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Fishing for answers

Published on: October 6, 2011

Craig Watson, director of the Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory in Ruskin. Penny Fletcher Photo

Craig Watson, director of the Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory in Ruskin. Penny Fletcher Photo


RUSKIN — Groundbreaking research is taking place on a quiet Ruskin street that could affect the rest of the world.

What would happen if non-native species of fish got loose in rivers and lakes? How would they interact with the natural inhabitants? How would the habitat change? Would the species intermingle, or would one overtake the other until none were left?

This is only one of the areas being explored at the University of Florida’s Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory on 24th Street.

Following federal budget cuts of $300,000, the lab’s director Craig Watson has had to find funding elsewhere to keep answering these questions and diagnosing the diseases of commercially-sold edible and tropical fish.

But he is finding the dollars to keep the important research and fish diagnostics going.

Another critical study concerns raising Bala sharks, he said.

“Bala sharks are an aquarium fish we import from Thailand,” said Watson. “They’re very delicate and hard to handle. We (people in the U.S.) probably spend half a million a year bringing them into this country.”

Another issue now being studied is finding a better way to aerate ponds because the technology now being used by fish farmers is more than 40 years old.

Researchers at the center are also currently looking at how to produce the anthias in captivity. The anthias is an ornamental marine species from Christmas Island in the Pacific that no one has so far been able to commercially produce anywhere in the world.

“This fish is called a harem spawner,” said Carlos Martinez, extension faculty at the lab. Watson explained that this is because one male stays with a large tank of females, and then when he gets old, he turns into a female. The center is studying how this strange event can happen.

“The anthias represents a whole group of salt water fish,” Watson explained. “This is one area where we have secured both government and private funding.”

Some research funds are also coming from Busch Gardens, Seaworld and the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, making some projects a combination of private and government funding, he said. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums is also involved in the marine side of the research.

“Hillsborough County funds the office manager position and we build hatcheries through a block grant,” he added.

The laboratory is also involved with local farmers and education and it has a veterinary program which has attracted students from all over the world.

There is an internship which can last from two weeks to a year and a longer program for graduated veterinarians as well.

Natalie Steckler, a graduate student of veterinary medicine from Miami is there on an internship, as is Mark Flint.

Flint, who also already has his veterinary license, has come from Australia to do an internship and earn his PhD.

“I am happy to be in the growing field of veterinary medicine and am working on a long-term goal of specializing in fish health,” Steckler said.

Flint has spent one year in Florida and says he has learned much he will take back to the laboratory he mans in Australia.

But the lab isn’t all about research, study and education.

Local fish farmers may call with their questions and bring samples in for tests as well. This is not a service for hobbyists, who are urged to call the county extension service, and the service is not free.

Farmers may bring in samples from their ponds either singularly or in a group of fish to determine the cause of a symptom or treat a disease.

The laboratory also has its own outdoor ponds.

The lab occupies six-and-a-half acres and has 50 ponds on land that was once a fish farm, Watson explained. And there are also various indoor buildings, each housing tanks for research and disease control.

There are many educational opportunities being provided at the lab as well. Students in aquaculture programs may come to learn, look, listen and study.

Locally there are several opportunities for learning in the aquaculture field. 

Martinez gives classes to private citizens (not commercial users) on the use of pesticides so they can obtain the certification to use the restricted materials.

There is a two-year aquaculture program at East Bay High School and an associate degree program at Hillsborough Community College’s Brandon campus led by Craig Casper.

There are also opportunities for college and veterinary students to work with the facilities both on and off site and also with the county’s extension service.

But not all the things that go on at the lab are directly involved with study and diagnostics.

The sister industry of aquatic plants is also studied as well as health issues of anything that could impact fish and waterways, and researchers are working with farmers to help control problems connected with their work, like how to rid their farms of animals that eat their fish, including raccoons, certain species of birds and alligators.

“We just got a program in Sun City Center to control feral hogs,” Watson said.

When asked about future jobs in the industry Watson said it is hard to compete in a world market because a farmer in Indonesia may get 2¢ a fish and a U.S. farmer 25¢ for the same fish.

But there are many new opportunities opening up in marine ornamentals because there are thousands of fish traded that are not in production in the United States now. In the future there will be jobs in hatcheries and with the larvae as that demand increases.

The best way to prepare for these jobs is to earn a bachelors or masters degree but graduates of HCC have been employed with a two-year associate’s degree, Watson said.