UM Rosenstiel School professors are developing sustainable ways to support aquaculture for business and livelihoods in the Caribbean.
There’s some fishy business happening in the Caribbean and two University of Miami professors are laser-focused on using their pioneering technologies to get at the heart of it to safeguard a future for these global marine assets.
Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science Professor Jerry Ault has been working for more than 20 years to develop new scientific methods to study the abundance and migration patterns of economically important fish like snapper, grouper and tarpon in Florida and the wider Caribbean.
Just like in Florida, fish are a highly valuable commodity in the Caribbean. They are caught for sport, to feed families and to sell in commercial marketplaces.
Ault, chair of the Department of Marine Ecosystems and Society, equips tarpon and other sport fish with satellite tags to track their movements. These silvery giants, which spend their time on shallow reef flats throughout Florida and the Caribbean and can live for 80 years or more and grow up to 300 pounds, are caught and released for sport in Florida, while in the larger Caribbean they are caught and consumed by locals.
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Rosenstiel professor and director of the Aquaculture program, Daniel Benetti, feeds fish that are grown in tanks on Virginia Key.
In recent decades, tarpon and many of the sport fishing businesses they support have begun to vanish in the U.S. Since their consumption in the U.S. is near zero, Ault’s work is helping pinpoint why these fish that were once the heart of a booming sport fishing industry have all but vanished in some areas like Texas.
It wasn’t until one fish tagged in Trinidad and Tobago was discovered in Puerto Rico and a second tagged in Florida was found off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, that scientists began to learn about their huge migratory potential. To map their expansive range, Ault works with Caribbean scientists to track the region’s shared economic resource.
Ault recently began working with Cuban colleagues setting up a fisheries science program in the country to study migration patterns of tarpon and other reef fish from Cuba to the U.S.
“The first time I went to Cuba I was blown away by the quality of the resources,” says Ault.
“When you get in the water, you gasp. It’s fantastic.”
But he also points out that these fragile marine ecosystems need to stay in balance to get benefits that can be enjoyed today and sustained in the future.
Cuba, Ault says, is “at the dawn of development.” He is taking advantage of the situation to both understand what Florida’s reefs were like before industrial activities and development took hold, and help the Cuban people maximize the return on their pristine investment in a way that is sustainable far into the future once a free-market economy arrives on the island’s shores.
“Florida should be a lesson for them on what to do, and not to do,” says Ault.
People flock to the Caribbean from all over the world to take advantage of its year-round warm climate and tropical waters, and to enjoy the fresh fish in local restaurants. To support the region’s growing population—currently at over 43 million residents—and the more than 25 million tourists who visit every year to relax, fish, scuba dive, and enjoy fresh-caught fish at local restaurants, more fish will be required in the future.
That’s where Rosenstiel School Professor of Marine Ecosystems and Society Daniel Benetti’s research comes in. Benetti has pioneered new ways to farm fish—from hatchery to plate—in a sustainable way. Fish, according to Benetti, is the most efficient protein source to feed the world’s growing populations.
With more ocean acreage than land in the Caribbean, Benetti believes these island nations will have to capitalize on the vast ocean areas to raise high-quality seafood to feed both their citizens and visitors in the coming decades.
As director of the UM Aquaculture program, Benetti’s technology has closed the lifecycle for popular restaurant fish like grouper and mahi-mahi, and is working to crack the code on what he calls the “Holy Grail” of aquaculture—tuna.
The technology is fine-tuned, from raising larger fish that supply the eggs—known as broodstock—to campus-raised plankton that provide the best nutrition and good bacteria to keep young hatchlings antibiotic-free. Once they reach a certain size in the hatchery, the fish are transferred to underwater pens where, for example, mahi-mahi can be grown in a healthy and sustainable way for consumption in only three months, making them more economically viable than raising similar proteins from animals like cows or pigs.
Benetti’s in-house fish nutrition program is developing new ways to feed the animals from renewable sources like soy, an important piece of the puzzle for socially conscious consumers who want a high-quality, ocean-friendly meal that doesn’t exploit wild populations to feed farm-raised fish.
Once Benetti cracks the code, the technology is immediately transferred to partners at private sector aquaculture companies. He has trained scores of graduate students over the years who take the science with them to both public and private sector jobs, further spreading the knowledge. Because, as he points out, “at the end of the day, our technology needs to be put to use.”
- ANNIE REISEWITZ / Special to UM News