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Fish farm might raise grouper replacement

The tiny village of Aripeka, long known for its rich fishing history, may become the site where a new species of fish is raised that could replace the grouper on restaurants' sandwich bread. A former Tampa real estate broker is planning to build a 55-acre fish farm near Aripeka that he hopes will eventually produce some 250,000 pounds of sunshine bass, a hybrid bred from striped and white bass.

"This is a fish that we feel is going to have an expanding marketplace," said Paul Jackson of Tampa, whose Seafood Industries Inc. is planning the fish farm. "We think it can replace some species that are being over-fished right now, like the grouper or snapper."

Jackson is so confident of the fish's potential that he got out of the commercial real estate business two years ago to devote his time to fish farming.

But Jackson faces plenty of hurdles before he begins stocking the plates of local eateries and gobbling up profits.

He already has received permission from the Southwest Florida Water Management District (Swiftmud) to use about 6-million gallons of water for the fish farm and has gotten approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to breed the fish.

But he still must get the okay of the state Department of Environmental Regulation (DER), the state Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission and now, maybe, Hernando County.

Hernando County commissioners on Tuesday asked DER to block approval of the project until they can at least review the project and get some information on it themselves.

The commissioners are concerned with what the release of certain chemicals and fish feces will do to the pristine bays and creeks that surround Aripeka.

"I have visited fish farms before, and there's a great deal of not only bacteria but also discharge of uneaten foods . . . that could change the whole bay system out there," said County Commissioner John Richardson. "This commissioner, at least, is very concerned about it."

Richardson isn't the only one.

Local Audubon Society chapters also have written letters to state and local officials asking that they investigate the fish farm closely.

"That is where the local food chain begins," said Dorothy Hooten, conservation chairwoman for the Hernando Audubon Society. "If they start discharging formulin or other chemicals into the water, it's going to interfere with the natural process."

Formulin is a derivative of formaldehyde that is use to treat sick or injured fish.

Jackson has indicated to regulatory officials that he may use the chemical to treat fish, but said in an interview he probably would not. The best health treatment for fish, he said, would be the natural fresh and brackish waters of Aripeka.

Jackson's fish would be raised in a series of above-ground tanks near Boat Spring in Aripeka. The tanks would draw water from the spring and from nearby Hammock Creek, and discharge filtered water back into the spring.

If plans for the fish farm work, the farm could be the biggest producer of sunshine bass for consumption in the state, according to Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission official Darrell Scovell.

"Sunshine bass is a relatively new species; it's only been developed in the last five years," Scovell said.

Only a handful of fish farms in the state produce the fish for eating, Scovell said. Last year, he said, they produced a about 5,000 pounds of the fish.

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