Shortly after dawn on a chilly desert morning, Bill Engler, 44-old fish farmer-entrepreneur, and Victor Wade, his 45-year-old French-Canadian partner, are standing in their pole-barn fish hatchery trying to figure out how to measure a third of an ounce of a new animal antibiotic on a postal scale calibrated in one-ounce increments. Even though they’ve both been up long enough to do more work than most people would do in a day, and the sun still hasn’t come up over the Chocolate Mountains behind them, the two men find the energy to debate vigorously the various ways to accomplish the impossible task.
“Just estimate,” Wade says, “It’ll be close enough.”
“Maybe we should weigh an ounce, then divide it into thirds,” Engler counters.
Finally, like everything else at the fish farm, they make it up as they go along. “I don’t think anybody really knows how much to give fingerlings anyway,” Engler says. “If they all die, then we’ll know it was the wrong dosage.”
The whole fish farm is a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants operation. In the true spirit of American entrepreneurship, they are undercapitalized and overly ambitious. The hatchery’s dozen or so water tanks consist of everything from rusted cattle troughs to bathtubs to epoxy-coated plywood boxes. The water lines feeding the tanks are held up by rags, baling wire, and scraps of rubber hose. Everything is rusted, rotten, moldy, or muddy. But in spite of the chaos and squalor, the place works. If you peer into the tanks you can see thousands — even millions — of catfish and tilapia fingerlings flitting back and forth as they feed in perfect unison, as happily as little dollar signs growing into full-grown five-dollar bills.
Just east of the Salton Sea, between the towns of Brawley and Mecca, there’s a growing cluster of commercial aquaculturists — though among themselves they prefer to call each other simply “fish farmers.” At first this rocky, arid, and alkaline stretch of desert might seem like an unlikely place to raise fish, particularly if you consider that the fish are to be shipped to consumers on the coast, which is already saturated with an abundance of seafood. A closer look, though, shows why this area has become one of the major producers of freshwater fish west of the Rocky Mountains. First, most fish grow faster in warm water, and there are more days in the Imperial Valley than anyplace else in the U.S. when a pond three feet deep can reach the optimum growing temperature of eighty-four degrees. Second, even though it’s a desert, the area has an abundance of water from the Colorado River, by way of the Coachella Canal. Third, land is still cheap. And fourth, there are two huge markets — Los Angeles and San Diego — less than three hours away. At the present time there are more than 800 acres of aquaculture ponds in the area, owned by a dozen or so fish farmers, and as aquaculture becomes better understood in this country, as it surely will, there will be many more.
“Come here!” Engler says, with the enthusiasm of a high school biology whiz kid working on his science fair project. “You gotta see this. This is amazing.” Behind the hatchery are fifteen acres of freshwater ponds that Engler gouged out of the desert with a bulldozer just two years ago. It’s a small operation by most aquaculture standards, but it has a few advantages other farms don’t have — the most important being that when Engler sank a well on the property, he hit water that gushed out of the ground at 150 degrees, a delightful accident that allows him to experiment with a species of warm water fish his competitors aren’t able to grow. Behind the hatchery he has a small brood pond filled with these fish — Tilapia mossambica, a perchlike fish native to northern Africa whose reputation ranges from an eco-catastrophe-waiting-to-happen, to the answer to the Third World’s hunger problems. “See that gray female?” Engler asks, pointing out a nervous-looking little fish about eight inches long. “Watch what she does.” At first the tilapia does nothing but whirl her pectoral fins anxiously. Then, as if on cue, she opens her mouth and belches out a silvery stream of thousands of tiny fingerlings. “They’re mouthbrooders,” Engler explains. “Don’t ask me how they do it, but they carry all those little fish around their mouths until they’re big enough to take care of themselves.” The activity of the fingerlings, which set about feeding on the surface of the pond, attracts other fish intent on a quick meal; but the mother fights them off aggressively, slamming into them with her nose, over and over. “Now comes the really incredible part,” Engler says, still excited after witnessing this spectacle a hundred times. After a minute or two the mother swims back to the school of fingerlings, and with an undetectable command she signals the fish back into her mouth. She opens her jaws and they funnel in — the whole dark cloud of them — until not a single fingerling is left in the water. This miracle of nature is one reason why tilapia is among the most prolific of fish and is rapidly becoming one of the world’s most important aquaculture products.
