By Chris Adams

For hundreds of years, farmers have been raising chickens and cows and pigs. But only since the 1950s have aqua “farmers” been trying to grow fish.

At the Mote Aquaculture Research Park in Sarasota, Florida, scientists are trying to change that.

Despite its size, wealth and scientific expertise, the U.S. is far behind the rest of the world in aquaculture. It ranks just 16th in production of farm-raised fish, according to NOAA Fisheries, which notes “the United States is a minor aquaculture producer, on a global scale—but it is the leading global importer of fish and fishery products.”

That means U.S. consumers are eating the fish raised in other countries. Why don’t U.S. producers do it themselves?

At Mote, researchers led National Press Foundation fellows through their facility.

Mote has the largest research facility in the U.S. focused on developing recirculating aquaculture methods, with some 125,000 square feet of freshwater and marine production facilities.

Nicole Rhody, who has spent a career teasing growth out of fish such as snook and almaco jack, showed the different stages that allow for raising fish in a biologically sustainable way. The fish – of varying ages – circle huge white and green drums; all of the systems at the facility are recirculating, minimizing freshwater discharges and eliminating saltwater discharges.

The need for aquaculture is clear, she said: There aren’t enough fish in the sea, and fishing fleets worldwide are rapidly depleting what remains.

“We are taking more than we can replace right now,” Rhody said.

One of Rhody’s key projects involves the snook. Mote is a partner with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, seeking to grow high-quality eggs, larvae and juvenile common snook to restore wild populations. Mote was the first to mature and spawn this species in captivity in 2006.

Mote is also researching Florida pompano, which has great potential as an aquaculture species. Mote is focused on improving feeding strategies to produce market-sized fish faster without off-flavors.

And finally, Mote is working to develop technology to allow for land-based fish hatcheries for almaco jack.

Mote is also conducting research on the impact of oil spills on fish, testing what happens to the later generations of fish that have been harmed by events such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.