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No Fish Story

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Add one more desert incongruity to the list.

Already there is the Salton Sea, where the ranger at the state recreation area is promoting pleasure boating and water-skiing even as the lake makes headlines as an environmental disaster.

Lush green fields of watermelon, squash and cantaloupe checkerboard with barren stretches of sand and rocks. Communities called resorts and spas are actually trailer parks where retirees stay inside all day running swamp coolers.

So maybe it should come as no surprise that the remote areas of the Imperial and Coachella valleys are home to about two dozen fish farms.

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An estimated 70% of California’s aquaculture--the fastest-growing segment of agriculture in the United States--can be found here, according to the California Aquaculture Assn.

The hot desert air makes for a year-round growing season for species such as catfish, and underground geothermal water allows many farmers to grow fish such as tilapia, a mild, white, warm-water fish.

“It surprises people: fish in the desert. We’ve even had the tax people come out and check on us because they thought ‘desert fish farmer’ was a red flag,” said Bill Engler, owner of Pacific Aqua Farms, which raises tilapia. “But the resources are here.”

The water at Engler’s fish farm near Niland emerges from the earth at 140 degrees. It is sent up a pipe to then spill down over screens stacked in the shape of a Christmas tree to cool off a bit. Tilapia prefer water that is 85 degrees. They die if the water temperature dips below 50.

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The Department of Fish and Game says the region’s fish farms also grow catfish and bass, as well as koi and other decorative fish.

Engler is considered a pioneer in growing tilapia, a fish native to Africa that is beginning to pop up at trendy restaurants and on newspaper food pages.

Twenty years ago, he was a San Diego surfer and general contractor with no plans of ever being far from the beach. Then, just for fun, he took an adult education course in aquaculture.

He got so excited, he stuck a 10,000-gallon tank in his backyard and began raising various fish. Within a couple of years, he decided to buy land in the desert, near hot springs, and dig a few ponds.

He almost turned around when he saw the dry plains and the Salton Sea’s brackish water.

“I was a surfer from the ocean. I thought, ‘No way can I live here,’ ” he said. “But I stayed. This is where there was hot water.”

For six years, Engler said, the company didn’t make a cent. But now Pacific Aqua Farms is a $2.5-million-a-year business.

“Except I forget to think about the money,” Engler joked. “The heat gets to your head. I only think about jumping in the fish ponds and cooling off. It feels like a massage. The fish tend to nibble you.”

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The market that would spur the growth of desert fish farms began almost 25 years ago on the docks in Los Angeles.

In the early mornings when the air was still wet with saltwater, Chinese merchants would go to the fishers and offer them five times the market price for a fish if they would keep it alive.

To many, a fresh fish was a live fish. Chinese cooks wanted to see a fish swim with vigor before it became dinner.

George Ray, who had been selling live catfish to fishing lakes, watched the bargaining on the dock. He decided to load up an old Chevy truck with an aquarium full of the catfish he grew near Niland.

At first he had to give his fish away because many in the Chinese community weren’t familiar with it. But soon he had established a niche market for farmed, live fish. He is credited by many with launching Southern California’s live aquaculture market.

Then, in the late ‘70s, a wave of immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia and other countries with traditional catfish recipes arrived, and the demand for live catfish and tilapia exploded.

When Ray started selling live fish, he was taking 100 pounds of catfish to Los Angeles each day. Now his company, Fish Producers in Niland, delivers 5,000 pounds a day, and he’s the secretary of the California Aquaculture Assn.

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The state’s fish farms are a $70-million-a-year industry, according to the California Aquaculture Assn., with the live market accounting for $50 million of that.

Although that includes trout used to stock lakes and streams, most of the live fish make their way to markets catering to the Asian community and to restaurants, Ray said.

From Southern California to San Francisco, stores stock their tanks with fish from these desert farms. Some merchants, such as Tom Tran of T&C; Live Fish in Oakland, drive to the desert weekly to pick up their catch.

Getting live fish to market is no easy feat. At Fish Producers, workers start harvesting the ponds at 8 p.m. four days a week. By 2:30 a.m., the trucks are loaded with tanks of live fish.

The drivers park in front of each market or restaurant on the delivery route, net out the fish and dash inside to dump them in a tank before the fish die.

But other than those life-and-death runs, fish farmers say their lives and workloads are much the same as any other livestock producer. The fish must be bred, rounded up and fed.

Rod Chamberlain, farm manager at Kent Seafarms in Mecca, wears cowboy boots and couldn’t imagine ordering fish at a restaurant--he prefers steak.

He said growing his company’s California Farmed Striped Bass “is just like raising cattle, only they’re buried in water.”

Sometimes the fish even act like their bovine counterparts.

At Pacific Aqua Farms, the tilapia churn and splash when the red feed truck drives up.

“They all rush over to be fed,” said Colin Bornia, the farm manager. “And they know the sound of the feed truck in particular. Any other truck can drive by and that won’t happen.”

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As with other types of agriculture, the businesses range from family-owned fish farms consisting of a few ponds carved into the desert to big businesses employing the latest technology.

At Kent Seafarms, every tank, every pond, every fish is on a computer program. But the true innovation is how it recycles the water.

The company is the first desert fish farm to use water before it’s passed on to a vegetable farm.

“We’re all competing for the same resources. In order to grow more fish to make up for the fish that aren’t in the ocean anymore, we need water--the same water the farms are using,” Chamberlain said.

Unlike many other fish farms around the Salton Sea, the business does not specialize in live product. The company sells 3 million pounds of cleaned, fresh sea bass a year and competes with ocean fishing fleets in domestic and export markets.

Kent Seafarms may be the future of what shows up on the fish-of-the-day boards.

“The only way the industry can continue to grow is if we find a way to drop in the middle of the canals and the farms and say, ‘Let us rent your water for a little while and then we’ll give it back,’ ” Chamberlain said, acknowledging the constant tug of war between agricultural and urban areas for water rights.

Chamberlain said he has no doubt that fish farming in California’s Low Desert will grow.

“Right now, 25% of the fish in the world is farmed. Just to keep up population growth that needs to be 30-50%,” he said. “So maybe now the desert seems like an unlikely place. Maybe the words fish and desert don’t seem necessarily compatible. But it’s warm here. There’s underground water here. And the world is becoming very protein limited.”

Even now, even at restaurants with ocean views, Chamberlain said, you may be eating fish farmed in the desert instead of caught in the ocean.


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