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New law allows bass to be farm-raised, sold in Florida markets

The largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) is a species of fish in the sunfish family. (Wikimedia Commons)

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – Coming soon to your neighborhood seafood market: farm-raised Florida largemouth bass. Thanks to a law passed this spring, bass will expand its popularity from a favorite fishing target to the seafood sales list in the Sunshine State.

At face value, the issue seems simple. Allow a popular well-known species of fish to be farmed and sold in Florida — two things that have not been allowed for decades.

However, when Florida politics collide with fish management policy, nothing is easy. That was apparent Thursday during a presentation at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meeting in St. Augustine.

How did bass become a dinner choice?

The Legislature this year passed HB 669, introduced by Rep. Dana Trabulsy, R-Fort Pierce, to allow for the aquaculture industry to include the Florida strain of largemouth bass as a species it can raise and sell.

“It’s a great opportunity for people to enjoy bass, just like they enjoy catfish or tilapia or salmon and the other fish that are farmed,” Trabulsy told Florida Politics in April.

There are over 4,300 aquaculture facilities in the U.S., including over 1,000 in Florida, where there are over 1,500 types of fish, mollusks, crustaceans, reptiles, amphibians and plants grown. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) oversees this industry.

The legislation was based on economics. Farm-raised largemouth bass is valued at $5.75 per pound, a 90% increase from 2013, and 195 farms reported producing largemouth bass for food in 2018 for a total value of $27 million, the FWC told TCPalm.

In Florida, bass is a restricted-species protected from becoming a commercially harvested commodity, like snook and redfish.

Why isn’t this a good idea?

Under the new law, the FWC must develop a policy to allow for farm-raised bass sales, but some commissioners oppose the measure, saying it should remain a sport fish.

“I don’t think we should do this,” said Commissioner Gary Lester of Oxford. “Yes, we do have an aquaculture industry. We have a lot of fish and a lot of jobs in it. But the largemouth bass has a special iconic place in our state and in our economy.”

If a farm-raised bass escapes into a lake, will there be a genetic corruption of the unique Florida strain, Lester worried.

“If that happens, we could lose genetic purity. This agency has the responsibility to protect that. I’m very concerned when we have to use terms like ‘chain of custody.’ That ought to tell us something. I don’t want to be the board that lets that happen,” he said. “Once that bell has been rung ...”

Can a bell be un-rung?

That bell already has been rung, just not with bass.

The state has allowed Norwegian salmon to be raised in Homestead and Australian barramundi, a freshwater fish similar to snook, to be raised in open ponds in Osceola County. Our lakes, ponds, canals and marshes, especially in tropical South Florida, are teeming with non-native fish that are affecting native fish.

A fishing trip to any freshwater body south of Orlando will produce armored catfish from South America, Mayan cichlids from Central America, oscars from Africa and snakeheads from Southeast Asia. We’ve already seen 50-pound pacus and 6-foot-long arapaimas float up in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, respectively.

My biggest concern is commercial fishers will pressure legislators to harvest largemouth bass from the wild. There is already over 2 million pounds of fish caught and sold from Florida freshwater bodies such as catfish, tilapia and bream.

That includes the toxic algae-covered waters of Lake Okeechobee, Florida’s largest and economically most important lake. Consuming these fish may not even be safe due to exposure to algae, but testing has not been done — believe it or not.

While this grosses a couple million dollars for the handful of commercial fishing operations working these waters, the lure of recreational fishing for bass in Florida chimes in at $5.1 billion, according to the FWC.

The final question remains: Will I be buying bass at the local market? Count me in the group who probably will not.

I occasionally catch bass, but I haven’t eaten one since I was a kid and I wasn’t crazy about it then. I eat farm-raised catfish, tilapia and salmon and find it to be fine, but I prefer a fresh-caught fish. I know a lot of people don’t have the opportunity, but I’m fortunate enough to be able to fool a snapper, a snook, a Spanish mackerel or a pompano once in a while. I far prefer those to catfish and tilapia.

The market will dictate how successful farm-raised bass will be. I’m sure it will taste just fine fried in panko breading with a side of cauliflower, grits and hush puppies.