While the culinary world awaits with trepidation the Jan. 1 loss of wild Maryland rockfish, Wally Miller and two colleagues are busy working on something to take its place -- a hybrid rockfish that grows in a cage and eats pellets.
"Once we get the bugs out, there's no way we can't make money selling these things at $1 a pound," said Miller.
A former Kent County commissioner and ex-waterman, Miller is manager of the 585-acre Walnut Point Farm off the Chester River. The farm is the plaything of a Philadelphia multimillionaire who encourages experimental farm practices such as growing rockfish, also known as striped bass, in ponds.
In the last two years, with the help of Don Webster and Don Meritt of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental and Estuarine Studies, Miller has raised about 3,000 hybrid rock to market size in small net cages in a muddy lake, using only a few thousand dollars worth of equipment. Meanwhile, the supply of natural rockfish in the nearby Chesapeake Bay has plummeted so dramatically the state will ban all fishing for them Jan. 1.
Miller's aim is to prove that hybrid rock can be raised inexpensively as an extra income producer for Eastern Shore farmers. "I know about farmers," said Miller. "The first thing they say is, 'How much will it cost?' So we tried to do everything as cheaply as possible."
Thus his auspicious program consists of some nets hung from rough-cut lumber and empty oil drums in the deepest corner of one of nine ponds he's had dug on the farm. The feed, high-protein pellets designed as trout food, sits in opaque plastic jugs and is expelled on demand when the rockfish trip a signal cord below.
"There's about 500 in there now," said Miller, who along with his chums hoisted the net to reveal a mass of squirming, shiny fish. Miller said he believes each 8-by-8-foot pen can hold up to 1,000 fish.
That's the same number that entrepreneur Ken Ingram is growing in two kiddie pools hooked to a batallion of water-quality gadgets in his basement in Laurel.
Ingram and Miller are engaged in experimental aquaculture, regarded as a potential solution to problems of declining water quality and overfishing in traditional seafood resources.
Both worry that the statewide ban on sale and handling of Maryland rockfish that will accompany the Jan. 1 fishing moratorium could interfere with their work, but Torrey Brown, the state's secretary of natural resources, said this week, "It is not our intention to close these people down. We need to work with them to find an answer, to keep this going."
That's just as well. Miller, on the verge of test-marketing his pen-reared rockfish hybrids for the first time, said the state would have to arrest him to stop his experiments.
"I never had any idea about selling them for profit , but if they say I can't sell them, by God I'll sell them," said Miller.
Miller and Ingram are working with a rockfish-white bass hybrid that Miller said tastes the same as the wild variety (an assertion that some connoisseurs might question, although it is tasty) and which grows twice as fast.
"We don't even want to fool with natural rockfish, except research-wise," said Miller, whose captive rock grew to only nine inches and half a pound after 15 months, while the caged hybrids grew to 15 inches and two pounds.
Miller said his biggest expense is fingerlings, which both he and Ingram buy from a Missouri supplier at 25 to 75 cents apiece. Should mass production develop, they expect that cost would drop dramatically. Beyond that, he said, costs are minimal, barring a massive fish kill like the one he suffered last summer.
"We made the mistake of handling the fish during hot weather and they all died," said Miller. "That's okay. That's exactly the kind of thing we're trying to find out."
Miller and his university advisers also are experimenting with artifical oyster propagation on private creek bottom adjoining the farm, crawfish-growing ponds and a soft-crab production system using well water instead of water from a creek, thus avoiding the need for expensive waterfront property to shed crabs on.
Miller believes all these operations could work to augment natural supplies and traditional fisheries without upsetting the marketplace.
Others, unconvinced, have awarded Walnut Point Farm the sobriquet, "Tomorrowland."