Budget may send tropical fish belly-up
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
GIBSONTON -- After more than 20 years in the tropical fish farm business, the Hennessy family isn't easily rattled.
They have survived fish-threatening overnight freezes. They've scraped together money to grow their business, EkkWill Waterlife Resources, only to see the industry falter amid consumers' sinking interest in tropical fish.
Now, the world's largest producer of tropical fish is selling most of its Hillsborough County farmland to a South Florida home developer to "right-size" its operation.
EkkWill, owned since 1981 by brothers Mike and Tim Hennessy and Tim's wife, Sherry, is negotiating a contract to sell nearly 300 of its 350 acres in Gibsonton.
"I've just got too much land now," Tim Hennessy said. "It's like this machine with one speed, where we can't slow it down, even though the demand is slower. In this business, you sell 'em or smell 'em."
EkkWill will pay off bank debts and can continue producing about 8-million fish a year in ponds on the remaining 50 acres, Hennessy said. The company has another 167 acres in DeSoto County.
"The difference will be, we can actually sell everything we produce for a good rate, and turn over the ponds as fast as we want," he said.
EkkWill and more than 170 other tropical fish farms in Florida account for most of the world's tropical fish production; Hillsborough County alone produces 80 percent.
But industrywide, sales have dropped by as much as 30 percent since 1997, as mom-and-pop pet stores have closed and children have become more interested in video games than aquariums. EkkWill's sales peaked in 1995 and have since gone down by half, to about $5-million a year, Hennessy said.
Net sales of tropical fish were flat in 2001, totaling $42.4-million, about the same as in 1999, according to the most recent report from the Florida Agricultural Statistics Service. Twenty-two tropical fish producers went out of business between 1999 and 2001.
David Corbett, who operates a 10-acre farm in Ruskin, is struggling after 18 years. Not only is the market slumping, but his fish aren't reproducing as rapidly as they used to, and he's not sure why.
"You can't make money in farming. Big surprise, right?" Hennessy said. "So if you can't make money from the land, you've got to sell."
As if the slumping demand wasn't enough, the farmers say Gov. Jeb Bush's proposed budget poses another hardship. Tim Hennessy says it could be "the straw that finally breaks this camel's back."
Faced with a sluggish economy and a multibillion-dollar voter mandate to reduce class sizes, Bush recommends dissolving the state agency that regulates tropical fish farming.
Farmers say the move could sink their struggling industry, by creating uncertainty and returning them to an inconsistent regulatory system governed by multiple agencies.
Bush recommends cutting 51 of 54 employees from the Florida Division of Aquaculture, which regulates the tropical fish industry under the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Before the division was created in 1999, fish farmers had to deal with several agencies, where rules and requirements conflicted or overlapped. The Department of Environmental Protection would set one standard, and the local water management district might have another, farmers said.
"To get anything done was just a nightmare," Hennessy recalls. "You would literally have to decide which agency to do battle with, because they were telling you different things."
Farmers had to get permits from all the regulating agencies, and pay each one's permit fees.
"In all, a fish farmer would have to obtain as many as 19 permits," said Sherman Wilhelm, director of the aquaculture division. Now, "they just have to get one, and it costs them a flat $50 a year.
"If the division were to go away," he warned, "I would certainly say that people who thought about expanding or growing would think twice, because of the unknown costs that lay ahead."
The House and Senate will consider the governor's budget during the legislative session that begins Tuesday. Already, industry leaders have testified before budget committees, urging legislators to keep the division alive.
"The House and Senate so far seem very sympathetic to us," said David Boozer, executive director of the Florida Tropical Fish Farms Association. "But the governor has that power of line-item veto. That's what worries us, because then the game's over."
Tropical fish farming started in Hillsborough County in the 1930s. In the seven decades since, Hillsborough has become the headquarters of the industry.
The area's typically warm weather and high water table are ideal for raising tropical fish, and Tampa International Airport provides a convenient way to transport them.
But times are changing.
EkkWill has no plans to lay off employees because of its land sale, but the company will freeze new hires and decrease the work force through natural attrition, Hennessy said.
Of the 300 EkkWill acres being sold to Southeast Community Development LLC, nearly half are ponds.
The same company recently bought 92 acres adjacent to the EkkWill property off Symmes Road and plans to combine the two parcels for a housing development, said land-use consultant Bonnie Rubishaw.
Hennessy did not disclose the sale price. He expects to close the deal by summer.
He plans to apply for a zoning classification that would allow a developer to buy EkkWill's remaining 50 acres and have it automatically zoned for homes.
"We're hoping that raises the land's value, because a developer won't have to wait six months to go through the county rezoning process," Hennessy said. "We're just trying to think ahead."
He insists that EkkWill is far from extinct: "I've got two kids in college, and we know that's not cheap, right? And my brother's got four kids, one in college, the youngest 8 years old. We'll be here a while."
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