Like most people involved in aquaculture, Engler’s interest in the biological habits of fish is more an obsession. He has been successful at a variety of enterprises, including construction, real estate, raising eucalyptus seedlings, and slumlording, and he could have saved himself a lot of work and worry by going into an industry more proven than desert aquaculture. Instead he lives alone, in a trailer decorated with giveaway posters from animal feed companies, on a remote patch of desert, falling asleep at eight-thirty every night with a copy of Aquaculture Magazine spread across his chest. By four o’clock every morning he’s waist-deep in water, or tinkering with a broken pump, or hauling loads of fishmeal to his ponds. He’s put his energy, his money, and his future into growing fish for profit — something which just three years ago he knew almost nothing about.
If the financially ailing Imperial Valley needs anything, it is new industry. As one of Engler’s fish-farming neighbors says, “A half dozen families in this valley own most of the agricultural land, and they’re prospering; everybody else is scratching just to get by.” Very little of the farm wealth filters down to the gritty little towns of Niland and Calipatria, which look like dust bowl disasters well on their way to becoming ghost towns. The only other industry in the area is tourism, which consists mostly of retired snowbirds from Canada and Washington who migrate down Highway 395 each year to park their RV’s in the desert sun and sit out the two or three coldest months of winter dozing over a hand of bridge. They are notoriously frugal, and very little of their modest social security checks ever finds its way into the local economy. If aquaculture can offer hope for the impoverished regions of Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia, perhaps it can also do something for the Imperial Valley, where the unemployment rate is generally around thirty percent.
At 10:00 a.m., Ed, one of Bill Engler’s hired hands, shows up for work. Ed lives on the front seat of a borrowed pickup truck he parks in the nearby community of Bombay Beach, an indescribably bizarre little town on the putrid shores of the Salton Sea. Engler once offered Ed the use of a vacant trailer on the fish farm, hoping that would enable Ed to get to work on time; but Ed politely declined. “I like living in the truck just fine,” he said. “When I wake up in the morning, everything I need is right there: my stove, my food, my clothes.” He’s a good hand, Ed is, and a hard worker, and if he’s suspicious of tricky entanglements like excessive luxury, Engler tries to understand. A lot of desert people are like Ed.
Engler and Victor Wade have an order to deliver 300 pounds of live catfish, 150 pounds of live tilapia, and fifty pounds of live bass to Woo Chee Chong — a chain of Oriental markets in San Diego. The order is to be delivered on Friday morning by nine o’clock, which means that today, Thursday, they must drag their number-one catfish pond and sort out the biggest fish for market. The job is accomplished with a seine net — 150 feet long and four feet wide — which is pulled through the pond by hand. The net has leaded weights on one side to keep it on the bottom of the pond, and cork floats on the upper side. With a man on both ends of the net, they begin the backbreaking task of pulling the net the 300-foot length of the pond, keeping up a constant chatter of talk the whole time. “One thing about pulling ponds,” Wade says in his energetic French-Canadian accent, “is that faster is not better. No sir, you gotta go slow.”
“Someday we’ll be doing this job with tractors, the way the big boys do it,” Engler says.
“You get a better pull by hand,” Wade insists.
“Maybe a mule is what we need,” Engler thinks aloud.
“Ah, the net’s getting heavy now, Bill” Wade says, his voice building suspense like a circus barker. “I gotta feeling there’s some big ones in there.”
“The trouble with these catfish is that they feed on the bottom,” Engler says. “If they’re doing good you never see them. You never know how many you’ve got, or how big they are, until you pull the ponds.”
They gradually haul most of the nets onto the bank until only a squirming mass of fish — perhaps a half ton — remains in the pond. Ed runs up to the hatchery and comes back with four plastic garbage cans perforated on the sides with two-inch holes. Using hand nets, they begin dipping into the seine net and pulling out twenty-pound loads of catfish, tilapia, and bass which they patiently sort into separate garbage cans placed in the pond.
“It’s a good haul, Bill,” Wade says, continuing the work chatter. “Oh, I like to see this! There’s some real monsters in there!” Since they only need 500 pounds of fish, they throw back anything under a pond and a half — really a rather large fish. Some of the catfish, though, are as big as five pounds, and almost impossible to hold with one hand. “There’s a trick to holding those big catfish,” Engler says, grabbing a five-pounder. “What you do is take them by the tail and turn them upside down, like this…” Suddenly the fish stops squirming. “It kind of stuns them, I guess.” He stands there, covered in mud, holding the fish like a proud father holding his newborn baby by the ankles.
