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Fish farmer: Former banker launches pompano aquaculture venture


Florida should be the land of plenty for aquaculture businesses. Entrepreneur Joe Cardenas hopes it will pay off for him.

Cardenas, a former banker, started a company a year ago at the FAU Tech Runway, a public-private partnership housed at Florida Atlantic University to help incubate start-ups. Aquaco’s goal is, by this time next year, to be producing 10,000 pounds of farm-raised pompano per month.

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“We really looked at it up and down and asked, ‘Where is the opportunity in Florida?’” he said. “Aquaculture just kept coming up.”

But it’s proven to be an elusive opportunity in the Sunshine State.

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As of 2012, the top aquaculture product in Florida — among the 404 industry operations counted for that year — was the cultivation of ornamental tropical fish for home and office aquariums. Just $27.2 million worth.

Put it this way: You know an industry is still on the periphery when the freshest statistics are from five years ago.

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Nonetheless, Cardenas left a 17-year career in banking, most recently asset-based lending, to become a fish farmer.

“The short answer is I stopped learning three to four years ago,” he said of his decision to change careers. “[Banking] is not an industry that you can be an entrepreneur at heart. It used to be.”

Cardenas insists there is enormous growth potential for Florida aquaculture in the next 20 to 25 years. And there should be.

Combine the growing demand for seafood with the stressed supply of wild caught seafood and clearly someone on this planet needs to get large-scale aquaculture done right. And the one who does will make lots of money.

So Cardenas left banking and seeded Aquaco with a couple hundred thousand dollars. He then embarked on a plan to raise $2.5 million to fund the start-up operations. He is 70 percent there, he said, which has allowed him to acquire an 8-acre parcel in Fort Pierce and begin building his fish farm.

Cardenas’ key selling point for his venture is the fish he picked, pompano.

Basically, he said, it’s a seasonal fish and not one commercial fishermen heavily target out on the ocean.

“You’re just not going to have 20,000 pounds of pompano show up at a distributor,” he said.

Meanwhile, most active aquaculture operations focus on other species, like cobia, tilapia and shrimp.

Cardenas says his calculations bear out the formula for success. Pompano, he says, retails for between $15.99 and $18.99 per pound, and $10 to $12 per pound wholesale.

He won’t say how much it would cost him to farm it per pound, other than to say the spread between his cost and the average wholesale price will give him a substantial return.

Even so, Cardenas said he is playing it conservative on initial production — he is aiming for just 10 percent of his full-run production goal at the start — to make sure he has the farming technique spot on.

That means making sure he knows specifics on things like the optimal water temperature for raising pompano is it (75 degrees or 77 degrees?) and the accurate water salinity level in the tanks.

Florida in many ways is synonymous with farming and fishing. Cardenas hopes to successfully combine both into a surf-on-turf enterprise.



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