Hooked on a system
Vero Beach farm uses innovative process to raise market-ready tilapia
BY MARY ANN KOENIG
On the west side of Vero Beach, 15 acres of verdant farmland are producing an environmentally sustainable food product. And there is something decidedly fishy about it.
A vertically integrated tilapia farm is the latest venture by Michael B. Timmons, one of the world’s foremost authorities in aquaculture. He is recognized professionally and academically for his cutting edge work with aqua systems, but there’s also a dual purpose to his project, because he’s using his fish farming expertise to benefit the Vero Beach-based nonprofit, United Against Poverty.
Timmons’ farm, Atlantic Pacific Jade, focuses on fish-breeding genetics and has produced a healthy and protein-rich stock of farm-raised tilapia that can be mass produced and is environmentally sustainable. It is a nourishing, locally produced product made for the U.S. market.
For more than a decade, Timmons, a retired Cornell University professor, had taught short classes at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute as a visiting scientist at FAU. Timmons also is one of the founders of the Aquacultural Engineering Society and has served as its president.
Taking advantage of the farming-friendly regulations in Florida, he began APJ in 2019. In 2020, he met Andrew Dixon who was working on a USDA project at Harbor Branch attempting to breed bonefish in captivity for the first time. A graduate of the University of Miami in marine affairs, Dixon had common interests in the aquaculture world and Timmons hired him to be the farm’s fish manager. Together they have raised a lavishly nurtured line of tilapia, relying on a genetically healthy breed of fish that Timmons created, a lineage that stretches back nearly 30 years.
WROTE THE BOOK
Timmons’ research focused on recirculating aquaculture system technology. And he wrote the book on the topic. Recirculating Aquaculture, 5th Edition, known as The Yellow Book, is considered the industry bible for fish farmers worldwide.
RAS recirculates water from fish tanks and does not discharge water into a stream, lake or ocean. The water quality value is reconditioned to nearly what it was when the water first entered the tank. Appropriate oxygen, carbon dioxide and ammonia concentrations are restored. This expertise of sustainable aqua systems naturally led Timmons to a practical environment, competing with farmers who conventionally raise seafood in ponds and net pens.
The result, according to Timmons, has been the most advanced aquaculture technology in the world.
Some of the problems of mass-producing food are the overuse of pesticides, resource depletion and low nutritional quality. Timmons and Dixon use digital aquaculture technology to overcome these obstacles. The farm follows all organic practices. The meal fed to the fish is a high-grade, proprietary product sold by the global food conglomerate Cargill, containing a variety of ingredients including corn, soy meal and vitamin supplements. Using Timmons’ system assures water quality control, lack of contaminants, metals, or chemicals and, when coupled with a healthy diet, constitutes an organic system that produces healthy fish ready for market.
Tilapia had acquired an unfounded bad reputation, according to both Timmons and Dixon. One of the negatives came from so many having been grown in China and underdeveloped countries where they don’t use all organic practices.
“Tilapia are filter feeders,” Dixon explains, “so they’ll pretty much eat anything in the water.” If their ponds are below chicken farms, or pit farms, runoff with contaminants and antibiotics can flow into their ponds and into their diets.
Now in the process of taking over the business from Timmons, Dixon is set up for early, fast-breaking success with a large shipment of live tilapia leaving the farm soon. Timmons is aspiring to spend more time working with United Against Poverty and supplying its food subsidy grocery co-op with protein rich fish.
Timmons regularly donates fish products to United Against Poverty, and according to CEO Gwendolyn Butson, “the fish products are popular among our Indian River Member Share Grocery Program.” With locations in Indian River and St. Lucie counties, the food program will be a continuing beneficiary of Timmons’ largess. “We are grateful for partners like Dr. Timmons who offer opportunities to provide nutritious protein products like fresh seafood, a desired staple at dinner tables across the communities we serve,” Butson says.
