good at it that a cluster of businesses has grown up around the lab and now dominates the national industry.
Each scientist contributes, but Craig’s leadership as the only director the TAL has ever had has been instrumental in the lab’s—and the industry’s—success. He was recently recognized by the National Aquaculture Association with its Joseph P. McCraren Award for Outstanding Contributions in Promoting the Growth of U.S. aquaculture.
Hillsborough’s fish trade enjoys a special kind of government involvement. The leader of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) national aquaculture program would ordinarily be based in the same Washington, D.C., office building I worked in as director of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Instead, she’s embedded in an office in TAL.
That puts Dr. Kathleen Hartman much more in touch with industry than she would be from afar, and assures that local farms are in the forefront of her mind when she is developing national fish health programs.
Farmers sometimes have a challenge, like predators that feed on their fish, that requires other government intervention, so the TAL also hosts the state’s regional office for USDA Wildlife Services, including a full-time employee dedicated to working on fish farms around the state. It’s the kind of thing that no one else could take care of as effectively and quickly.
Both USDA programs are based at the TAL on a hand-shake agreement that has lasted for more than 20 years. It’s consistent with the shorts-and-flip-flops vibe of the place. TAL has another handshake agreement that allows the Hillsborough Community College aquaculture program to use a TAL greenhouse rent-free.
TAL drives a multimillion-dollar business for the Tampa area and the rest of the state. Public science is an investment in the area’s economy. Craig and his team of scientists deliver a thriving ornamental fish industry as a return on that investment.
The result is one of the few economic phenomena where it’s a good thing to be underwater.
J. Scott Angle is the University of Florida’s Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources and leader of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).