1. Opinion

Column: UF scientists help Tampa Bay tropical fish farmers grow their own

Scientists unlocked how to raise in tanks the Pacific blue tang, the fish in Finding Dory.
Scientists unlocked how to raise in tanks the Pacific blue tang, the fish in Finding Dory.
Published Sep. 2, 2016

In a lab in Ruskin, scientists have figured out how to make a movie star.

It took them four years to unlock the secrets of how to grow their own famous fish — the Pacific blue tang that is the central character of the Disney film Finding Dory.

Now they're working just as hard on how to give away their secrets. They won't be filing patent applications or making any proprietary claims.

That's because they work for a land grant university whose mission includes Extension — transferring their knowledge to the people who can make best use of it.

In this case, the beneficiaries are Florida's ornamental fish farmers — most of whom are based in the Tampa Bay area — and their customers. The plan is to teach the fish breeders how to raise in tanks a fish that is currently only found in the wild. The United States currently imports an estimated 250,000 of them a year.

The University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences set out to find a way to farm Dory with the purpose of making the blue tang a made-in-Florida product that creates jobs, businesses and profits.

Discovery is the part of science that generates the headlines and captures the imagination of the public. But Extension is what gives those discoveries relevancy after the final echoes of "Eureka!" In essence, it's what gets science off the shelves, out of the academic journals, and into your pet store or supermarket shelves.

That's why publicly funded science is so important to the state's economy. And why specifically, a land grant with a built-in mission to extend knowledge differentiates it from other research institutions.

UF/IFAS assistant professor Matthew DiMaggio and biologists Eric Cassiano and Kevin Barden have 27 blue tangs they bred in their tanks in greenhouses at the Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory just south of Tampa.

Having made the movie star, they're now working on the book. DiMaggio says it'll essentially be a "cookbook," a recipe for how to find Dory on your own fish farm. The ingredients will include what to feed newborns, how often, in what water temperatures, and lighting conditions. It'll include myriad other instructions on how to successfully get fish larvae to survive infancy and grow into electric blue aquatic jewels.

When the cookbook is complete, they'll hand it over to Florida's commercial tropical fish breeders, and they'll walk them through how to follow the steps.

The land grant model puts service to stakeholders at its heart. It operates as a partnership between the federal, state and local governments, the state's flagship public university, and foundation and private industry support.

The blue tang work was backed by Rising Tide Conservation and SeaWorld Busch Gardens Conservation Fund.

UF/IFAS has invested in the greenhouses, tanks, biological filtration units, foam fractionators, ultraviolet sterilizers and other equipment needed for this kind of research. We have the experts, thanks to state funding to expand our aquaculture team a couple of years ago.

Most important, we have a record of delivering results. Previously, Florida dealers got their neon tetras from Hong Kong and a few from the wild in South America.

UF/IFAS research showed that they could be produced here in Florida. Now there are hundreds of thousands sold each month from Florida farms.

Florida is the No. 1 producer of ornamental fish in the United States. That's big business. And it thrives in part with the backing of UF/IFAS science that keeps hundreds of local producers ahead of their worldwide competitors.

Investment in agriculture and aquaculture research pays off. The $148 billion-a-year Florida agriculture and natural resources industry depends on us as its innovation and discovery arm.

That's part of the compelling state interest in public land grant university research. It's only with that support that we can take a computer-animated creature created by Pixar and turn it into a real Florida-grown fish that puts smiles on kids' faces and money in Floridians' pockets.

Jack Payne is the University of Florida's senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.