Koi To The City

America's aquariums depend on farmers like Jeff Carter

click to enlarge WATERY GRAVES: Burial vaults double as holding tanks at Carter's tropical fish farm. - Max Linsky
Max Linsky
WATERY GRAVES: Burial vaults double as holding tanks at Carter's tropical fish farm.

Jeff Carter's tropical fish farm is on a dead-end road in Wimauma - one of those roads you would never drive down unless you lived there, or delivered the mail. Though developers are moving into this part of southern Hillsborough County almost as fast as they're attacking Tampa, the area remains defiantly rural, at least for now. It's farmland out here - drive for a couple minutes in any direction and you're bound to see some cows. And ponds. Fish-farming ponds.

Carter has been in the fish game for 30 years, and has owned his farm for the last 20. He's got 87 ponds tucked away on 15 acres, filled with koi, angelfish and other fresh-water breeds. A weathered 49-year-old guy with a leathery chest as tan as his face, Carter can't imagine doing anything else. Fish farming is his life.

He's not the only one. According to Craig Watson, the director of a University of Florida aquatic science research center in Ruskin, 95 percent of the fish produced in the United States for aquariums are produced in Florida. And of that, 80 percent come from the 140 farms in Hillsborough. The business, which began in Tampa Bay in 1929 and took off after WWII with the advent of airfreight, has become a major industry - Florida's producers sold $47.2 million worth of tropical fish in 2003.

There are a few reasons why Tampa Bay is such a prime spot, Watson says. Tampa International Airport, with its expanded roster of airlines and destinations, makes shipping manageable to almost anywhere. Tampa's temperatures rarely dip below 32 degrees, a plus if you're working with ponds. And the water table near the bay is perfect - start digging anywhere around here and your hole will flood.

The water might come easy. But there are a host of challenges facing a small producer like Carter.

The industry is just not growing the way it should, he says. Domestic farmers are forced to compete with cheaper foreign imports and to sell to a pet store industry dominated by Wal-Martesque megastores like PETCO. "The price of fish hasn't changed," Carter says. "But the price for everything else has gone up." Even fish food costs more these days.

Carter also has to contend with otters, turtles, snakes, birds and a slew of other predators who might stumble upon one of his 40,000-gallon ponds and have a feast. "Everything eats fish," he says with a laugh. "Even people."

(Carter says he's happy raising animals that are going to be put in living rooms and admired, not in dining rooms and devoured.)

But the biggest threat facing the industry is the rapid development of rural Hillsborough County. Not only are land prices going up, Watson says, but an already tight water situation in the area is becoming even more dire. "Most businesses want to grow," Watson says. "But you can't grow if there's no more land or water."

"With the developers doing what they're doing out here - it's kind of like a dying industry," says Carter as he gives a tour of his farm. The ponds don't look like much - even though the water is meticulously maintained, the pools are set right into the earth and their surfaces stay murky. Carter can pack between 2,000 and 5,000 fish into a pond, but they tend to hang out on the bottom, out of sight.

Once his crop is at full size and ready to sell, Carter moves the fish into large cement basins in greenhouses to sort and pack them. Burial vaults purchased from a funeral supplier, the makeshift tanks are bland and gray - a stark contrast to the colorful creatures swimming inside them. The greenhouses are a mess of mud, tanks, PVC piping and elaborate filtration systems that look like a ramshackle chemistry project to an outsider. Every tank, every pipe, every fish has to be monitored daily.

Jeff Carter sells between 15,000 and 20,000 fish a week. The summer's a time to reload - to pump the ponds and breed as many fish as he can. The stock needs to be ready for winter, when folks up north will be snowed in and pining for something colorful to look at.

When some brave New Yorker does step into the cold and head to the pet store next December, she'll pick between angelfish and danios, barbs and tetras. The tanks will say the fish came from Asia, the Caribbean - or some other exotic place that sounds appealing after a morning of shoveling the sidewalk.

But, chances are, the label refers to the species' origin, not where the fish was born and raised.

"[If] it says it came from Sumatra," Carter laughs, "it came from Hillsborough County."

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