GIBSONTON — Out of south Hillsborough County, buckets filled with tropical fish of all colors moved along a conveyor belt.
Segrest Farm workers scooped the fish into plastic bags filled with sedatives to calm them ahead of a journey to a Petco store across the country. Then the fish were loaded into insulated cardboard boxes with words in red reading “LIVE TROPICAL FISH” with arrows pointing up.
“If you’ve flown out of Tampa or Miami or Orlando, you’ve probably flown with our fish,” said Segrest Farms brand manager Shelby Stensrud.
Segrest Farms is among the largest wholesalers of aquarium fish in the United States with 6,000 tanks inside a Gibsonton distribution center. And it’s one of a hundred facilities in Florida that raise and collect fish for pet shops.
While Tampa Bay is known for its oranges and strawberries, aquarium fish have also been one of the region’s prized exports for decades.
Most tropical fish raised in the U.S. come from Florida. The state makes up more than 40% of the nation’s sales, according to federal data, with Hillsborough County priding itself as the “heart of the tropical aquaculture industry.” The tropical fish farm industry had a $172 million economic impact in Florida in 2021, according to a 2021 University of Florida survey.
“You could drive by and you’d never know that you’re looking at a fish farm,” said Segrest Farms president Sandy Moore.
The birth of “Tampa’s oddest industry”
The region’s aquarium roots date back as early as the 1930s, when keeping fish as pets was a growing phenomenon.
Albert Greenberg, the “father of Florida’s aquaculture industry” and inducted to the state’s Agricultural Hall of Fame in 2007, picked Tampa in 1930 to open a tropical fish farm and pioneered raising them in dirt ponds.
His farm sent fish across the world in tin cans and Thermos bottles, according to a Tampa Tribune article in 1934 that called it “Tampa’s oddest industry.”
“It’ll last,” Greenberg told the Tampa Tribune about the rise of pet fish. “Because, as you know, people must have pets. In cities, it’s difficult to keep a cat or a dog and birds require daily attention. Tropical fish, more or less, take care of themselves, and they always have a show for you.”
The region’s booming fish farm era
By the 1950s, south Hillsborough became renowned for its fish farms. Ruskin was considered the “tropical fish capital of the world,” according to newspaper archives. Because of the Tampa Bay’s tropical climate, easy access to airports and cheap real estate compared to Miami, it became a key destination for fish farmers looking to expand.
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To this day, Florida still has the most fish farms in the U.S. Florida recorded 109 fish farms, according to the U.S Department of Agriculture census of aquaculture conducted in 2018. Most are concentrated in Hillsborough, Polk and Miami-Dade counties. The next largest states, Hawaii and Texas, only had 15 each.
By 1996, the UF established an aquaculture research hub in Ruskin to support the fish farm industry. There, researchers look into mitigating disease spread and how to breed new species for commercial selling, said Matthew DiMaggio, director of the UF Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory.
“They can come to us and ask us that and we can design experiments around that, essentially give them a protocol or like a recipe ... These are the things that you should follow to hopefully make the most profit for you,” DiMaggio said.
The lab was the first to raise Blue Tangs for commercialization. Before, to have the saltwater fish that inspired the Dory character in Pixar’s Finding Nemo franchise in an aquarium, they had to be wild-caught. Now the lab’s industry partners are learning to farm them.
“The more new species, new products that we can bring to market is more profit for the farmers and for the state,” DiMaggio said. “It helps the industry to diversify and become more resilient.”
How are they farmed?
At Segrest Farms, open since 1961, workers care for approximately a million fish each week.
How they’re farmed can depend on the species, but mostly, the farmers put the male and female fish into a tank mimicking water conditions prime for mating. Then they wait for the eggs.
The eggs are later moved into a 20,000-gallon pond outdoors that can hold about 10,000 to 50,000 fish. Once they’re hatched and grown into adolescents — a process taking about three to six months — the fish are harvested and sent to stores.
About 40% is farmed directly in Florida, Moore said, and the rest are shipped in from around the world to Gibsonton to be prepared for store aquariums.
Changing tides in the 21st Century
Like much of the agricultural industry in Florida over the last two decades, ornamental fish farming faces pressure from the region’s hot real estate market and cheaper international imports.
The number of fish farms in the state fell 14% between 2013 and 2018, according to the USDA aquaculture census. And that trend could continue with the next five-year census set to be released in December.
“Fortunately, or unfortunately everywhere in west central Florida has had a population explosion,” said David Boozer, executive director of the Florida Tropical Fish Farms Association based in Winter Haven. “I would say a lot of the farms were offered very good money for their land and sold out to developers.”
And many fish farms are competing against countries in Southeast Asia such as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore which have cheaper labor costs, driving down the price of fish.
During the pandemic, Boozer said the local industry had some of its best years. People were staying at home and adopting all kinds of pets, fish included. Meanwhile, the international trade dropped dramatically.
Segrest Farms Moore said “there was so much demand during COVID — I mean tremendous demand like I haven’t seen since maybe the 80s.”
Before the pandemic, UF’s DiMaggio said Florida fish farmers had to stay in the game by finding new species to breed (like the Blue Tang) or making the fish healthier. As countries reopened, shipping costs skyrocketed and equalized some of the competition from overseas.
In short: Florida is in a position to compete in both price and quality.
“The entire industry is based on what the fish look like,” DiMaggio said. “The Florida farmers really pride themselves on producing some of the best-looking fish in the world.”