Ornamental Aquaculture Champion

The Jimmy Buffett of Fish Farming
November 23, 2016
From Bayside to Oceanside
November 23, 2016

Every day, a dozen or so airplanes carrying nonhuman passengers skid to stillness on Los Angeles International Airport’s tarmac. Onboard sit boxes brimming with plastic bags of water and brightly colored fish from the Philippines, or maybe Japan, or Australia. After LAX customs inspection, they ride to nearby wholesalers who will ship them to pet stores nationwide.

This is how over 90 percent of ornamental fish make their way into home aquariums. Harvesting ornamental fish depletes wild stocks, leaves a large carbon footprint, and the stress of international travel—which can take up to three days—kills many gilled travelers unfamiliar with the confines of a plastic bag.

Across the country from LAX, Mike Schwarz and his team are farming fish to fight these shortcomings. He works at the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center (VSAREC), a satellite research center of Virginia Tech located in Hampton, whose staff are affiliated with Virginia Sea Grant. Schwarz is an aquaculture specialist, which essentially means he’s really good at growing fish.

But “it’s not just throwing feed into a fish pond,” he says. Fish are picky. Every species has quirks that make breeding and raising it in a tank difficult. Schwarz researches how best to care for a fish and its quirks, from perfecting diet and water flow, to stymying cannibalism.

A few years ago, he was trying to figure out how to tank-raise cobia, a fish people like to eat for its firm texture and mild flavor. Unfortunately, cobia larvae also like to eat cobia.

“They eat the heck out of each other,” Schwarz says, holding up two fingers about a half inch apart. “A fish could be that big and whacking its brother.” But after collaborating with other aquaculture researchers around the world through emails, phone calls, and yearly meet ups in France, Schwarz et al. found which conditions, like water aeration, flow, light and feeding regimen, reduce cannibalism the most in cobia larvae.

Schwarz is married, with two children, two stepchildren, and two step grandchildren. He looks like a business casual Jimmy Buffett, 20-years-younger. However, Bluetooth headphones sit on his shoulders in lieu of Buffett’s guitar strap. And his button-down is plaid instead of Hawaiian print, though Schwarz did initiate a Hawaiian-Shirt Fridays dress code.

Despite working 300 miles away from Virginia Tech’s main campus in Blacksburg, Schwarz is considered to be a faculty member in their Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, and earned his PhD from VT in 2005. He’s worked in aquaculture for more than 25 years, and has a confidence that matches his experience.

“For me, I don’t see challenges, except for limited time and money, and a lot of things I want to do,” he says. Schwarz was born in Montreal, and lived in Canada until his family moved to the United States when he was 12 years old. He grew up fishing, surfing, and sailing, which piqued his interest in marine biology and led him to a bachelor’s degree in wildlife and fisheries sciences from Texas A&M University in 1989.

He originally got into aquaculture because he liked the idea of using science to produce high-quality seafood, which he’d always loved eating. While earning a master’s of agriculture with an aquaculture focus from A&M, he started interning at a fish farm in Texas called Prime Reds. After completing his master’s, he began full time there, and moved up over a period of seven years, eventually becoming hatchery manager, and then farm and operations manager. During this time, the farm was bought by a new investor, and rechristened Harvestfresh Seafoods. After leaving the farm in 1997, Schwarz started an international aquaculture consulting firm called Quantum Tides Inc., a company he still manages. He came to VSAREC later that year to begin Virginia Tech’s new Marine Aquaculture Program.

In the 19 years since, Schwarz has become a major player in the international aquaculture scene. He’s the former president of the United States Aquaculture Society, and 2013-2014 president of the World Aquaculture Society. Working with colleagues at VSAREC, he has streamlined the farming of many seafood species—like cobia, flounder, hybrid striped bass, pompano, clams and oysters—and shared his findings with Virginia aquaculture companies pro bono, a service aligned with Virginia Tech and Virginia Sea Grant’s joint mission to put science in the hands of the people that need it. As of last year, Schwarz expanded his focus to include ornamental species.

"For me, I don’t see challenges, except for limited time and money, and a lot of things I want to do."

Most of his days are spent fielding phone calls and emails from aquaculture researchers and industry members at his desk, which sits in a second-floor office overlooking the Hampton River, where boat masts quiver and clink in the wind. His desk and shelves are littered with decorative wooden fish, certificates, awards, and miscellaneous knickknacks from his world travels, during which he shares and learns aquaculture techniques, collaborates with other researchers, and attends aquaculture conferences in places like India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and the Philippines. When asked how many countries he’s visited for work, he says it’s easier to name the ones he hasn’t been to.

