Big Fish on Campus

fishOne expects gastronomy and science to cross paths in cutting-edge restaurants, where chefs dabble in foams, powders and high-tech instruments of food wizardry. One does not expect to find such a forward-thinking marriage on the leafy-green campus of Brooklyn College in Midwood.

And yet, one spring-like evening in early March, Distinguished Professor Emeritus Dr. Martin P. Schreibman—a member of the biology department since 1962, and a gregarious neuro-endocrinologist who belies his AARP eligibility with boundless energy and the flashy glint of gold jewelry—sacrificed a few tilapia for the sake of science, then hauled them home to his family to make an asparagus-studded stew.

Schreibman, who grew up in Brownsville and has become such an advocate for tank-raised fish that chefs and colleagues know him as Dr. Tilapia, likes to say that Brooklyn water is good for making two things—bagels and fish. In the Brooklyn College lab he presides over, which is affiliated with the nonprofit AREAC (Aquatic Research and Environmental Assessment Center) he founded in 1998, scientists raise everything from clown fish (think Nemo) to horseshoe crabs for research and development. Some of his Brooklyn-bred fish were even sent into space, to study hypogravity’s effect on reproductive functions.

But the mission that’s nearest and dearest to this wise-cracking, Brooklyn College alum’s heart—and always, literally, on the tip of his tongue—is urban aquaculture: a sustainable system for raising huge quantities of fish for food with minimal water and land use.

“I get calls all the time—how much fish do I have to raise to pay the rent?” he laughed, weaving through the dozen fiberglass tanks, each ranging from 200-800 gallons and splashing with fish. In fact, he recently equipped the international headquarters of the Lubovitch sect of Hasidic Judaism on Eastern Parkway with their very own tank. “It’s a small system,” he said, “But I’m hoping it will be a good model for other organizations, schools, food pantries.”

Because he can’t sell the fish he raises at Brooklyn College, he gives them away—to political functions, alumni dinners, homeless shelters, and local chefs. “Our chef instructor says he’s never dealt with fish so fresh or delicious,” says Barbara Hughes, director of the culinary training program at Project Renewal, a non-profit that aids the homeless.

Alan Harding, the chef who kick started Smith Street’s restaurant row with Patois, has been a Schreibman fan since the scientist appeared on his PBS show, “Cookin’ in Brooklyn.” The chef said he’d happily serve his fish. “It’s inevitable,” he said, wryly. “Because the oceans are empty, we’re going to be getting our seafood from tanks.”

Okay, perhaps that’s an overstatement, but indeed knowing which fish are safe for human health and for the environment has become—well, fishy business. With an ever-changing list of “safe seafood choices,” varying types of aquaculture (some heralded by ecologists, and others denounced), investigations into deceptive labels and concerns about mercury and PCB levels, it’s no wonder many of us skip the fish course entirely.

But Schreibman sees sustainable aquaculture as a way to benefit both the economic and physical health of a community, especially in an urban environment. Aquaculture, which dates back to ancient China, traditionally takes place in ponds or lakes. Environmentalists decry some modern methods for everything from fish-based feed to dangers posed by genetically engineered escapees. But the closed-system tank method Schreibman uses, called a Recirculating Aquaculture System (RAS), is innocent on all counts. It filters the water rather than wastes it, and closely regulates feed, temperature and salinity. It provides an affordable, safe source of very local food while creating jobs and eliminating transportation.

It can even be used to grow vegetables. One door down from his office, in a room stacked high with aquariums, students study aeroponics and aquaponics, methods for growing plants with nutrientdense, uh, fish waste, or reusing water to irrigate crops.

Atop a small tank housing a single fish, a few sprightly leaves of arugula, beg the question why Sharper Image hasn’t yet rolled out pet-powered, windowsill herb-gardens.

“There’s more than one way to do sustainable agriculture, but this is a real innovative one,” said Carrie Brownstein, the seafood quality standards coordinator for Whole Foods Market nationwide, which happens to be based in Brooklyn. Brownstein has visited Schreibmen on numerous occasions, and while she’s never encountered commercial urban aquaculture, she thinks it could be a great opportunity for brown fields redevelopment in Brooklyn. If it were up and running, would Whole Foods sell it? She doesn’t miss a beat. “I think we’d be interested, for sure.”

But why tilapia, a tropical, purplehued fish that’s most likely to get a blah “mild, white and flaky” description from waiters and chefs? “Its about as easy and forgiving a fish as you can grow,” said Dr. Kevin Fitzsimmons from the University of Arizona, who has held so many roles at the National Tilapia board he forgets which one he currently serves. (He heads up a system similar to Schreibman’s, which uses city water near the Tucson airport.) “They have evolved to become adaptable to poor oxygen, and crowded situations.They can stand some abuse,” he added.

Sounds like the poster fish for Brooklyn.

Schreibman has raised more cheffy fish, like flounder, cod and Arctic char. But for now, he’s sticking to tilapia, and if anyone can make the fish seem interesting, he can. (“Do you know they practice oral sex?” he whispered devilishly as we passed by a breeding tank. And this, from a distinguished professor emeritus…. tsk tsk.) Not that tilapia needs a publicist. Within the past four years, it has shot up from the eighth to the fifth most popularly consumed fish in the US. But the majority comes from China (where researchers say fillets are often treated with carbon monoxide as a preservative), Egypt, Indonesia and Mexico. “We don’t know if they’re using safe methods,” said Screibman. “We don’t know the water quality, what they’re feeding them, but we eat it with abandon?” So he’s introduced farmers and students abroad to the technology, which doesn’t require hormones or antibiotics.

Schreibman also works with the World Health Organization, which is considering small, sustainable aquaculture models to benefit micro communities. To defray the high cost of large, commercial RAS operations, he’s got a co-op model in mind similar to the one dairy farmers have long used.

But he’s having a harder time taking his message to local politicians and entrepreneurs. “I don’t get it,” he shrugs. “They’re not understanding the value of urban agriculture.”

So he’ll keep spreading the word, he says, cooking and giving away his fish for local events. “Brooklyn is my hometown,” he said, switching on a smile. “I’d like to see Marty Markowitz be called Dr. Tilapia.” Sorry, Doc, but that title already goes to you.

Dr. Schreibman admires a juvenile specimen of his crop.