Magdalena Wallhoff has quite a fish story to tell. But this is about the one that didn’t get away.
Born in Switzerland and raised partly in Indonesia, Wallhoff was 7 when her father, Rudi Lamprecht, started a fish farm in Java in 1988.
Twenty-five years later, Regal Springs Tilapia, now headquartered in Miramar, is among the largest single producers of farmed tilapia in the world. In 2014, the company estimates it will supply 60 percent of the fresh tilapia sold in the United States, about 36 million pounds. Regal Springs also holds about 8 percent of the market share of frozen tilapia sold in the U.S., about 40 million pounds.
Wallhoff, 33, who splits her time between Miami Beach and Seattle, is a vice president of Regal Springs Tilapia. The company has more than 7,000 employees, including 15 in Miramar, and at its aquaculture sites in Indonesia, Mexico and Honduras.
According to the National Fisheries Institute, tilapia is the fifth most-consumed seafood in the United States. In 2012, the average American ate nearly 1.5 pounds, up from 1.3 pounds in 2011. And although tilapia, a mild white fish, does not have the heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids that fish like salmon do, it is a popular import because it is a lean protein that takes on the flavor of its seasonings.
Tilapia is a good candidate for farming because it can thrive in a crowded environment. It is vegetarian and does not require the animal proteins that some other fish do, so it is cheaper to feed.
Critics of tilapia farming say it pollutes ecosystems and introduces tilapia, an invasive species, into waterways where it upsets the balance of nature. Some are wary of antibiotics, growth hormones and pesticides used to kill pests like sea lice that inhabit densely-populated fish farms.
Wallhoff said the criticisms of the industry have helped set Regal Springs Tilapia apart.
“The bad rap that fish farming has, I think, comes from the muddy ponds in China that are notorious, where wetlands are being converted, and where tilapia are subsisting on whatever is in the water, whether its bird or fish feces,” she said.
Regal Springs Tilapia only farms in areas where tilapia already exist, Wallhoff said. Instead of shallow ponds, the company’s aquaculture operation uses 60- by 20-foot floating cages in deep, moving waters.
“We use fresh reservoirs, whether it’s natural or a deep, manmade lake,” she said. “The water is clean. It has a stable quality. It’s not stagnant, muddy waters.”
Each farm covers 1 percent or less of the surface area of the waterway it occupies, Wallhoff said, and water is tested periodically to ensure quality. The company does not use antibiotics, hormones or pesticides.
“We’ve been in this business since the ’80s, and after a while you know that if you have clean water, and you’re not farming alongside another hundred fish farmers and shrimp farmers, you have very little exposure to disease,” she said.
Wallhoff said the company limits its farms to a tiny section of the water because they depend on its quality.
“We share the water with local fisherman and the community that uses it as a water source. We realize we have to work together to preserve this resource,” she said. “If the lake is filled too densely with fish and its waste, the nutrient-level goes too high, the water turns green, weeds choke the water, the community can’t use the lake and can’t fish in it, and everything shuts down.”
Each Regal Springs Tilapia farm has its own processing plant, a small hatchery to produce fingerlings and storage for feed and equipment. The largest farm is in Sumatra, with 400 cages. In Latin America, the biggest is at the Cajón reservoir in Honduras, with 200 cages. Wallhoff said the company is building up its Mexico operations and expanding its feed mill production. Fish feed is the company’s biggest expense.
It takes about 170 days to go from fingerling to marketable fish, just less than two pounds. When the fish are ready, cages are pulled to shore and fish are pumped live into trucks holding oxygenated water. When the fish reach the plant, they are dumped into cold water to stun them, Wallhoff said.
“Their throats are slit. They are scaled, gutted and fileted, depending on what the end product is,” she said. Fresh fish are super-chilled at 32 degrees and have a 10-day shelf life. The frozen product is packed immediately.
Every bit of fish is used. The skin is tanned and used as a luxury leather. Scales and skin are used to make collagen and gelatin for skin-care products. Bio-diesel fuel is made from waste.
When Wallhoff’s father, who had worked for the United Nations in food and agricultural development, started his Indonesia farm, he sold his tilapia at fish markets in local bazaars. He found he couldn’t sell everything he was producing, so he expanded to the U.S.
In South Florida, Regal Springs Tilapia is sold at Sam’s Club and Winn-Dixie, and is frozen under the Kirkland store brand at Costco. The product also is sold to chains like Red Lobster, Outback Steakhouse and Flanigan’s, where the Regal Springs Tilapia logo can be found on the menu. Rain Forest Aquaculture in Miami is also a competitor in the fish-farming market, with farms in Costa Rica.
Wallhoff said Regal Springs has built schools and health clinics near its aquaculture sites. It supports about 60 schools in Honduras, and a handful in Mexico, where the company supports health initiatives that supply vision and dental exams.
Giving people access to “public health and education helps them create their own solutions,” Wallhoff said. “This makes an educated work force and a happy workforce.”
Wallhoff joined the company in 2003 as a sales assistant. The corporate offices were established in Miramar in 2011 because 90 percent of its U.S. fresh fish imports from Latin America come through South Florida, about half to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, and half through Miami International Airport.
In 2012, Regal Springs Tilapia was one of the first in the world to receive certification from the Aquaculture Stewardship Culture, a Netherlands-based not-for-profit formed to oversee global standards for responsible aquaculture.
“Regal Springs underwent a rigorous third-party assessment against the ASC Tilapia Standard,” said Bas Geerts, ASC standards director, in an email. “To achieve ASC certification they demonstrated that they are well-managed and minimizing adverse environmental and social impacts.”
Craig Watson, director of the University of Florida’s Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory, describes Regal Springs as “a responsible company that is doing everything they can to do it the right way, as far as I know.”
“They are one of the major players” in the industry, Watson said. “They’re doing it in a manner that is certified as sustainable, and they’re doing it in a way that is reducing the cost, so they can compete.”
Wallhoff, who has a background in public health, said she thinks fish farming is a beautiful thing.
“When I was young I wanted to be an architect, and then I naively thought, ‘Oh no, I can’t be an architect. I love nature, why would I want to contribute to the overbuilding of it?’ ” she said. “But I was not mature enough to realize, ‘Hey, someone is going to do it. You might as well hop on and do it well.’ ”