Except for the horned toad, the channel catfish is probably the ugliest animal God put on the North American continent. Pug-nosed and slimy, with creepy tendrils dangling from its jaw to feel its way through the murky gook where it spends its life scavenging for anything resembling food, the catfish looks like it was designed to be a club, a bowling pin — anything but a fish. Along the dorsal and pectoral fins are needle-like spines which, if you aren’t careful, prick your hands and leave painful welts. While a real fish, like the trout, is decorated with colors of red and gold that flash and sparkle as it races through the water to attack its lively prey, the somber-colored catfish lumbers obesely through the sludge, face down, sucking up whatever dead morsels might have sunk to the bottom.
But enough of that. Besides being one of God’s ugliest creatures, the catfish is also one of man’s most maligned. And its biggest problem, really, at least from a marketing standpoint, is not that it’s so ugly — skinned and filleted, it looks as good as any other meat. Neither is it that the fish tastes bad, since pond-grown catfish can be quite good. The animal’s real problem is that throughout American history it has been the food of the lower class. For 300 years the Southern aristocracy derogatorily has been calling it “nigger food,” free to anybody with a bamboo pole and the time to fritter away trying to catch it. The catfish’s poor public image is nothing but an extension of racism, and anyone trying it with an open mind would have to conclude, as did Mark Twain, that “the catfish is plenty good enough for anybody.”
After the mud-splattered fish farmers have sorted their marketable fish into three separate garbage cans, they fasten the lids with rubber hose and push the cans out into the pond, where the makeshift cages will spend the night. Five hundred pounds of fish, at $1.65 per pound live weight, equals $825. Not bad for a morning’s work, and Wade, who has been at this for less than a year, stops for a moment to relish the satisfaction of it. “I spent twenty years in Montreal selling airplanes. It was real high-pressure stuff,” he says, “and I’m never going back to that rat race again. I’m gonna be a fish farmer now.” He drags himself out of the pond and stands on the bank, shivering. He is covered from head to foot with a black, sulfurous muck he amusedly calls “detritus” — a word he got from the aquaculture magazines. “Back in New York they’d charge you twenty dollars to get a facial with this stuff. Here we get a whole body pack every day — for free! Yessir, gonna be a fish farmer now.”
Though aquaculture was practiced by the Chinese at least 4000 years ago, commercial aquaculture of any significant scale in this country scarcely goes back twenty-five years. In 1960, for example, there were fewer than 400 acres of catfish ponds in the U.S. Today there are more than 100,000 acres, producing more than 200 million pounds of catfish per year. In recent years there has been a great deal of research on aquaculture coming out of the universities; this, coupled with the pragmatism of men like Bill Engler, has created a flourishing new industry — not just in this country, but in Mexico, Brazil, the Philippines, Taiwan, and many other countries. The Peace Corps is actively promoting aquaculture as a remedy for the low-protein diets of many African nations, and several of the people working in aquaculture in the Imperial Valley first learned their skills in the Peace Corps. Aquaculture has proven itself to be more efficient than raising livestock. Catfish, for example, can increase their body weight at twice the rate of cattle or sheep. Since the body density of fish is about the same as water, they don’t have to expend energy supporting their weight; and since they are cold-blooded, they don’t have to regulate their body temperature and therefore can devote more energy to body growth than land animals. Tilapia can double their weight every fourteen days, and reach maturity in just six months; just a one-acre pond can produce 10,000 pounds of tilapia in one year. Though the feed-to-body-weight conversion ratio for fish is about the same as land animals — three or four to one — fish feed is much cheaper than most animal feed; the mixture Engler uses, which consists of fish-meal, soy, wheat, corn, and vitamins, costs only twelve cents per pound.
Though many fish farmers are beginning to say that tilapia will become the fish of the future, Engler is one of only three fish farmers in the U.S. growing them now (the other two are in Idaho and Florida). Tilapia have been raised in China and Southeast Asia for some time, and Mexico, which exports frozen tilapia to the U.S., has found an eager market for them with the Southeast Asian community in Southern California. In Israel and Taiwan they are the primary aquaculture product, and both countries export millions of pounds of them every year. Sometimes called St. Peter’s fish because they are said to be the fish Christ used to feed the multitudes, tilapia are among the world’s toughest fish. Fish farmers say the only way to kill one is to run over it with a truck. Only three species of tilapia are allowed into this country, and in California none are allowed north of the Tejon Pass, midway between Los Angeles and Bakersfield. Because the fish are so hardy and reproduce so rapidly, state fish and game biologists are afraid they will dominate any ecosystem they are placed in. Engler once thought about selling tilapia fingerlings as live bait to ocean fishermen, but when he called the Department of Fish and Game for their opinion, they told him, “If the world were destroyed by nuclear war, the only survivors would be cockroaches and tilapia,” and the department quickly wrote a regulation prohibiting their use as ocean bait.
