- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2000

Alexandria unit promises better taste with purity

A German company has set up shop in Alexandria to peddle a new fish-farming system it claims is environmentally sensitive and produces better-tasting fish than traditional methods.

United Food Technologies AG (UFT) of Fulda, Germany, has developed an indoor, "closed-circuit" farming system that provides fish with a steady stream of fresh water, a process that eliminates the impurities that can hamper taste. The company says indoor farming can be done year-round, unlike the more common pond-based farming, which is usually done only in warm weather.

"It's almost environmentally neutral," said Robert J. Test, president of Alexandria-based American Marine Technologies Inc. (AMT), a UFT subsidiary that will sell the closed-circuit systems in the United States.

The closed system farms can be built anywhere in the country, as long as they are located near a constant source of water, such as a river or a well, Mr. Test said.

Any kind of fish from catfish to sturgeon can be raised in the closed system, Mr. Test said.

"The production can be tailored to meet the demands of the local market or any buyer," he said. A typical closed system can produce 500 metric tons of fish a year.

All of the water used in the closed system is recycled, Mr. Test said. The fish waste is also recycled as fish food, allowing the farmer to control what the fish eat.

"You catch a fish in the ocean and you don't know what its last meal was. That doesn't happen with our system," Mr. Test said.

AMT hopes to sell between four and six indoor systems this year. In addition, the company is scouting for locations in Virginia and on Maryland's Eastern Shore to build an indoor farm that it will manage itself.

A typical AMT farming system will cost about $5 million, which includes the cost of plant construction, tanks, computer equipment and training for the farmer.

The cost of land, building permits and utilities is not included in the price.

"This market is so open. There is so much need. If we sold a plant every month, we wouldn't put a dent in the demand," Mr. Test said.

Commercial fisheries produce about one-third of the fish humans eat, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The world's fish catch increased from 27 million tons in 1960 to 93 million tons in 1997, the FAO said. The availability of fish for direct human consumption has remained steady, according to the organization.

Fish farming proponents say aquaculture the farming of fish and other seafood such as shrimp and oyster is needed because consumer demand has risen and many of the world's oceans are overworked.

The United States was home to more than 4,000 aquaculture farms in 1998, according to the most recent statistics available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The farms, most of which raised fish, generated $978 million in sales that year.

Sixty-three percent of the aquaculture farms were outdoor and pond-based, the department said. Seven percent were indoor farms. The other farming methods included using cages in lakes and rivers, and pens in protected bays and inlets.

Although Mr. Test said his company's system is unique, indoor fish farming has been around for at least 10 years, according to T. Robins Buck of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

"This is not a new concept," Mr. Buck said, adding that Virginia is already home to a handful of small, indoor fish-farming operations.

Also, Southern States Cooperative, a Richmond-based farming association that serves 18 states, helps farmers build closed-system fish farms to supplement and diversify existing crops. Last week, the cooperative received a $10 million federal loan to help bolster those efforts.

Some researchers have criticized fish farming. A study published in last week's edition of the journal Nature suggested aquaculture hasn't worked out the way it was envisioned.

In some cases, aquaculture has actually raised the demand for certain wild fish, such as anchovies, which are ground up and used as fishmeal. Offshore fish farming has also fouled some coastal areas, the study said.

Christoph Hartung, chairman of UFT in Germany, said his company's closed farming system eliminates those concerns, since it allows fish waste to be recycled as fish food.

UFT has been in the fish-farming business for more than 20 years, Mr. Hartung said. His company generated $8 million in sales last year and has plants across Germany.

In addition to the United States, UFT is also establishing fish farms in Europe, Asia and Australia.

"There is a huge market worldwide for this product," Mr. Hartung said.

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