J.M. “Marty” Tanner, Owner, Aquatica Tropicals, Inc.: My background initially was in accounting. Ironically enough, one of the businesses that we were doing accounting work for was a tropical fish farm. I looked at the numbers and with my personal interest in fish keeping. I consequently got a job at a fish farm. I continued to work there on a part-time, then a full-time basis until I took over management of that company, and found the opportunity and started our own farm.
Combining his love of tropical fish with a keen business sense, J.M. “Marty” Tanner turned a childhood hobby into one of the largest individual producers of tropical fish in the world.
Owners Marty and his wife, Sue Tanner, began Aquatica Tropicals, Inc., with an eight-acre farm east of Plant City. They eventually expanded that farm and purchased a second one, a 13-acre facility, in Lakeland. Today, their company is a high-tech, ornamental aquaculture production facility using state-of-the art technology. Between the two sites, and a third facility under construction in Ruskin, the company currently is producing and marketing 150,000 to 200,000 fish a week.
While the company’s outdoor ponds remain productive, breeding and raising fish indoors has been a large part of Aquatica’s success. The three locations have over 100,000 square feet of indoor production space. This controlled environment eliminates the risk of disease, predation and weather damage common in outdoor pond production.
Moving production indoors did not eliminate all the threats to his agricultural endeavor. Facing a decline in water resources in South Florida, Tanner recognized the need to evaluate his operation’s water consumption to remain viable in an extremely competitive business.
Marty Tanner: It was as much a moral issue as it was a business decision back at that time. I like to think of myself as a viable business person; I’m also very environmentally sensitive in the fact that, hey, how can I morally use the amount of water that we’re currently using to produce a tropical fish?
The answer was recirculating the water of the indoor tanks. Working with the University of Florida, Aquatica developed a closed-loop filtration system. The system first removes any solids from the water, then with cultivated bacteria, biologically breaks down any chemical toxins. Next the water is reoxygenated, then sterilized with ultraviolet radiation before returning to the tanks.
Heating and cooling systems control the water temperature so critical to the health, growth and survival of the tropical fish. Because the water is re-circulated indoors, little of it is lost to evaporation, despite the fact that the three facilities continually clean and reuse more than 2 million gallons of water each day.
Aquatica’s pro-active environmental practices go beyond local impact. Working with other research facilities, the company’s staff biologist and its reproductive physiologist are pioneering new spawning techniques. These techniques will allow the reproduction of tropical fish on local farms, which not only reduces stress and diseases that affect wild-captured fish, it also prevents the depletion of wild tropical fish populations.
In a program with even greater worldwide implications, the University of Florida and the University of Southampton in England, are participating in a project to produce the protein known as “Human Factor 7.” A coagulating factor in blood, this protein will be used for high-quality medications for hemophiliacs and accident victims. Presently this product of blood plasma is very expensive and in very short supply. The cold-blooded tropical fish supplied by Aquatica act as an ideal vessel to produce the protein.
Marty Tanner: One of the biggest advantages with using a fish as a vessel to produce this “Factor 7” is we don’t have to worry about any warm-blooded diseases, whether it’s hepatitis, HIV or anything that may come in contact. So it’s a very good vessel, so to speak, to develop this type of protein.
Even with its impressive growth and success, the company is still run as a family business. Marty Tanner oversees the day-to-day operations, Sue handles the books, and their children help out during summers and holidays. The company’s 20 employees are also treated like family and take great pride in their work.
Marty Tanner: The backbone of our success comes from the people that work with us. We have a strong core group of employees that we look at more as coworkers as opposed to employees. They’re the reason that we’re successful.
Whether it’s the production of exotic and beautiful fish, involvement in groups that seek more sophisticated medicines, or helping the industry move into the 21st century, Aquatica Tropicals continues to set the pace with environmental practices that will ensure its place in Florida’s future.