The farm’s genesis came when Timmons’ time at Harbor Branch was interrupted by COVID. A colleague there, Tim Pfeiffer, a USDA research scientist, urged Timmons to set up a fish breeding operation locally. He began the hunt for the appropriate property in Indian River County for a farm. He had designed and built several other aquatic ventures, including in New York’s Finger Lakes region and Beaver Dam, Kentucky.
But Vero was a good place for his start-up. “It’s generally pro-business here,” Timmons says, “and colleges have programs with plenty of people in fish farming; the systems are technical and there’s a reservoir of technical people to hire. That was a big deal.”
And it wasn’t long before he found the perfect land. “Tim was bike riding one morning and saw the property up for sale,” Timmons remembers. “The next day, we bought it.”
The 15 acres required some heavy lifting to get it into shape. It had been a working vegetable farm with an artesian well and a 26-by-200-foot greenhouse with only the metal hoops and no cover. Overgrowth of vegetation was to the top of the green house and the property hadn’t been farmed in eight years.
“It was back to a jungle,” Timmons says. With effort, the green house soon became the tanks holding area and the breeding and fingerling business was born.
As Timmons the professor or Dixon the young fish manager will attest, the business of breeding fish for a processed or live-fish market requires patience and a lot of hands-on effort, because it’s complicated and time consuming.
The result of the 30-plus year genetic fish lineage that Timmons engineered is a viable and robust female fish that is extremely tolerant to low-oxygen, cold temperature, and ammonia, high concentrations of which would ordinarily kill tilapia.
“They grow really fast,” says Dixon. “And some of them have a pumpkin seed wide middle, which gives a really nice filet.”
Atlantic Pacific Jade, soon to be called Dixon Aquafarms, does nutrient testing on the fish. And the purging tank, the final stop in fish-raising, maintains a constant flow of fresh, not recirculated, water that is as clear as an aquarium.
Fingerlings are young fish that are nurtured to become full-grown tilapia for market. But they can also be used to sell to other fish farms. The fame of Timmons’ genetic engineering attracts buyers on a regular basis.
Three or four male fish in a tank will typically service 15-20 females. Breeding is approximately a three-to-seven-day process. A female will lay a pass of anywhere from 300 to 1,500 eggs and the male will follow, fertilizing the eggs.
“They’re mouth brooders,” Dixon says. Meaning that the female will pick up the eggs into her mouth and move them around inside.
“She keeps rolling them to keep them from damage,” Timmons explains. “They will hatch in her mouth and swim there for a while, about seven days.”
The females are left on their own for a couple of weeks and then are taken to their own tank. The farmers then drain the tank to catch the babies. “The females are reconditioned to build up their body strength for eight weeks, in a separate tank. Two weeks later they go back to breed,” Timmons says.
A large sale of stock to the live-fish market is on the horizon for Timmons and Dixon just as the company is transitioning ownership. This will be Dixon’s first sale under his newly named venture, but Timmons will be working right beside him.
READY FOR MARKET
The fish need to reach approximately 1.5 pounds for viable sale. In their final production stage, they are moved into the purging tank, which holds approximately 1,000 fish.
“We bring their temperature down, and make sure their gi system is completely cleaned out,” Timmons says. The time in the clean-water purging tank also helps lessen a strong fishy taste.
Timmons, Dixon and their crew will basket the fish from the tank, weigh them, oxygenate them and place them in approximately 16 to 20, 250-gallon holding tanks. The fish are then loaded onto a truck and taken to a North Carolina broker who sells them to markets such as New York, Cleveland and Chicago.
It’s a cyclical business, according to Timmons.
“Too many fish farmers producing too many fish brings the price down, then it’s difficult to manage profits. And companies go out of business, which creates another shortage and prices go up again.” But currently, “There’s a shortage of live tilapia,” Timmons says.
And the American/Asian market relies heavily on live fish. Dixon says, “There are not a lot of tilapia farms in America and not that many hatcheries.”
The field expertise and practical application from years of research brings a successful farming endeavor to the area, plotting the future safety of food and supplying a protein-rich, sustainable food source. And it will continue to benefit United Against Poverty, as Timmons helps those in need stock their grocery program.
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