Harford fish farmer's pioneering methods draw attention of U.S. government


If you like fish, better eat up. By the year 2000, the world's oceans, lakes and rivers could be fished out, resulting in a predicted 2-billion-pound shortfall of seafood products, according to a U.N. report.

But not if people like Doug Burdette can help it.

The Harford County native and owner of Maryland Pride Farm in Aberdeen has developed a method for raising fish in tanks that has captured the attention of the federal government, universities, restaurants and fishmongers all over the country.

Mr. Burdette is among a handful of pioneers in the business of aquaculture -- he raises fish and aquatic plants, intended for sale, in a controlled environment. On his farm, striped bass and a fish called tilapia swim contentedly year-round in ten 2,500-gallon concrete tanks, housed in a 40- by 50-foot section of a cavernous barn.

Catfish, not as valuable on the market and therefore not as spoiled as the bass and tilapia, live outdoors in the warm months of the year in 10 acres of ponds on the Burdette farm.

Cabbage, monster tomatoes and other plants grow in ..TC 3,000-square-foot greenhouse near the barn, where they thrive on effluent piped from the ponds and fish tanks.

Mr. Burdette's 20-acre farm operates as an "intensive recirculating aquaculture system." That means the fish water becomes plant food, and what the plants don't use gets reoxygenated and directed back to the fish. There's no waste, it's all computerized and it's the envy of aquaculturists around the country.

Mr. Burdette, 50, recently turned operation of the farm over to his sons, Michael, 24, and Brian, 21. Now, he travels around the country to describe how aquaculture works to people who want to build their own computerized ecosystems on their spare acres.

He also consults with the federal government's Office of Technology Assessment in Washington about aquaculture.

"My goal is to build a large aquaculture industry in the state," Mr. Burdette says. It's a laudable goal but not an especially easy one to meet: "When I say aquaculture, many people still don't know what I'm talking about."But state governments are trying hard to change that right now. Maryland departments of Agriculture, Natural Resources, Health and Mental Hygiene, Economic and Employment Development, Environment, plus the University of Maryland are all working with private farmers, including Mr. Burdette and three others in Harford County, to make aquaculture a thriving industry.

Their efforts are working, judging by the way production of farm-raised fish has jumped since 1990. In that year, 97,795 pounds of hybrid striped bass were raised in Maryland aquaculture farms.

By the end of 1993, the Aquaculture office of the Maryland Department of Agriculture expects as much as 461,913 pounds of striped bass will be produced on farms in the state.

Tilapia, a little-known fish in 1990, is literally leaping out of fish farms now.

The state aquaculture office records production of tilapia in 1990 at 9,700 pounds. By the end of this year, farmers will grow and market 620,355 pounds of it.

Roy Castle, project manager with the state aquaculture office in Annapolis, said Harford County "is right up there" with other counties in Maryland that produce large numbers of bass, tilapia and catfish.

The county has other fish farms beside Maryland Pride, including aquafarmer Cary Huber of White Hall, who raises rainbow trout; Maryland Aquatic Nurseries of Jarrettsville, which raises ornamental fish and plants; and Fish in a Barrel of White Hall, which raises bait fish.

But Mr. Burdette's farm has captured much of the interest from state and federal agencies, largely because of the computerized system he developed with the University of Delaware to control production and efficiency.

"It can predict from a fish egg what day the fish will go to market," Mr. Burdette said of his sophisticated system.

The water in the tanks is a murky brown and cold -- just how Maryland Pride's striped bass and tilapia like it.

In fact, they'd die if conditions changed. To keep that from happening, the farm's tanks are monitored closely by computerized sensors which record water temperatures; oxygen, nutrient and water levels; and degree of acidity.

If any level moves beyond optimum, computers automatically adjust the environment.

Mr. Burdette said he has fine-tuned the system to a point where he has a fish mortality rate of about 1 percent. He has no way to measure this for certain, but he thinks his fish are happy.

"This little farm is one of only about 25 farms in the country that do what we do," Mr. Burdette said. "Everything else is at the university level, which is wrong. Japan and Israel have made aquaculture a priority and the United States hasn't."

Any support would be welcomed, he said. Everything he has built has come from his own money. He estimates building a productive aquafarm and making a living with it costs more than $350,000.

As expensive as it is, why would anyone go to the trouble of trying to grow fish in a tank instead of a pond?

"We'd have to have acres of ponds to equal all the acres of the ocean," to farm all the fish the world needs, he said. "And that's not possible.

"A pond can grow one pound [of fish] per 400 gallons of water," Mr. Burdette said. "Our tanks consistently produce one and a half pounds per gallon. With this system I can grow as many fish in 2,500 gallons of water a year as I can in a one-acre pond."

All told, Mr. Burdette produced 60,000 pounds of fish last year on his small farm. Most were grown to exact market size and then sold live to wholesalers and individual restaurants. They end up in eateries in Washington, New York, and even Toronto -- but not in Harford County.

"I find it a bit tragic," Mr. Burdette said. "Our sales reached a level where we would have had to expand. It wasn't possible to continue research and development and expand at the same time. We had to sell marketing of it to another company," which so far, doesn't market locally.

Maryland Pride Farm is negotiating for financial backing that would allow the farm to expand and produce an additional 200,000 pounds a year.

If that happens, perhaps within a "I'm looking forward to seeing Maryland Pride catfish back in the counter at Klein's," Mr. Burdette said.

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