By Kathy L. Collins

In Florida, especially Hillsborough County, aquaculture (fish farming) is big business. The ornamental fish business has grown in the Tampa Bay area largely due to two factors. One factor being the water table is very low. The other is the world class airport. Most of it is fresh water fish. So when biologists at the Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory in Ruskin were able to successfully culture Pacific Blue Tang fish, the ones we know and love as the character Dory from Finding Nemo, it was a big accomplishment.

The project is done in partnership with Rising Tide Conservation, a non-profit dedicated to coral reef conservation. Rising Tide Conservation targeted five to six species, including the Pacific Blue Tang, as species of conservation interest for aquaculture in 2010. Matt DiMaggio, an assistant professor, oversees the integration of the project with Rising Tide Conservation at the lab in Ruskin.

Currently, all Pacific Blue Tangs come from reefs in Indonesia and the Philippines. The fish cultured at the lab represent a significant first step in the process of making it possible for people to be able to get the fish without having to take them from the wild and from across the world. The cultured fish are not yet commercially available.

For the past four years, biologists including Eric Cassiano and Kevin Barden have worked tirelessly, often giving up weekends and vacations, to culture the fish. Cassiano, who grows the food that the fish eat, explained, “It was like nurturing a child. You never know when something might happen.” Barden, who takes care of the fish, said, “We raised 27 fish in the first run. While this is too small an amount to be commercially viable, it represents advancement in the salt water industry.” Barden further explained, “90 percent of fresh water fish is raised in captivity while only 10 percent of salt water is.”

DiMaggio explained, “Think of the lab here as the research and development department for the aquaculture industry. There is a high demand for these types of fish. Ornamental aquaculture is significant for the local economy.”

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