PORT MANATEE -- Twenty-one ponds and 400 acres of submerged land could soon take on the smell of fish and money.
Port Manatee officials are mulling sticking a toe in the water of the aquaculture industry as they look to bring in new revenue and to use property that seems custom built for growing seafood. This week, the port rolled out policy priorities that could free up a set of fish farming ponds for commercial use. The ponds were once used by the Florida Department of Fish and Wildlife as a fish research hatchery.
The port also has set a tentative goal of growing bivalves such as clams, oysters and scallops in seagrass beds and other underwater land it owns under a rare exception from the state.
Dave Sanford, port deputy executive director, said port officials want to find ways to use the two sites for seafood production to further its goal of creating jobs in Manatee County. The port has already been approached by Sarasota-based sustainable foods company Healthy Earth. The company is interested in raising shrimp in the ponds.
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Who would use the saltwater submerged lands remains a question.
"We have not approached anybody and no one has approached us," Sanford said.
Fish farming has long been pursued at the port, even though it doesn't fully line up with the port's mission of supporting maritime commerce.
Fish & Wildlife has oper
ated its hatchery on 52 acres at the port since 1985. It pays $1 per year to lease the property at 14495 Harllee Road. Its lease has expired.
Gil Mcrae, director of Fish & Wildlife's wildlife research institute, said his agency has not used the ponds for some time. It still maintains two indoor research tanks dedicated to developing techniques for hatching and raising saltwater game fish.
The agency plans to move the remainder of its Port Manatee research to Apollo Beach, where it maintains another facility. It has notified the port it is welcome to seek alternative uses for the outdoor ponds.
Christopher Cogan, CEO of Healthy Earth, said his company has been in talks with the port for more than six months.
The Fish & Wildlife facility is of particular interest because it is ready built to grow shrimp and fin fish and because state researchers are on site. Last year, Healthy Earth's parent company purchased Mote Marine Laboratory's aquaculture operation.
"We think there is potential for us to collaborate and work together on this facility," Cogan said.
Bringing a fish farming operation into the Fish & Wildlife ponds could be a quick revenue booster for the port by putting most of the land and water there under a standard commercial lease.
The submerged lands, however, would be a longer-term project.
At the moment, port officials are most concerned with the environmental benefits and credits the port could reap if it populates those underwater lands with bivalves.
Sanford said research shows a healthy bivalve population filters pollutants out of the water and promotes the growth of seagrass with its waste.
The port was required by permitting authorities to plant several acres of seagrass in its submerged lands after removing existing beds in building its recently completed Berth 12.
Seagrasses provide habitat for numerous species. The state's approximately 2.2 million acres of seagrass are subject to state conservation efforts.
Port officials have begun looking into bringing young bivalves onto its property, a process known as "seeding." Port personnel have visited nearby Bay Shellfish Co. on Terra Ceia Island to learn about that company's seeding operation, research and commercial bivalve production, Sanford said.
As with the Fish & Wildlife ponds, the port would seek a commercial lessee to utilize the submerged lands.
The port's ownership of those lands was granted through legislation under a rare exception to the state's constitution. In 1970, the state took sovereign ownership of lands within approximately 3 miles of its coast by adding language to Florida's constitution.
The state may sell those lands, but only when such a sale is deemed to be in the public interest.