When Craig Watson, Director of the University of Florida IFAS Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory, got his first aquarium at age 7, he couldn’t have predicted the important role that fishing and aquaculture would play in his life. “My brother and I would spend hours watching the fish, but I had no idea then it would be the beginning of a career.”
On June 23, Watson’s 30-year career in the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in the aquaculture industry was celebrated with his induction into the Florida Tropical Fish Farms Association’s (FTFFA) Hall of Fame.
Watson had humble beginnings in the industry. While attending high school in Miami, he worked an after-school job at a local tropical fish farm. He paid his way through his undergraduate degree by working at a tropical fish store, worked a year after graduating at a wholesaler in Riverview, then served as a Peace Corps volunteer in a marine hatchery in Tunisia, Africa. In the mid-1980s, Watson returned to the United States, earned a master’s degree from Auburn University, and quickly found work with UF/IFAS as a multi-county aquaculture extension agent.
As the UF/IFAS aquaculture programs grew in the late 1980s, the opportunity arose to create a research and Extension facility in the Tampa Bay region, the heart of the industry. With the help of partnerships with Hillsborough County, the FTFFA, and USDA Wildlife Services, the Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory (TAL) was established in 1996, under the UF/IFAS School of Forest Resources and Conservation. Watson, a key player in the undertaking, was the clear choice to serve as Director.
“We [UF/IFAS] really built that facility from the ground up. And now today TAL is an integral part of the aquaculture industry in the southeast United States and beyond,” Watson said. “From our onsite veterinarian and disease diagnostic lab, to research on nuisance invasive species, to innovations in captive breeding for species like the blue tang, TAL is at the forefront of research and agriculture in the region.”
TAL is now home to a 6.5-acre fish farm with 48 ponds, five greenhouses, and lab spaces for UF researchers. While the program has blossomed into an internationally recognized powerhouse, the economic benefits of TAL remain with local Floridians. In conservative estimates, TAL saves Florida fish farmers millions of dollars each year by solving issues on farms, and makes them millions more in developing new species and methods for production.
“The people who’ve received this honor over the years are my heroes,” Watson said. “For FTFFA to recognize me and put me in that group of amazing people in their industry is very special.”