Ashes, twisted metal and tons of dead fish

A fire at the Mote Aquaculture Center leaves behind a huge mess to clean up.

Published July 22, 2006

SARASOTA — Off Fruitville Road in rural eastern Sarasota County, a region once known for orange groves, scientists quietly have been cultivating new cash crops:

Sturgeon and caviar.

On Friday, those same scientists were coping with the devastation of a fire Thursday night that killed more than 26 tons of fish and seriously damaged the Mote Aquaculture Center, where they hope to show that fish farming can be both environmentally friendly and profitable.

“It looked like the whole park was on fire because the flames were so high,” said Kumar Mahadevan, president of Sarasota-based Mote Marine Laboratory, which founded the center.

The fire destroyed a 24,000-square-foot building, representing about one-fourth of the indoor research space at the aquaculture center. A third of the sturgeon population was killed.

Mahadevan said no one was hurt and that firefighters successfully blocked the blaze from other structures and a nearby tank of highly flammable liquid oxygen.

“I’m thankful it was only one building,’’ Mahadevan said.

Investigators on Friday had not determined the cause of the fire but had ruled out arson, said Max Melendez, a detective with the state fire marshal’s office in Tampa.

Melendez said he would check on reports of lightning strikes in the area and review mechanical drawings before making a final determination.

He said the fire began in the center of the building, possibly in the attic.

Mote officials were unsure what they would do with the wreckage, which includes 53,000 pounds of dead fish.

“We’re going to have to figure that out, honestly, because it’s not just fish; it’s fiberglass tanks,’’ as well as charred equipment and crumpled remains of the metal building, said Mote spokeswoman Nadine Slimak. She did not know the number of fish that died.

The building contained 16 large fiberglass tanks, 12 of which contained sturgeon. A portion of the tanks extended below the floor, and in many cases the fiberglass burned to the floor, investigators said.

Mahadevan said the aquaculture center is an experiment in fish farming. At some fish farms, for instance, wastewater is discarded into rivers or other bodies of water, polluting them. At the aquaculture center, all of the water is filtered and recirculated so that it doesn’t have to be thrown away. Depleted oxygen levels are restored to keep the water healthy for the fish.

The goal is to show industry that this process is not only possible but profitable, so Mote has been selling roughly 300 pounds a week of the sturgeon to a distributor, and it has shown up on the menu of at least one fancy Sarasota hotel. Mote also hopes one day to harvest and sell the caviar, which is the eggs of sturgeon.

One reason for focusing on sturgeon, Slimak said, is that the species is overfished in some parts of the world, so programs such as this could reduce the pressure on the fish in their natural environment.

The aquaculture center also works to raise snook, red snapper, pompano, queen conch and shrimp.

“Aquaculture can be done right, and there is no reason not to do it right,’’ Mahadevan said.

Work began on the center in 2001, and it was dedicated last November, but fish farming has been going on there for several years.

Mahadevan said he has been counting his blessings because he listened to colleagues who urged him to split the sturgeon building in two. Because of that decision, he said, a building virtually identical to the one that burned is still standing and unscathed.

Times staff writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at krueger@sptimes.com or at (727) 893-8232.