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A New Fish Business on Milwaukee's Horizon?

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A couple of weeks ago, WUWM News visited a greenhouse on the city’s southside, where 7th & 8th graders manage an aquaculture system. They’re raising fish, using a natural filtering system that cleanses the water and grows edible plants along the way.

Today, WUWM’s Susan Bence introduces us to a few people in Milwaukee who hope to develop a business around the idea.

Jim Godsil is as excited as a kid in a candy shop. A cluster of people stand around the Milwaukee roofing contractor as he unlocks the door of an old building off Kinnickinnic.

“Okay, this is it, it’s to the left,” Godsil says.

Godsil ushers us through a second door into what was a crane manufacturing factory. Light pours into the echoing space from windows high above our heads.

“A week ago this was a cavernous warehouse filled with about 700 pallets and god knows how much other debris,” Godsil says.

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Work in progress at Sweet Water site.

A backhoe operator is busy digging out what will be one of eight deep troughs cut into the concrete floor. Within a matter of months, Godsil says the lanes will be filled with water and thousands of fish will reside here.

“And turn this into 110,000 gallon aquaculture system,” Godsil says.

Godsil’s one of three people spearheading Sweet Water Organics aquaculture project. He calls himself a novice, but says his inspiration is Will Allen, founder of Growing Power across town. Allen’s touted as a master urban farmer and teaches people around the world to create indoor fish and plant systems.

Allen Washatko is excited about aquaculture too. The architect says when he heard about today’s tour, he dropped everything to come over and take a look.

“I’ve been trying to get this going in Milwaukee for a while and trying to find someone who understands the commercial advantage of this and the ecological advantage and the opportunity to put Milwaukee on the map in a brand new way. We have this opportunity to take buildings just like this and convert them into fish farming,” Washatko says.

Washatko says the U.S. only produces about two percent of the world’s fish. He sees no reason why Milwaukee can’t be the city to increase those numbers.

“It really provides a strong economic bootstrapping possibility not only for Milwaukee but in the greater region,” Washatko says.

A couple of weeks later a scientist offers to show the entrepreneurs his lab a short drive east of their operation. Fred Binkowski oversees a highly controlled system at the Great Lakes Water Institute where he studies perch and other fish.

“The white apparatus over there is the clarifier that removes the solids and then the big gray tank back, that’s the bio-filter,” Binkowski says.

Binkowski weaves us around thousand-gallon tanks teaming with perch at various stages of development, some hatched just a few weeks ago, others are mature brooding stock, that produce healthy offspring.

“These are the cleanest perch on the planet because they’re not exposed to parasites,” Binkowski says.

Binkowski’s is a sophisticated computerized system. The entrepreneurs’ approach will be much simpler.

“1930s all over again and there’s just not many things that can go wrong, that are mechanical or electronic and if you can do that obviously, that’s good,” Binkowski says.

The system under construction off of Kinnickinnic may be without bells and whistles, but one of its creators, Steve Lindner says they’re moving ahead in stages. Phase one - they’ll set up just three of the eight tanks.

“As of next week, we’ll build the growing platforms and line them with the EPDM,” Lindner says.

“What’s EPDM,” I ask.

“The rubber, rubber lining, food safe rubber lining. So then yeah, by about April 1st we should probably have water in em, with plants cycling our water through to get everything going,” Lindner says.

They’ve learned tilapia is a low-maintenance fish.

“We’re going to start with tilapia, see how that goes,” Lindner says.

Lindner says a solar energy system be considered down the road, but for now they’ll rely on a couple of pool heaters to maintain that 84-85 degree water temperature tilapia thrive in.

Scientist Fred Binkowksi sends the fledgling fish keepers out of the lab with encouraging words.

“You know, you already have the building, you have a lot of the technology, that you guys already have as construction type workers, to build stuff. That’s a big part of it,” Binkowski says.

“And you’re right down the street,” someone says.

“And we’re right down the road,” Binkowski says.

The third partner Josh Frauendorf has been drinking this all in quietly from the sidelines. He says he and his partners have a lot of ambition and are determined to prove they can make this business work.

“Kind of one of those things you find in your lifetime, I think, that you really want to do, like something that’s really going to make a difference,” Frauendorf says.

Eight months from now, Frauendorf says they expect to have 130,000 fish in their tanks. For now, they’re off to a workshop across town at Growing Power, to learn more about its aquaculture system.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.