Florida aquaculture sales last year totaled $69 million, according to a market survey conducted by Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and Florida Agricultural Statistics Service.
"Aquaculture is one of those things that has been growing for a number of years," said Martin May, chief of the Bureau of Seafood and Aquaculture Marketing at FDACS. "We have a number of people in the farmed fish business. We also have a number of very strong aquatic plant and marine life growers."
May said his department's $1.5 million marketing budget, which includes fresh seafood as well as aquaculture products, is spent almost entirely within the state.
The new statewide aquaculture study, the first since 2005, reported sales from 404 farms that produced ornamental fish, shellfish, alligators and aquatic plants, as well as food, game and bait fish. The 2005 survey reported $66 million in sales.
Ornamental sales, or fish produced for use in aquariums, totaled $35.5 million last year and included both fresh- and saltwater varieties. Saltwater fish are known as marine ornamentals. Ornamentals also include crayfish, corals, live rock, snails, shrimp and other marine animals and plants.
Sales of aquaculture products for human consumption totaled $24.1 million and included freshwater and saltwater fish, clams, oysters, shrimp, prawns, alligators and turtles.
Sales of all other aquaculture products totaled about $10 million.
Sales of aquaculture products for human consumption increased by more than $2 million since the 2005 survey, while ornamentals represented the biggest drop in sales.
There were 686 aquaculture operators in the state last year, according to the survey, with 404 of them reporting sales. Many of the farms are small, family-owned businesses, with 61 percent of them being less than three water acres in size. Total water acreage was 4,490.
Kal Knickerbocker, director of aquaculture at FDACS, noted that the industry is evolving as its grows. "The industry is sort of always in a state of change," said Knickerbocker, who formally assumed his role in July after being appointed acting director of the aquaculture division in March. "What we've seen recently is that there has been a little bit of a change in dynamics of the ornamental fish market. For example, there's more interest in marine ornamentals."
As the aquaculture market grows, it is also becoming more competitive, Knickerbocker said. "With fresh water ornamentals, we've seen some scaling back in the size and number of farms," he said. "But at the same time, we've seen more interest in salt water or 'marine' ornamentals. We're seeing new people trying new ways to grow fish."
Growing demand for aquaculture products means that the industry can continue to expand, Knickerbocker said. "There are lots of possibilities with aquaculture," he said. "People are trying new things every day with fish. Technology is also improving, and we're also seeing new lines of fish come into play, whether they're food fish or aquarium fish. We're also seeing new ways to culture alligators or aquatic plants. People are always working on new and innovative ways to be more competitive in the marketplace."
The role of Knickerbocker and his team is primarily regulatory. Among their key responsibilities are educating producers and enforcing mandatory aquaculture best management practices (BMPs). For farmers and ranchers, BMPs are voluntary. Aquaculture is one of the few market segments where compliance is required.
As a result of such scrutiny, said Knickerbocker, who joined FDACS in 1984 and served as a bureau chief and environmental administrator before assuming his new role, "The Florida aquaculture product in the marketplace is superior."
Given that advantage, May's team focuses on aggressively marketing Florida aquaculture products within the state.
"In terms of our marketing focus, we have spent a good deal of time on farm-raised clams and alligators, both for meat and finished leather products," he said. "Those have been the steady players within the industry over the past several years."
As a result, he said, FDACS efforts have increasingly been focused on the food side of the equation, such as farm-raised catfish, tilapia and shrimp. Newer niche market products include alligator and clams. And a new and promising opportunity is represented by farm-raised oysters. "Oysters could represent another opportunity to sell an aquaculture product," May said.
At same time, however, competition has increased, including between Florida producers. Foreign competition has also increased significantly in the last few years.
"So that keeps margins down very, very low," May said. "But as long as you have people making rational [business] decisions, there are apparently ways to make money with aquaculture."