One strain of tilapia — Tilapia zilli — is used by irrigation districts in Southern California to control weeds, and Engler has a contract to deliver 30,000 of them this summer for that purpose. But in spite of their tough reputation, tilapia are a semi tropical fish, and can’t tolerate water temperatures below sixty degrees. The irrigation districts have to replace them every year, which, of course, delights Engler. “I have to make a living off this,” he says.
Not long ago Engler paid $300 for a breeding family of five tilapia from a fish breeder in Idaho. By breeding them with the tilapia he already has, he hopes to develop a strain of fish uniquely adapted to the warm, alkaline water of his own ponds. “Don’t tell anybody how much I paid for them,” he asks self-consciously. “Some of these old guys around here might think I’m crazy.” By “old guys” he means some of the more established fish farmers in the area, like George Widman, who has 200 acres of catfish ponds and who, in spite of his own success, advises anyone who wants to go into the fish farming business to “save your money and buy good booze”; or George and Fern Ray, who live down the road a ways and are the biggest producers of catfish west of the Rocky Mountains, delivering more than half a million dollars’ worth of them every year.
After the ponds are pulled and the fish are ready to go to market on Friday, Engler decides to pay the Rays a visit. There are at least two reasons for this visit. First, the Rays’ farm is a very sophisticated operation, and Engler loves to snoop around there picking up bits of information from one of the best outfits in the business. And second, for the past few months, Engler has been dating Fern Ray. “For the longest time I thought George and Fern were married,” he says, driving his pickup along the rutted road leading up to their place. “I guess most people in this valley still think they’re married. When I found out she was his sister and not his wife, well…” He just grins.
When Engler first started seeing Fern Ray, they each tended to protect the secrets of their respective farms — breeding experiments, hatchery operations, and such — but, as Engler says, “There isn’t much to do out here except talk about fish and fish farming, so we don’t have as many secrets as we used to.” That’s a cozy little development which benefits Engler a lot more than it does the Rays, since their farm, compared to his, is like Disneyland compared to a ten-cent pony ride. The Rays have more than 400 acres in ponds, including several impressive ponds more than a mile in length. Each week they deliver between 10,000 and 15,000 pounds of fish, mostly to Los Angeles, but also to San Diego. While Engler makes his deliveries in a homemade plywood tank on the back of a pick-up, the Rays make their deliveries with a custom-made flatbed truck that holds ten 250-gallon stainless steel tanks. While Engler gets his technical advice from the industry magazines, the Rays employ a biologist. And so on.
George Ray doesn’t look much like the self-made millionaire he is. He looks like he should be sitting next to a wood stove in some hardware store in Mississippi, bragging about his hunting dogs. He’s a soft-spoken bachelor, almost shy. He wears his baseball cap tilted at a good-ol’-boy angle, and as he walks around his ponds he looks more like the hired help than the owner. But when he speaks, carefully understating everything, the controlled and patient manager in him is revealed. “You have to understand the community we’re serving, which is the Southeast Asian community,” he says. “They’re a growing market in Southern California. They’re starting to open more and more of their own fish markets and supermarkets. They want live fish if they can get them, and they want a fairly big fish. We try to hit a two-pound average in the catfish we deliver.” What George is getting at, in a roundabout way, is that the Southeast Asians don’t share the traditional American prejudice against catfish — they love big catfish — a post Vietnam cultural oddity which just happens to be making him a wealthy man. “Most of our fish go to L.A. because they have a centralized Oriental community, a Chinatown, while San Diego’s Oriental community is more spread out. But there’s tremendous potential in San Diego for aquacultural products — Bill can tell you that.”
Engler smiles nervously — George has acknowledged him as a legitimate competitor, which is a compliment in a way. But he’s still the new kid on the block, and unsure to what degree George accepts his presence. When Fern arrives and silently leads Engler off on a stroll around the farm, George watches them go, shrewdly guarding any opinion he might have about their new alliance. “Things have really broken open for the catfish market this year,” he says, returning to the subject at hand. “The biggest cause for excitement right now is the news that the nationwide Church’s Fried Chicken chain [with five restaurants in San Diego County] has signed a contract to buy $55 million worth of catfish over a fifteen-month period. That represents about twenty percent of the catfish produced in the U.S., and it probably means there’ll be a catfish shortage for a few years now.”
