Commissioner Adam H. Putnam

Florida Agriculture: 500 Years in the Making

Overview of Florida Seafood and Aquaculture

Video Script

With so much of the state lined by water, it’s no wonder that thousands of Floridians make their living harvesting fresh Florida seafood.

They work hard to meet the demands of an increasingly health-conscious population.

As the need for fresh seafood grows, Florida is continually looking for new ways to supplement the wild seafood harvests; and it’s doing it through aquaculture.

While aquaculture simply means “farming in water,” it is a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States, and a growing enterprise in the Sunshine State.

It provides a wide variety of careers from biologists and botanists, to divers, operation managers and marketing professionals.

And the types of products grown are just as varied as the job opportunities.

Currently, Florida has aquaculture farms producing fish and shellfish for food and for bait, tropical fish and aquatic plants for aquariums and waterscape ponds, and alligators for food and leather hides.

The majority of the aquaculture facilities in Florida are small, family-owned and -operated businesses.

While most cover less than 3 acres of water, several use more than 50 acres of water area. 

As with any agricultural enterprise, the type of product a farmer grows influences the methods and facilities used.

Aquaculture products are grown in different types of water facilities from a variety of manmade ponds and tanks, to bays and underwater coastal lands leased to farmers by the state.

The farming facilities used are licensed by the State of Florida and must follow strict guidelines, known as Best Management Practices, specific to their product.

Aquariums and outdoor ponds have provided beauty and tranquility for centuries.

It is estimated that over 15 million households in the U.S. keep fish as pets.

So it should come as no surprise that tropical fish are the number one farm-raised aquatic product in Florida accounting for more than 40 percent of Florida’s total aquaculture sales.

In fact, Florida is the leading producer of aquarium fish in the U.S.  

Tropical fish farmers can produce a variety of freshwater and saltwater fish, though many choose to focus on a specific type.

Varieties range from goldfish and koi to angelfish and cichlids, and each must be raised in separate tanks and fed their own special food.

Since tropical fish grow well in warmer water, most of Florida’s tropical fish farms are located in the Central and South Florida below the state’s “freeze line.”

While many growers use outdoor tanks and ponds to raise their tropical fish, some larger growers use climate-controlled indoor facilities. 

Most tropical fish farms draw water from wells and use sophisticated recirculation, filtration, and heating and cooling systems.

This keeps the water oxygenated, bacteria-free and at proper temperatures.

When they are ready for sale, the fish are put in water-filled plastic bags packed in insulated boxes.

Because fish are a live product, the speed of packing and shipping is crucial, and they are transported by overnight air express to the wholesaler or retailer.

Many aquaculture farmers choose to grow only aquatic plants.

Live aquatic plants are farmed for a variety of uses like aquariums, water gardening, wetland restoration and food markets.

The water garden industry is a fast-growing segment of the lawn and garden market.

Aquatic plants add a natural beauty to aquariums and outdoor ponds while helping to provide additional oxygen for the fish, clarify the water and speed up production of beneficial bacteria in a newly established aquarium.

Florida is one of the few places in the United States that can grow aquatic plants year round.

With more than 100 varieties in production, choices range from beautiful water lilies to non-flowering pond plants and many types of green, variegated and colorful aquarium plants.

Many new and exciting aquatic plant varieties are grown in hydroponic greenhouses and outdoor tanks primarily in Central and South Florida. 

Beneath the coastal waters of Florida lies another multimillion-dollar aquaculture industry: farm-raised Florida hard clams.

Clam-farming has been around since the late 1970s and today there are nearly 400 certified Florida clam farmers. 

Clam production begins in the hatchery.

There are about 10 certified commercial hatcheries in Florida producing about 1 billion clam seeds annually.

The seed is raised to a larger size for planting in nurseries before finally being placed in mesh bags for planting.

The bags are submerged in coastal or estuary beds; these shellfish harvesting areas are administered, monitored and managed by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services aquaculture lease program. 

The growing time from seed to harvest, referred to as grow-out, is approximately 15-18 months.

To make them available year round, clams are planted in incremental stages and harvested periodically.

Since grow-out occurs in open water, clams have a positive impact on the environment by filtering the surrounding water when feeding on algae.

Once the crop is harvested, the clams are prepared for market.

Certified wholesalers wash, sort, and grade the fresh clams by size.

Then the clams are counted, tagged and packaged.

And since clams are generally sold live, they are delivered to the marketplace in refrigerated trucks.

Tilapia, catfish, pompano, carp, hybrid striped bass – these food fish have been farm-raised in Florida for decades.

Today, nearly 50 Florida aquaculture farms raise one or more of these species.

The process usually begins by raising the young fish, referred to as fingerlings, in outdoor ponds and circular tanks, as well as in rectangular containers called raceways.

The timing of the harvest depends on the fish, its size and growth rate.

When the fish reaches a marketable size it is harvested and shipped on the same day to wholesalers, retailers and restaurants to maintain freshness.

Water used in these operations is circulated through a variety of filters before ultimately flowing back to the aquifer. 

Like their wild counterparts, farm-raised aquatic food products are naturally low in saturated fats, cholesterol and calories, and high in protein, vitamins and minerals.
They contain omega-3 fatty acids that can help prevent heart disease, and lower blood pressure.

Farm-raised aquatic food is not only nutritious and healthy, it is safe.

To ensure its wholesomeness, the industry is also monitored and regulated by government agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. 

Once hunted to the brink of extinction, the American alligator is one of Florida aquaculture’s greatest success stories.

The establishment of alligator farms and other land and wildlife management programs has created controlled conditions for raising alligators.

Since 1986, the farming and harvesting of the alligator and the sale of alligator products, have protected endangered wild alligators and allowed the population to increase.

Raising this reptilian livestock begins with the egg.

While some eggs come from farm-raised alligator brood stock, most of the eggs come from the wild.

Each June and July, Florida wildlife officials issue permits to alligator farms to collect eggs, which are taken to farms and hatched in incubators.

The hatchlings typically break out of their shells in late August or September, then are placed in temperature-controlled grow-out houses.

To reach their preferred size of 4 1/2 to 5 feet, the young alligators require an environment that includes clean, warm water.

Normally, alligators are ready to harvest within 18 to 24 months, but that can vary based on growth rate and market demand.
Alligator farming is very efficient; all of the alligator can be marketed and sold with little or no waste.

The hides are the most profitable product from the alligator because each item is unique and has its own distinct markings.

Generally the leather produced from the hides is used to make high-end fashion items such as jackets, briefcases, luggage, and furniture upholstery.

High in protein and low in cholesterol, alligator is marketed as an “exotic meat.”

Sold to retailers and restaurants, it comes in many forms including ground, cubed, ribs and sausage.

Even the feet, teeth and heads of the alligator are used, made into novelty items and primarily sold at tourist attractions.

Aquaculture is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world.

In Florida, it’s providing more than beautiful aquarium fish, plants and fresh, healthy seafood; it’s providing jobs.

In a state with a rich agricultural past, farming in water is quickly finding its place in Florida’s future.

Aquaculture: farming’s next exciting frontier.

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