Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


Chasing a Fish-Farming Dream


It takes a tough borough to breed a tender fish, Dr. Martin P. Schreibman likes to say. And the roughly 3,000 Brooklyn-bred tilapia Dr. Schreibman grows in tanks in his aquaculture lab grow up hardy and with the requisite dose of attitude.

To prove it, Dr. Schreibman, a biology professor at Brooklyn College, grabbed a handful of food pellets the other day and tossed them into a tilapia tank. The plump, purple fish gulped at the food in a frenzy that made the tank look like a Jacuzzi.

But once on the dinner plate, they are sweet and flaky, said Dr. Schreibman, a Brooklyn native himself. "Two things Brooklyn water is good for," he said, reciting another of his catchphrases. "Making bagels and growing fish."

Dr. Schreibman, 68, has been preaching the virtues of tilapia for years - and growing them, too - in the lab he founded and runs as part of the Aquatic Research and Environmental Assessment Center on the college's campus in Flatbush. And now that tilapia have become popular in restaurants and seafood stores, Dr. Schreibman's vision of widespread tilapia-farming in New York City may finally have a chance of becoming a reality.

"A few years ago, you mention tilapia and people's eyes glaze over," he said. "Now everyone's talking about it." In addition to appearing on menus, the fish can cure a variety of urban ills, according to Dr. Schreibman. Promoting urban aquaculture in New York City and setting up fish farms can help feed the homeless, ease environmental problems and provide jobs, he said.

He maintains that setting up a fish farm is simpler, less expensive and more profitable than one may think. "You could set a tank up in your basement and grow enough fish to pay your rent," he said, noting that most tilapia are imported from South America and Asia. "Why import fish from countries thousands of miles away when we can grow it all in-house?"

Inside the lab, in a building called Ingersoll Hall Extension, are 14 large tanks, with capacities ranging from 300 to 900 gallons. Some hold other kinds of fish, like platy and swordtails, used for biomedical research, but most contain tilapia, a hardy and fast-growing breed popular with fish farmers. Water conditions are controlled carefully, with extensive filtration systems and computerized climate and chemical controls.

Dr. Schreibman said that tilapia farming could become a thriving business in New York State, and that he hoped consumers would turn to the fish because of a recent study saying that farm-raised salmon had more contaminants than wild salmon. He would like tilapia farming to become associated with New York the way catfish farming is with Lousiana and salmon farming is with Maine.

Although he acknowledges that his plan is a pipe dream, it is gaining momentum. A "Brooklyn Tilapia'' T-shirt is in the works. With help from Cornell University biologists, industry leaders, and local environmentalists and politicians, Dr. Schreibman is drafting a study promoting Brooklyn aquaculture to submit to city, state and federal officials.

The plan calls for fish farms to be created at Brooklyn sites like Floyd Bennett Field, Coney Island, Red Hook and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and from these places the tilapia could easily be distributed locally.

"If we can just train the fish to swim to Fulton Street, we'd be all set," Dr. Schreibman said, "but we don't have a gene for that yet. But at least you could get fish on the table that was swimming a couple of hours earlier."

Fish farming is not new in and around New York City. Until a few years ago, residents in Morris Park, the Bronx, bought tilapia from a small fish farm in the basement of a commercial building, and a small tilapia farm is tended by inmates in the Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, N.J.

But Dr. Schreibman has grander dreams. "I envision fish farms all over the city," he said. "The city is losing out. We have to wake up and see this could be an economic boon. It could create jobs."

Aquaculture in our City
"Introducing urban aquaculture to the neighborhood could convert it from a center of blight and depression into a thriving, sustainable community. This can be accomplished by doing the following: * Convert abandoned warehouses into aquaculture facilities * Grow hardy, popular fish like tilapia using sustainable techniques * Provide jobs to local community members at facilities * Use some of the fish to feed the local homeless and hungry" Posted November 11, 2004

New York Aquaculture Industry: Status, Constraints And Opportunities: White Paper
80 page PDF. "The type of aquaculture that currently has the most major potential economic impact is indoor food fish aquaculture in a controlled environment, similar to how the broiler industry has evolved. Today the finfish of greatest promise appears to be tilapia, which are currently being successfully raised and marketed in upstate NY. Tilapia accounts for more than 50% of the economic output for finfish production in New York State." Posted November 11, 2004

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Revised Thursday, November 11, 2004

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture