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After backbreaking freeze, fish farmers try new ideas to survive cold | Business

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After backbreaking freeze, fish farmers try new ideas to survive cold
After backbreaking freeze, fish farmers try new ideas to survive cold

Plant City, Florida -- From where Ron Connor stands, five million dead fish would be good news.

Last winter's backbreaking freeze killed at least eight million of the tropical fish Connor raises on his farm in Plant City. He says the lost crop cost him $2 to $3 million.

So he's determined to try out new methods of protecting his precious piscine product during what's shaping up to be two back-to-back weeks of cold weather blasts.

January's crushing 11-day run of below-freezing temperatures killed 96 percent of the fish growing in Connor's 250 swimming pool-sized outdoor ponds and an enclosed building with 400 bathtub-sized vats.

His goal this year is to "lower the percentage" of dead fish, he says. Even losing 75 percent of his crop at Connor Farms Tropical Fish would mean lessening his losses by hundreds of thousands of dollars. That savings could be the difference between keeping and letting go his half-dozen employees.

Pumps and pipes push groundwater that measures a constant, warm 72 degrees into the outdoor ponds. Each pond holds tens of thousands of tropical fish.

Last winter, those pools were covered with plastic sheeting. This time, Connor says the sheeting is set up to hover much closer to the water.

Also new for this cold spell: methods to cut down on wind blowing across the water. The plastic sheeting now extends out over the ground on all sides of the breeding ponds, plus Connor has built dirt berms along some of the ponds' edges to block the steady, cold wind.

Inside the farm's large building, water trickles into 400 concrete vats. The vats are a bit larger than a bathtub, and each hold only a few hundred fish.

Last winter, the air inside the building was kept toasty -- more than 80 degrees. This time, the water is also being heated.

All of the new equipment and techniques have made preparing for these cold blasts expensive, in an industry where profit margins are slim and foreign importers are taking more and more business from Florida farmers.

An estimated 80 percent of the tropical fish grown in the U.S. come from farms in Hillsborough County. Tropical fish farming is part of an agricultural sector of the county's economy that employs around 20,000 people.

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