Underwater Farms Aquaculture in Manatee County

This exhibition would not have been possible without the research done by Mark Hansen - Manatee County Agricultural Museum volunteer. Special Thanks to Two Docks Shellfish, Angela Collins - UF/IFAS Extension Agent, and the Manatee County Public Library.

Fishing is synonymous with Florida. The state has been well known for its commercial and recreational fishing industries from the days of native inhabitants such as the Calusa Indians. Today, while recreational fishing thrives and commercial fishing struggles with demand, aquaculture is growing. Aquaculture is essentially farming in water. Many hobbyist and commercial growers are rearing aquatic animals or aquatic plants for both food and ornamental use. Florida's aquaculture industry has boomed over the past 50 years and now accounts for $100 million in sales with most coming from tropical fish.

This exhibit will look at several aquaculture operations that made their home in Manatee County from the 1960s to today.

Background Photo: Aerial view of Piney Point Tropical Fish Farm, Courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historical Image Digital Collection

Tropical Fish

Left: Inside of Ross Socolof Fish Farm, 1974 Right: In a workroom of the Ross Socolof Fish Farm men and women pack live tropical fish in insulated boxes for shipment, 1976. Photos Courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historical Image Digital Collection

Ross Socolof began his aquaculture career in Florida with the purchase of Gulf Coast Hatchery, a tropical fish farm in Palmetto, from Mary Ohms and Jim Briggs in the mid-1950s. He quickly realized that keeping the fish warm while being shipped was a huge problem. Socolof invented a Styrofoam shipping box to keep the fish warm during transport. The basic design is still used today. Socolof sold this business in 1963 and entered into an agreement with Toledo, Ohio based pet store chain, PETCOA, raising tropical fish to sell in their stores. At its peak, Ross Socolof Farms was shipping 12,000 angelfish a week to PETCOA pet stores. The partnership dissolved in 1976 when PETCOA filed for bankruptcy.


Mike Sipes was inspired to raise tilapia after reading a Scientific American article about tilapia breeding and the potential for the fish to solve food shortages with a high protein, easy-to-grow source. He bred tilapia to acquire fast growing male hybrids which could be sold for food. In 1976 he moved to a farm in Piney Point , near present day Port of Manatee. He was visited multiple times by the Florida State Fresh Water Fish and Game Commission about his breeding ventures and confusion with state permits. After much time the confusion was settled and he continued to breed tilapia.

Mike Sipe (right) with fish, 1980 Courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historical Image Digital Collection

Through determination, Sipes was successful in developing the Cherry Snapper® in the early 1980s which was a bright red tilapia with no spots. He believed he could help sustain the red snapper population with this alternative. Sipes continued to farm for many years and act as a consultant to others interested in fish farming.

Left: Tilapia feeding. Right: Building fish farm, 1980. Photos Courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historical Image Digital Collection


Shellfish farmers utilize submerged land they lease from the State of Florida in order to grow their crop.

Two Docks Shellfish has been operating in the Tampa Bay since 2012. The father and son duo of Aaron Welch, Jr., and Aaron Welch, III, grow clams in mesh bags and trays placed on the bay bottom. They start with seed clams a few millimeters in diameter and harvest about 15 months later when they are large enough for the commercial market with sizes ranging from 1 7/8 inches long to 3 1/8 inches.

Clams, like oysters, are filter feeder bivalves. They filter the bay water to extract nutrients for growth and thus help to cleanse bay waters. They are a vital part of the estuarine ecosystem. Aquaculture farming of clams and oysters ultimately helps to improve the quality of bay waters.

Left: Aaron Welch, III, and Aaron Welch, Jr., Both have doctorates, which is where the name of their company comes from. Top Middle: Aaron Welch, III, with a harvest of clams. Top Right: Seed Clams. Bottom Right: A Two Docks Shellfish diver checks on their clam bags. The clams bury into the sand at the bottom of the bay.

All Pictures courtesy of Two Docks Shellfish

Aquaculture today

Many groups are actively involved in aquaculture for restoration purposes as well as food supply. The Florida Sea Grant is a university-based program that supports research, education, and the extension service to conserve coastal resources as well as enhance the economic opportunities for Florida citizens. They focus on several aspects of aquaculture including supporting future enterprises backed up by research. Some of the projects Florida Sea Grant has been involved with include developing technology to expand marine fish farming and aquaponics, especially for food, to inland locations as coastal land continues to increase in cost. They are also evaluating the environmental impact of open-ocean aquaculture farms and support restoration aquaculture which cultivates marine plants and animals like sponges, marsh grass, and coral. These will be transplanted in the wild to increase the declining populations and improve coastal ecosystem health.

Photo: Researchers at the UF/IFAS Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory in Ruskin work to perfect farming methods of wild species like coral to repair damaged ecosystems.

Photo Courtesy of UF/IFAS File Photo

Top Left: Water tanks inside of the UF/IFAS Shellfish Aquaculture Lab in Cedar Key. Bottom Left: Blue tang juvenile fish bred at the UF/IFAS Tropical Aquaculture Lab in Ruskin, Florida, 2016. Right: Oyster Reef near Cedar Key, 2016 (Credit: UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones) Photos Courtesy UF/IFAS File Photo