Mote fish farm tactics make big D.C. impression

Herald Washington BureauJune 6, 2013 

WASHINGTON -- Does something taste fishy?

Not to 1-year-old Alyssia Grier.

Grier, like many others at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's 38th annual fish fry Wednesday night, was left salivating and asking for more from a group of Florida researchers, restaurateurs and winemakers, who had traveled to showcase their innovations in sustainable fish and technology.

The group joined other businesses from around the country to offer a taste of their local flavors, including fish from regions as diverse as Louisiana and Alaska.

The event was held at a courtyard at the headquarters of the U.S. Commerce Department.

Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, which partnered with Ed Chiles -- owner of the Sandbar, Beach House and Mar Vista restaurants -- and Seth Cripe of Lola Wines, were represented.

Mote showcased its farm-raised, Florida-grown Siberian sturgeon, served blackened topped with caviar.

On the side was Chiles' brand of Florida-specific seafood. Cortez Bottarga is a specialty made from striped gray mullet roe caught in Cortez on the coast of Florida. Bottarga has a bold buttery taste, Chiles said, and may appeal more to fish fanatics than the casual eater.

"To have world-class caviar, grown and produced locally, to have bottarga, grown and produced locally, to be able to show it here, it's great," said Michael Crosby, Mote president and chief executive.

While the fish may taste delicious, its impact on the environment is what brought the Floridians to Washington.

Mote's sturgeon is farm-raised and sold to restaurants across the country, which takes the strain off other local sturgeon species, which are already either threatened or endangered.

Jim Michaels, director of Mote's Sturgeon Aquaculture Program, said the goal of the fish fry was to promote Florida-grown fish as well as the sustainable equipment used to grow the fish.

The fish at Mote are grown indoors, using recycled water - a procedure different from other aquaculture facilities. The goal, Michaels said, is to produce more fish using less water.

By selling its sturgeon and caviar to restaurants, Michaels said Mote hopes to drive the cost of the technology down so that it can be used on different species.

On the other hand, Chiles said he is attempting to boost the Florida economy by bringing some of the money bottarga makes overseas - sometimes fetching 10 times more than in Florida - back to the local community where it is grown.

"It's just so much of who we are and our heritage," Chiles said. "Why send it around the world and let them make the money, when it's made locally?"

And although the fish are made in the lab, attendees of the fish fry said they didn't notice the difference. Many were impressed with Mote's caviar, which Michaels noted is usually hard to come by at a reasonable price.

Others were surprised at the similarities between Mote's fish and other species.

"I'm from the Pacific Northwest, so for me what comes to mind is a smoky, sort of salmon taste," said Rachel Keylan, an intern at NOAA.

Keylan said aquaculture can sometimes be unwise, especially for certain types of seafood, but said she enjoyed Mote's offering.

Meridena Kauffman, a Seattle resident in the U.S. Coast Guard, said she had Northwest sturgeon a few weeks ago and Mote's fish tasted just as good.

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