LOWNDES COUNTY -- As the supply of seafood worldwide diminishes and the demand increases, the amount of seafood grown through aquaculture is rapidly on the rise.

The practice of aquaculture, the controlled cultivation and harvesting of fin fish, shell fish and aquatic plants, is expected to supply 40 percent of all seafood consumed over the next 10 years.

One of the species which has an international market and grows well in a controlled environment is tilapia. Native to the Nile River, the fish has a mild flavor and absorbs spices well, making it a favorite in Asian cuisine and gaining in popularity in America.

Locally, Southern States is providing support to three area farms growing the tilapia for the live fish market on the east coast, marketed under the Farmer's Catch brand. The farms receive the fish from the Southern States nursery in Lowndes County when they weigh a quarter of a pound and grow them to approximately one and a half pounds, which takes from six to eight months.

Tilapia is fast growing, hardy and disease resistant, making it an easy fish to grow in a controlled environment. Although demand for the fish is rising, the increase in competition from foreign markets is keeping the prices relatively low, making it a challenge to grow the fish profitably.

The tilapia are grown in 15,000 gallon recirculating tanks. The closed water systems allow for minimal water usage and discharge and each tank can hold between 8,000 and 10,000 fish.

"You control the environment and aren't at nature's mercy. The disadvantage is the cost," said Mike Powers, Southern States operations manager, who works locally with Langdale Farms, Mike Davis and Tim Crosby in growing and marketing the tilapia.

Powers said the interest in aquaculture in South Georgia grew from a need for farmers to diversify during down months as a means of making additional income from a source other than traditional crops.

Mike Royals, the manager of the Langdale Farms fish facility, said one of the primary advantages for consumers is the fact that no chemicals are introduced into the tanks. "If you keep the water healthy, you'll keep the fish healthy. We can control the quality of the fish, unlike what you find in fish from an offshore environment," he said, adding that the liquid oxygen pumped into the tanks is the same grade used by hospitals.

Royals said even when the tanks are cleaned, no chemicals or cleaning agents are used and the tanks are scrubbed by hand.

The standard mortality rate in the industry is a loss of five to seven percent, but through good water quality management, Royals said the Langdale Farm only sees a 1.6 percent loss. "It behooves us to keep the water quality high. The less fish we lose, the better the bottom line."

Langdale has been in the fish farming business since May of 2001 and had its first harvest on Dec. 27 of that year. "It's not on an exact schedule. They have to be a certain weight, so we have to depend on nature."

The 12-tank enclosed facility is fully automated, including the feeding schedule, and requires minimal labor as computers control the operation, although four employees carry beepers wired directly into the system should any emergency arise.

Royals said one of the reasons the Langdales decided to try fish farming is "they are really big on diversifying in their business operations. The family has been involved in farming since 1894."

He said row cropping used to be the staple of the farm economy, "but it's become harder and harder to make a living from it and fish farming is a natural progression."

A brand new 10,500 square foot greenhouse has just been completed next to the fish facility at Kinderlou Farms, which will eventually use the only waste product generated by the fish--the waste water from the tanks. "It's very high in nutrients and this is a natural out growth facility for us. We don't let anything go to waste," Royals said.

To contact Business Editor Kay Harris, please call 244-3400, ext. 280.

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