Upscale Fish-Farm Grows Striped Bass in the Desert
After overfishing depleted the commercial catch of striped bass, two California aquaculture experts found a high-tech way to grow the gourmet fish in tanks
MECCA, CALIF. — THE striped bass on the menu at the elegant Tavern on the Green in New York's Central Park may prompt visions of skipjacks from the Chesapeake Bay. But many of these bass weren't hauled from such legendary waters, but from tanks here in the hot, dry California desert.This high-tech operation - part of the booming aquaculture industry - is beginning to produce striped bass that rival traditionally caught fish in price and taste. "The raised fish [from tanks] are very good quality. Chefs like their consistency because they know the fish will always be meaty and the same size," says Marc Poidevin, chef at the Tavern on the Green. This high-priced, gourmet fish is already more plentiful through high-tech aquaculture than by commercial fishing. Overfishing and a subsequent moratorium on most commercial landings of striped bass have drastically depleted the annual commercial fishing haul from a peak of 14 million pounds in 1973 to less than a million pounds today, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Aquaculture, meanwhile, produces 1.4 million pounds of striped bass annually in the United States, says Ray Rhodes, an economist at the South Carolina Department of Wildlife and Marine Resources. He expects a doubling of that figure in each of the next two years. Aquatic Systems Inc. (ASI), operating among the date palms and citrus groves of the Coachella Valley near Palm Springs, Calif., is the nation's largest producer of striped bass and an industry pioneer in tank-farming fish. This year, ASI expects to harvest 700,000 pounds of its hybrid Golden Sunshine Striped Bass - or about half the nation's aquaculture production of striped bass - for sales of $2.5 million. And the company plans to expand facilities to triple output by 1993. Although US aquaculture is dominated by catfish production in warm-water ponds, technology-intensive systems like ASI's will play a big role in the industry's future, particularly for high-priced fish like striped bass, says Meryl Broussard, principal aquaculture scientist at the US Department of Agriculture. Some of the high-tech methods may even be applied to pond production. Aquaculture now provides for 10 percent of the US seafood market, and Mr. Broussard predicts industry growth of 200 to 400 percent over the next decade. ASI was started by Jack Van Olst and Jim Carlberg, two San Diego aquaculture experts turned entrepreneurs. They experimented first with raising lobsters, using warm-water effluents from a Pacific Coast power plant. The warm environment allowed the lobsters to grow year-round, producing a marketable lobster in 30 months instead of the typical 5-1/2 years when grown in the wild. But, says Mr. Carlberg, "the process was not economical because the cannibalistic tendencies of lobsters require them to be raised in small, separate trays on large racks." So in 1975 the two turned their attention to striped bass, a gourmet fish the aquaculture industry had not yet tried to farm. Carlberg says they felt the fish could be raised quickly and profitably in large tanks with a strictly controlled environment. Moving inland, they tapped the 80-degree geothermal water that bubbles near the surface of California's desert floor. Using the heat, and developing computerized feeding and temperature controls, Carlberg and Mr. Van Olst cut the fish's growing time almost in half, to 10 to 12 months. Mike Freeze, president of the National Aquaculture Association, credits ASI for taking the first bold step to tank-raise hybrid striped bass commercially. "It's one thing to copy your neighbor's systems and ponds within the same fish culture. It's another to step out there with a new system and a new fish and be successful," observes Mr. Freeze. ASI's pioneering tank technology has spawned other striped bass tank facilities, mostly in Mississippi, Florida, and Kentucky, where warm weather and a constant source of warm water are available. ASI begins with tiny fingerlings in 12-foot, concrete nursery holding tanks. Fish are graded weekly and separated by size to prevent cannibalism. At 2-1/2 inches they are moved to larger tanks, where computers monitor food consumption, oxygen flow, and water temperature, ensuring rapid growth, Carlberg says. The controlled diet and pollution-free environs help avoid some of the "off flavors" and contaminants found in fish grown in ponds or in the wild, producers say. Finally at 1-1/2 to 2 pounds, the bass are sent by air freight to chic eateries throughout the US and Europe, often arriving sooner and fresher than those landed in the wild, says Carlberg. The smallest fish are popular in Chinese, Greek, and French cuisine, where fish is served whole. The larger bass are served as two seven-ounce, skin-on boneless fillets, or used in Japanese sashimi or sushi. Such high-tech aquaculture systems are not likely to have significant impact on third-world aquaculture, which emphasizes inexpensive breeding of lower-valued fish, Carlberg says.