ST. PETERSBURG — Juan Carlos Libreros, a biomedical engineer, had been working nearly two decades for major U.S. medical firms when one of his brothers back home in Colombia called him with an idea.
Want to sell fish in the United States?
It wasn’t as far-fetched a suggestion as it may sound. The family had been raising tilapia on farms and selling it in Colombia for 20 years. So with help from Prospera, a nonprofit that helps Hispanic entrepreneurs in the Tampa Bay area, Libreros looked into the idea of importing fish.
“It wasn’t easy because the competition was harder, but we took a chance‚” said Libreros, 49, of St. Petersburg, the company’s chief operating officer. “Step by step, we have been building a successful business."
PezCo Aquafarming opened in 2014 at 970 Lake Carillon Drive, in partnership with Piscícola Botero — a major Colombian tilapia producer. Since then, revenues have risen from $2 million in 2015 to a projected $15 million in 2020, with production reaching around 170,000 pounds of fresh tilapia filets per week, Libreros said.
PezCo ships black tilapia, its main product, to customers including Publix and Costco. Recently, PezCo expanded its products to include rainbow trout, shrimp, crab and red tilapia, all raised on farms in Colombia. The company now supplies rainbow trout to Bonefish and Cracker Barrel restaurants.
PezCo placed the floating enclosures where it raises its fish close to airports offering nonstop flights to California and Miami. The cargo arrives in 32 to 72 hours. Most of the fish flown to Miami is shipped by truck to the Tampa area.
The country of coasts and mountains at the north edge of South America has fresh, sweet water ideal for aquaculture, Libreros said. Colombia, in fact, ranks fourth in the world for freshwater resources, according to PROColombia, an agency that promotes foreign investment and nontraditional exports.
PezCo’s partner has operations in regions across Colombia, including Antioquia, Atlántico, Huila and Valle del Cauca. Colombian tilapia has been gaining as a share of the nation’s total exports, rivaling even its iconic coffee crop.
“These natural conditions make a difference in the fish industry,” Libreros said. “But the local market played a part, too.”
China accounts for the bulk of U.S. tilapia imports, mainly the frozen variety. Honduras in Central America is the top exporter of fresh tilapia to the United States, followed by Colombia. And Florida is the No. 2 buyer of Colombian exports overall, after New York, according to the Colombian Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism.
The popularity of farm-raised fish is growing as consumers seek out the nutritional benefits of fish and as overfishing decimates wild-caught stocks. From 2016 to 2018, tilapia exported from Colombia to the United States rose from $34 million to $54 million, the Office of U.S. Trade Representative said.
But farm-raised fish generally contain fewer nutritional benefits than wild-caught fish and fish farms in Asia and Latin America have drawn criticism for causing damage to the surrounding environment.
PezCo has obtained certification from the Global Aquaculture Alliance’s Best Aquaculture Practices program, according to the organization’s website. The certification is designed to ensure that farmed seafood is raised and delivered safely and responsibly.
“It is a very detailed process, going beyond the care and feeding of tilapia," Libreros said. The fish are fed a concentrate of soy, corn and fishmeal, he said. “No hormones or banned antibiotics are used.
PezCo accounts for around a third of the 12 million pounds of tilapia exported annually from Colombia to the United States. A 2012 free trade agreement between the two nations has streamlined the flow, boosting Colombian imports overall by 185 percent, according to the Office of Trade Representative.
All told, the agreement has helped increase the number of imported Colombian products to 350 from at least 2,000 small businesses that have entered the market for the first time.