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Ethanol facility is 'Goin' fishin'

by the Fish Site Editor
21 May 2007, at 1:00am

US - A plan to recycle energy at a Wisconsin ethanol plant is turning into a fishing expedition with hopes for a big catch. The Wisconsin plant's recycling plans include the establishment of a large tilapia farm.

Owners of Renew Energy plan to harvest about 4.5 million pounds of tilapia at the yet to be completed ethanol plant in Jefferson. The plant would be among the world's largest indoor tilapia farms, and US seafood experts say it could eventually play a big role in reducing imports of the popular fish.

Paul Olsen, one of the project's owners and originators, said once Renew Energy starts pumping out fish, hopefully within a year, its experts could visit other ethanol plants to help them start their own tilapia operations.

"A lot of ethanol plants will look at it and want to build a tank," he said.

After a sharp decline in ethanol profits in the past year, biofuel plants across the nation have been looking for ways to increase revenue by marketing various products related to production, such as the spent grain for animal feed.

An idea with potential
Fish and fuel might seem an odd match, but Renew Energy officials say the proposed tilapia tanks would be integral to their plant's energy efficiency plans. Hot steam that would otherwise evaporate from the plant is condensed into a liquid and carried in pipes through the fish tanks, where it warms the water to between 80 and 85 degrees.

Such warm water is ideal for tilapia because they thrive and reproduce best in a heated environment; they die if temperatures drops much below 50 degrees.

About 95 percent of tilapia consumed in America is imported. Most US tilapia farmers sell live, whole fish to high-end restaurants and Asian grocers. The Wisconsin fish farm plans to start this way, targeting buyers in Chicago and the East Coast, Olsen said.

But Renew Energy is also eyeing the elusive large-scale frozen and filet market currently dominated by China.

Some companies are looking for other sources of tilapia in light of recent concerns about the safety of food imports from China and elsewhere.

Olsen said representatives from Wal-Mart and McDonald's have expressed interest in his future tilapia operation. Cargill - whose animal nutrition division is a global marketer of fish feed - is also consulting on the project.

Ethanol and fish: Natural partners?
Olsen said he hasn't heard of another ethanol plant venturing into large-scale aquaculture. He expects good revenue from the combination fish farm-ethanol plant. Tilapia is now the sixth most consumed seafood in the United States, according to the National Fisheries Institute.

Retailers want domestic fish because it shows they're supporting American agriculture, and they worry about the safety of imports are safe, said Kevin Fitzsimmons, environmental sciences professor at the University of Arizona and treasurer of the American Tilapia Association.

"They'll pay a premium for that security but the question is, is that a nickel a pound or 50 cents a pound," he added.

Whether a US tilapia farm can compete with farmers in Asia and South America comes down to scale, said Ronald Malone, a Louisiana State University professor who is consulting on the Renew Energy project. "The first issue is to get the cost of production down," he said. Demand for tilapia is growing, but there aren't yet enough US producers serving processed tilapia filets to compete effectively in the global market, he said.

Fresh tilapia filets from US suppliers cost about $7.50 a pound, whereas imported fresh filets sell for about $2.50 to $3 per pound. The difference in frozen filets is similar. Tilapia experts say if larger US farms can cut operating costs, they might be able to sell filets for less.

Large-scale tilapia farms in the United States will have to head toward the filet market because the live whole tilapia markets are saturated, said Bill Varano, a tilapia farmer in eastern Pennsylvania and vice president of the American Tilapia Association.

He said Renew Energy isn't alone in its idea, as other large fish farms are considering expansion. A 4 million pound-per-year fish farm in Virginia recently announced its intention to produce 40 million pounds of the fish.

He said the fish has to be marketed as pure, clean, domestically raised seafood - and this will help the entire seafood biz, not just tilapia. "That's the trick. And that's going to be the trick for us in US agriculture, whether we're talking about beef or chicken or fish. We have quality material," he added.

Source: DesMoinesRegister

the Fish Site Editor