In recent years the phobia Americans have about cholesterol has caused them to eat less beef and more fish, which has forced the price of beef down and the price of fish up; at the same time, the cost of commercial ocean fishing has gone up, while the cost of aquaculture has remained steady. “The catfish market is expanding about twenty percent a year,” George Ray says. “A lot of fast-food chains are adding fish to their menus, but they have a dilemma: if they want to sell fish, what kind should it be? McDonald’s uses Atlantic cod, and right now they’re taking virtually all of that market. If a large chain wants to sell fish, catfish is the only real alternative.”
When Engler and Fern return from their stroll, the subject of the conversation changes to tilapia. When pressed for his opinion of them, George shrugs and says somewhat evasively, “Bill knows a lot more about them than I do. I do know they’re a tricky fish to grow, though.” Most catfish farmers have a prejudice against tilapia, simply because they’re new to American aquaculture. But George Ray is far too astute not to know what Engler knows: that the potential for tilapia as an aquaculture product for Southern California could very well be greater than that for catfish; they grow faster, they reach maturity quicker, they’re a better-tasting fish — as clean and sweet as trout — and they aren’t burdened by the cultural biases against catfish.
Later, at dusk, as Engler leaves the Rays’ farm, he takes a circuitous route, sneaking a tour of some of the Rays’ ponds he’s never seen before. “I’m almost positive they’re thinking about growing tilapia,” he says suspiciously. “I’m almost positive.”
The next morning Engler is up again at four. He has to have his fish delivered to the Woo Chee Chong market, on Sixteenth between Market and G Street, by nine, so he and Victor Wade load the delivery tank onto the back of the truck. Their gasoline-powered pump blew up while draining the pond the day before, so they begin the tedious job of filling the 300-gallon tank by hand with plastic buckets. “We may be small, but we’re efficient,” Engler says, trying to boost Wade’s morale as Wade hoists the thirtieth bucket up to him. “This must be how they do it in the Third World,” Wade replies. After the tank is full, they drag the garbage cans full of fish out of the pond, drop them in the delivery tank, and Engler sets off on the three-hour drive to San Diego.
Walking down the aisle of Woo Chee Chong’s Oriental supermarket, you are forced to realize that man can, and will, eat anything: green shriveled-up squid, the mashed faces of octopuses, hogs’ hearts, red eggs, pickled ducks’ feet, unidentifiable fungi, salted plum pits, fish broth, pig snouts. Omnivorous man will not only eat these things, but will relish them so much that when, by accident, he finds himself living in a part of the world where these items are not part of the regular diet, he will import them at great expense to satisfy his cravings. If you were traveling the Orient and saw the items at Woo Chee Chong’s sold at a street market, you would think, well, East is East. But to see them sold here, in an American-style supermarket, with the fluorescent lights, the sparkling linoleum floors, and the revolving checkout counter, is just too strange.
Engler backs his truck up to the loading dock behind the market. The warehouse foreman, with clipboard in hand, comes out to trade a few insults with Engler, just to let him know he’s happy to see him — it’s hard to trust a man who won’t insult you to your face. Engler peeks into his tank to make sure the fish are okay — sometimes they get out of the garbage cans and leap out of the tank. “Once I was driving down the freeway when these people next to me started yelling and pointing,” he says. “I looked in my rearview mirror and saw a catfish skidding down the lane next to me at 55 miles an hour.”
He hauls out the garbage cans, dripping with fishy water, and sets them on the loading dock; then he pours the fish into the market’s steel tubs so they can be weighed. The foreman turns his eyes from the scale, to show he trusts Engler to give the honest weights, and jots down the numbers Engler calls out to him. The fish are still active as ever, and as Engler drags them off to the tanks where they will be kept alive, some of them leap out onto the floor — five-pound catfish flopping around among the cases of cottonseed oil, canned oysters, bags of rice, bean sprouts, and red onions. The workmen running dollies back and forth laugh heartily as they swerve out of the way.
When all the fish are in their proper tanks, the foreman brings his clipboard over for Engler to sign, proving he’s selling game fish acquired from a licensed fish farm. “The fish and game warden likes to see those receipts,” the foreman says. “Sometimes the Vietnamese come in here trying to sell every kind of fish you can imagine — legal, illegal, they don’t care. I look at what they got and tell them, ‘You get outta here! I don’t wanna do business with you!’”
The foreman is ready to write Engler a check, but Engler waves him off. “I’ll settle with you next time.” He climbs into his truck, smiling wearily. His week’s work is done. “There’s something about this fish farming. I don’t know exactly what it is,” he says, thinking aloud. “You grow something from nothing, take it to market, and not only do they pay you for it, but they’re happy to get it, too. I guess I’ve never done anything quite so satisfying.”