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He knows Nemo

Fish are Craig Watson's life: catching, breeding, treating, studying them, vocation and avocation melded.

SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published July 4, 2003

RUSKIN - Craig Watson dips his net into the coffin-sized tank, pulls out a squirming black Elephant Nose and eases the African fish into a water-filled plastic tub.

Watson sets the tub next to a small speaker, turns the volume up, grabs two attached speaker wires and declares: "This is for the kid in you."

The wires hit the water and a pulsing, electronic-like noise fills the room.

"That's how the Elephant Nose communicates," Watson smiles, his face lit up like a kid ripping through birthday presents. "That's the fish talking."

"Isn't that cool?"

Some things haven't changed since Watson got his first fish tank 38 years ago.

Now 45, Watson has an official-sounding title that comes with lots of responsibility and too much paperwork.

But he still finds time to play with his fish, whether it's in the 55-foot aquarium at his Lithia home or at the 7-acre aquaculture laboratory in Ruskin where he leads research for the University of Florida.

As director of UF's 8-year-old Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory, Watson oversees a staff of 11 that conducts research of great significance to the state's more than $42-million-a-year tropical fish industry.

Under his watch, veterinarians, biologists, Ph.D. candidates and interns diagnose fish, develop vaccines, cultivate new species and improve existing ones.

"There's always a new fish, something to study, something you and I don't know about," Watson said. "As a scientist, having an unlimited list of unanswered questions is exciting."

To tropical fish farmers in Florida and beyond, Watson is the go-to guy, the one they call when they have a problem in their hatcheries or an idea for improving production. When journalists from the Chicago Tribune or the Los Angeles Times need an expert on the industry, they call Watson.

But that's just Craig Watson the scientist, the guy with degrees from two universities and more than two decades of professional experience.

For Craig Watson the longtime fish lover, life is simpler.

Dry humor in a wet world

The Miami native gets the same rush out of African cichlids that he got when he was 7, nurturing his first tank. He still finds wonder and amusement in research experiments.

Watson's sense of humor is subtle and dry, but plentiful. He's clearly amused when showing visitors the small white beads at the bottom of a tank full of swordtails.

"Guess what those are," he says, a mischievous glint in his eye.

Watson explains that the white stuff is "bovine testicles, ground up." The theory: Baby swordtails will eat the testicles, ingesting testosterone that speeds up their maturation.

"But it's not working so far," Watson admits.

The beauty of the lab, Watson says, is that he and fellow scientists can try experiments that don't pan out. Tropical fish farmers don't always have that luxury. Profits and time are too precious.

Research center was his dream

In 1990, Watson was an aquaculture agent for UF's Cooperative Extension Service. The job gave him lots of one-on-one contact with tropical fish farmers, and he became intimate with their struggles, concerns and needs.

Thus began Watson's push for a research center dedicated to the industry.

Watson knew the facility needed to be near southern Hillsborough, which houses 80 percent of the state's tropical fish farms.

Today, UF's lab includes 4,000 square feet of offices formerly used by the National Weather Service, and an adjacent 6.5-acre fish farm.

It includes 50 outdoor ponds filled with about 30 species, plus classrooms, lab space and wetlabs.

The lab is a big step up from Watson's first tropical fish job at age 16, when he worked for a high school friend's father at Robert's Fish Farm in Miami.

Watson earned degrees from FSU and Auburn University and gained first-hand experience from Riverview to Tunisia, where he spent three years in the Peace Corps.

In 1988, he went to work for the Cooperative Extension Service. When the Ruskin aquaculture lab opened in 1996, Watson seemed a natural choice for the director's job.

"A job like that is part politics, working within the university system and working with the state and federal government to get funding," said David Boozer, executive director for the Florida Tropical Fish Farms Association.

Watson says the job demands more paperwork than he'd like, and sometimes he'd rather be on the road.

"I miss just getting in a pickup truck and visiting fish farmers."

- Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 661-2443 or svansickler@sptimes.com

Craig Watson

Age: 45.

Family: Wife Mary, a nurse at Tampa General; daughter Erin, 9; and son Adam, 7.

Favorite fish to grow: "Can't answer that. I'd insult too many fish."

Favorite fish to eat: Tuna, "lightly seared, very rare."

Dreaming of Tunisia: Watson sometimes has dreams in Tunisian Arabic. He learned it while volunteering with the Peace Corps in Tunisia.

Football fever: Though not a "rabid" football fan, the UF employee roots for the Seminoles over the Gators, because he got his bachelor's degree from Florida State University. He roots for UF when they play Auburn, where he got his master's degree.

When he's not at the lab: Watson hikes, fishes and goes with his son to Cub Scout events, "I used to hunt, but it took too much time away from fishing."

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