Insider: What it’s like to run a Miami fish farm

Andre Fletcher and Sharon Dammar-Fletcher weren’t always in the fish business.

“When the economy went down, we were in real estate. We had some money left, so we decided to do this,” says Andre.

Ten years later, they’re shipping 500 pounds of tilapia each week. They’re self-trained (“It was a lot of trial and error”), in the early years relying often on the experience and support of “close-knit” neighbors in the Redland.

“When we started, I was the only person dealing tilapia.” Andre’s opening a cage door to the fish tanks (Tilapia City, he calls it). “Now there are 6 or 8 right here. A whole new generation is coming.”Inside a Miami fish farm

Fresh water runs nonstop into several dozen tanks, which seems obvious until you understand that few people in the commercial tilapia industry raise fish this way. The tilapia is one of aquaculture’s hardiest subjects; its resistance to polluted water and crowded conditions has made it one of the world’s most affordable and most eaten seafoods (it’s the fourth most popular seafood in the US, behind shrimp, tuna and salmon)—almost all of it farmed. Many of the world’s tilapia farms are packed, stagnant, and dirty. In Southeast Asia and South America, which produce much of the world’s tilapia, runoff from these farms has caused significant water pollution. Which is all to say, the Fletchers pride themselves on doing business differently.

“The water’s always moving. That’s why the fish tastes fresher,” says Andre, looking into a clear, decidedly not-packed tank of adult tilapia. He treats his fish only with salt (also uncommon), which means the fish mature more slowly than in typical commercial farming operations. “It takes a good 8 months. With the normal farming it would be 6 months. But then you have the taste difference.”

Tilapia is one of the oldest fish to have a recorded history of culinary use. It has its own Egyptian hieroglyph, K1 (along with other Florida friends like the crocodile, i3) and appears (sort of) in the Bible. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says (on its excitably ichthyological site FishWatch) tilapia was likely the first fish in the world to be farmed commercially.

Inside a Miami fish farmFood industries at global scale tend to have peculiar characteristics. In tilapia’s case, it’s pervasive sexism—the fish bred and harvested for food are almost exclusively male. The females incubate thousands of eggs (about 2-4 per gram of body weight, with an adult weighing 2000g or more) in their mouths at one time, which can disrupt a farming operation with too many young fry. As a result, many cultivators dump hormones like testosterone into the water to change the sex of young females.

Fletcher doesn’t. When we visit, he has several females in a separate tank while they incubate their young. Nearby there freshwater lobster, koi, and other show fish. Their operation is small, about a dozen tanks on a few acres. It’s just the two of them most days. “We’re old fashioned Jamaicans,” he said. “That’s why we get along so well.”

Florida’s aquaculture industry on the whole is small, relative to the rest of its agricultural output. The biggest category, at about 40 percent, is ornamental fish, which seems fitting for the home of SeaWorld. Nearly two-thirds of the state’s aquaculture operations are under 3 acres in size (which may explain how everybody knows somebody with a koi pond). Andre says there are a lot of grants and government support available for small producers.

I ask Andre about the business side of their commitment to raising fish the way they do. Sure, there are farmers markets and CSAs and more people asking “is it local?”—but there’s also a global explosion in demand for tilapia, and commercial producers are scaling to keep up.

“I put myself in the customer’s position. Wouldn’t you prefer to know you can come and sit with the guy who’s growing your food? It takes a little longer, but I’m a take-things-slow kind of guy.”