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There is a joke in the aquaculture industry that Dr. Mann told us early on in our university classes.  It goes like this:

“How do you make a million dollars in aquaculture?

You start with four million and lose three before you quit and get out.”

That “joke” reflects a lot of aspects of aquaculture.  Fish farms can be extremely expensive to set up.  Anything labeled for the aquaculture industry is marked up as a specialty item far beyond the rationale of the market.  And since there are so few experts in the field who know much about successful commercial fish farming (many “experts” exist within the no-risk arena of grant-driven research, so their advice often does not translate into the commercial field since grants, which is free investment money, and not sales and profit drive their business plans), hiring industry consultants comes at a high price. Further, any industry which handles live animals involves perhaps the highest possible risks. Fortunately, Dr. Mann addressed this joke from the beginning by giving us the information we needed to keep our living things alive, making himself available at any hour on any day by phone for consultation, and training us to think in terms of utilizing used materials for our building and equipment needs. He even researched cheap land for us.

Dr. Mann showed us how to set up backyard aquaponic systems using swimming pools with a small number of tilapia which would provide the occasional family supper main dish.  He showed us how the fish water could be used to grow hydroponic lettuce, tomatoes and spices for the dining table as well.  All of this is covered in a subsequent chapter in this book. But at the end of the backyard lesson, he asked the class who might be interested in making a million dollars with the same system on a different scale. I don’t remember anyone in the class not raising his or her hand.  Of course, I might have missed those few, prescient people, blinded as I was by those dollar signs. So Dr. Mann explained how one runs the figures to become a fish farming millionaire.

Figure out how much money you want to make; divide that by how much the market price is per fish to find out how many fish you need to sell; then divide that by 10,000 fish per raceway to figure how many raceways you’ll need to produce that many fish. Once you’ve got your numbers, go build, fill with water and fish, and sell until you’ve got your money.

Many people enjoy a hot plate of frozen fish sticks with tartar sauce.  Others relish red cocktail sauce with thawed shrimp.  Still others can savor a grilled filet of frozen tilapia.  Those people are not our primary market.  Our market is made up of people who demand freshness of their seafood.  For them, seafood that has not just recently died is not worth the effort of preparing and certainly tastes inferior.  Many disparate groups recognize the advantages of freshness and will pay a premium to obtain it.  Those people are most confident in their seafood when they’ve personally witnessed the fish’s last gulp for air or the lobster’s final twitch of a claw. We’ve had great success marketing tilapia to the Oriental market that has had to discover a worthy replacement for the carp so favored throughout the East.  My Caribbean friends are also connoisseurs of freshness.  My friend Gary, a native of the U.S.V.I. told me how he judges the freshness of a fish by the clarity of its eye.  It is indeed a strong barometer of quality.  Further, finer restaurants have come to appreciate the texture and mild flavor that tilapia offers.  It is a meat so accepting of spices and sauces that it can literally be used in any part of a meal and any time of day, including tilapia in mild cheddar and scrambled egg breakfast burritos.

It is best to bring tilapia live to customers.  Many will have their own water tanks to keep the fish alive until sold as the most discerning palate demands.  Licenses are required at both ends of the transaction and there are intrusive inspections but more on this later. Delivery requires the use of a truck and a tank on its bed full of water and air hoses bubbling into the water and at least some rudimentary denitrification system. A pinch of salt is also recommended to buffer the fish and reduce the effects of potentially damaging nitrite spikes during transport. And on hot days, perhaps just a little chlorine-free ice to calm the fish. Delivering dead-on-ice fish is the next best method to market for customers like the CSA farm cooperative group we serve. The cooperative customer tends to be finicky about their food quality and willing to pay premium to achieve that quality.  They can unfortunately also be hypersensitive customers to satisfy.  But as everyone’s cooperative heart is in a similar place here, the personalities survive their transactions.

But the million dollar industry?  A fish tale. The joke is the reality.  The big guys start big, take big financial hits and endure if they are lucky enough to build and sustain a market, survive endless regulation modifications and off-shore competition, and listen to the voice of a scientist who will speak against density for profit and speak for protocols for healthy growth. The scientist can be over-ridden with antibiotic treatments and high-protein feed, and high cost filtration systems. But getting through the whims of the market and government regulators seems ultimately a matter of luck.  We never had the money to scale up.  The scale we attained was profitable though an intense amount of work. Ultimately, one hurricane after the next within two months destroyed all of our structures, leaving us with a pile of steel and shade cloth wreckage through which we crawled to discover the raceway intact, the generator running, the blower blowing and the fish swimming as if no financial apocalypse had just occurred. I took this as a sign, foolish human that I am, that we were meant to persevere rather than close down and lick our wounds. We could never afford to scale up again, but we are the only fish farm remaining of all that began, more than a dozen across the state, under Dr. Mann’s careful tutelage many, many years ago. Old and broke, we work sunrise to past sunset, dogged and stupid.  I teach full time to make the mortgage. We eat a lot of tilapia.  It is good.  It is the best fish available anywhere.  In this, like many farmers, between our fish and our garden vegetables, we eat like millionaires. And we live life in the cradle of nature which is at the same time the mouth of the beast, our blood in the soil and our money a memory of leaves blown away. If it wasn’t for the warmth of her hand and the music of her voice and a hug when things go wrong or when something comes out right… God knows what she sees in it all other than the madman she married and the alternative life waiting like a cold apartment not far off in the crowded, noisy city. The current is against us; it swept away all those other farms; it took Adolfo; but the current runs against all of us and our lives are comprised of the choices we make in swimming this way or that opposing an unrelenting flood.

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