Downstairs from his office, there are wall-to-wall tanks of clownfish, bright-purple orchid dotty backs, blue-striped neon gobies, and fiery-orange flame angels. Your average pet store goldfish costs between 12 and 29 cents. A clownfish can be anywhere from $9.99 to $15.99, and neon gobies go for $12.99 to $18.99. Orchid dotty backs, and flame angels are even pricier—about $39 to $49. Ornamental fish are a lucrative industry overall, with a global wholesale value of about one billion dollars, and retail sales over three billion dollars.

There are a lot of reasons to farm ornamental fish. Raising them in tanks from egg to adult reduces pressure on wild populations, and can shrink the carbon footprint of transport by half or more. Schwarz and his crew employ recirculating aquaculture systems, which clean and recycle water to reduce use. Aquaculture can also increase the survival of ornamentals en route to pet stores. While wild fish can be literally stressed to death by travel, tank-raised fish are familiar with confined spaces and thus hardier.

“The farm-raised ornamentals are really a better product, and you’ve got the significant conservation aspect as well,” Schwarz explains. “It’s a win for everybody.” He also believes tank-raised ornamentals are a “completely undeveloped aquaculture sector for Virginia. To help this sector take root in the Commonwealth, he’s sharing VSAREC’s breeding and raising techniques with Virginia aquaculture companies.

For now, Schwarz and his colleagues only have one aquaculture company willing to grow ornamentals. Bradford Bay Farms is a black sea bass farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Using protocols developed in part by VSAREC, the company has started selling clownfish under the name Mid-Atlantic AquaTech. Though they offer clownfish in a variety of colorings—including blotchy Picassos, almost-all-white Platinums, flecked Snowflakes, and black Midnights—Schwarz hopes to help AquaTech start growing other ornamentals species, and eventually become a one-stop shop for pet stores seeking a wide assortment of healthy, vibrant, tank-raised aquarium fish.

“He’s really helped us a lot along the whole way,” says Chris Bentley, farm manager at AquaTech. Eager to convey Schwarz’s willingness to help, Bentley explained how when a zoning and planning committee tried to apply chicken farm zoning restrictions to AquaTech’s facility, Schwarz drove to the Eastern Shore to give the committee a presentation familiarizing them with fish farming, which is still uncommon in Virginia. “He gave them the perspective they needed to put in proper zoning restrictions,” Bentley adds.

Schwarz says he loves working with the industry, which he calls the “action zone,” and hopes other aquaculture companies in Virginia will follow Mid-Atlantic AquaTech’s example. “If you want to make a difference in the public, you need to make a difference in the industry,” he states. “That’s where the rubber hits the road. You can sit in a research academic box all day long, and aside from what you publish, it doesn’t hit the road.”

From his experience and travels, Schwarz has built an international network of allies. “He knows pretty much anybody and everybody that’s important in the field of aquaculture,” says Steve Urick, who works for Schwarz as VSAREC’s hatchery manager. While Schwarz is upstairs at his desk, or jetting around the globe at 38,000 feet (his “mobile office”), Urick is downstairs overseeing daily care of the fish. Urick says Schwarz’s network allows VSAREC to acquire broodstock with good genetics from all over the world.

Recently, for example, Schwarz was asked by industry to figure out the lowest temperature that seriola, a popular seafood in Japan and Korea, can handle. This “cold tolerance” tells aquaculturists where they can keep their seriola net pens, or operate their tanks. But to do the research, Schwarz first had to get the fish to Virginia. Unlike small ornamentals that can travel in plastic bags, seriola are powerful, active swimmers and must travel in larger vessels.

“That can be kind of problematic,” Urick says. But he credits Schwarz’s extensive list of contacts with getting the fish to VSAREC: Schwarz knew a guy at a fish farm in Hawaii who was willing to ship seriola.

Schwarz’s international reputation has also helped him establish an internship program at VSAREC that trains students how to do what he and Urick do. Schwarz started the program to address the lack of trained workforce in aquaculture. It garners applications from around the world. In the past ten years, he’s managed over 100 interns from 12 countries.

“Professors know Dr. Schwarz, his background, and the kind of researcher and aquaculturist he is, and they know the students are going to get tremendous experience by being here,” Urick says. “And he is actually a fun person to work with. I think that’s a big plus when we have these young students from all over the world. He takes work extremely seriously, but he knows how to have a good time, and enjoys the fun things in life.”

"If you want to make a difference in the public, you need to make a difference in the industry."
“It’s not just throwing feed into a fish pond, fish are picky. Every species has quirks that make breeding and raising it in a tank difficult."