A plan to recycle energy at a Wisconsin ethanol plant is
turning into a fishing expedition with hopes for a big
Owners of Renew Energy plan to harvest about 4.5
million pounds of tilapia at an ethanol plant under construction in
Jefferson. The plant would be among the world's largest indoor
tilapia farms, and U.S. seafood experts say it could eventually play
a big role in reducing imports of the popular fish.
Olsen, one of the project's owners and originators, said once Renew
Energy starts pumping out fish, which he hopes will be 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 say, 'Hey let's build a tank,' " he
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.
comes to large-scale fish production, however, some Iowa producers
say they will stick to tilapia on a plate for the time
Walter Wendland, president of the Iowa Renewable Fuels
Association and of the Golden Grain Energy ethanol plant in Mason
City, said he would rather rely on proven energy-efficient
technology than be a guinea pig for a fish farm.
these plants are looking at where their niches are for becoming more
profitable, because our industry may not be much more profitable
down the road," Wendland said. "In that respect, I think it's a good
idea. But if everybody does it, it's probably going to take away
from the profitability really quick, just like the ethanol industry
in a way."
Experts: An idea with potential
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
Such warm water is ideal for tilapia because they
thrive and reproduce best in a heated environment; they die if
temperatures drop much below 50 degrees.
About 95 percent of
tilapia consumed in America is imported. Most U.S. tilapia farmers
sell live, whole fish to high-end restaurants and Asian grocers. The
Wisconsin fish farm plans to start out that way, targeting buyers in
Chicago and the East Coast, Olsen said.
But Renew Energy is
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. Earlier this month,
Mississippi agriculture officials ordered stores to pull Chinese
catfish from their shelves after samples tested positive for
federally banned antibiotics. Wal-Mart, the nation's largest
retailer, removed all Chinese catfish from its stores
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 consulting on the project, he said.
of unique in how fish get brought into this country ... and what
goes into the store and what people think they're buying and
eating," Olsen said.
Whether a U.S. 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.
The catfish industry
in Mississippi has reached hundreds of millions of fish per year and
has a coordinated feeding, handling and processing system that makes
it competitive, Malone said. Demand for tilapia is growing, but
there aren't yet enough U.S. producers serving processed tilapia
filets to compete effectively in the global market, he
Foreign farmers benefit from lower land costs,
electricity, labor and naturally warm water.
filets from U.S. 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 U.S. farms can cut operating costs, they might be able to
sell filets for less.
Retailers want domestic fish because it
shows they're supporting American agriculture, and they worry about
whether imports are safe, said Kevin Fitzsimmons, treasurer of the
American Tilapia Association and an environmental sciences professor
at the University of Arizona in Tucson. They'll pay a premium for
that security, he said, "but the question is, is that a nickel a
pound or 50 cents a pound?"
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. An
almost 4 million pound-per-year fish farm in Virginia announced
recently that it wants to produce 40 million pounds of the
"They have to market it as pure, clean, domestically
raised seafood. This will help the entire seafood biz, not just
tilapia," he said. "That's the trick. And that's going to be the
trick for us in U.S. agriculture, whether we're talking about beef
or chicken or fish. We have quality material."
fish: Natural partners?
Olsen said he hasn't heard of
another ethanol plant venturing into large-scale aquaculture. He
anticipates good revenue from the combination fish farm-ethanol
Tilapia is now the sixth most consumed seafood in the
United States, according to the National Fisheries Institute, a
It appeals to the American palate because
of its flaky texture and mild taste that marries well with other
flavors and sauces, Fitzsimmons said.
"Americans don't like
fishy fish. Most Americans like something really mild," he said.
"Professional chefs like it because you can do anything with it -
bake it, fry it, saute it, stuff it, blacken it, broil it,
Chain restaurants like tilapia because it is
available year-round; retail stores stock the fish because it's
inexpensive and high quality, he said.
"We consider it the
chicken of aquaculture," Fitzsimmons said. "You can go out and buy
your Kentucky Fried Chicken ... or get your chicken Kiev or cordon
bleu. You pay anywhere from $2 a plate to $25 a
Reporter Paula Lavigne can be reached at (515)
745-3428 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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