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Longtime director of Tropical Aquaculture Lab earns national recognition

RUSKIN, Fla. — Craig Watson started his aquaculture career early. At 16, he started working on a tropical fish farm in Miami. Eventually, while attending Florida State University, Watson worked at an aquarium and tropical fish store in Tallahassee.

“That was an absolute blast for a teenager who loved aquarium fish,” said Watson, the first and only director of the UF/IFAS Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory (TAL) in Ruskin. “The pay was little, but the reward was high.”

Watson is now a long way from the tropical fish store in Tallahassee. As director of TAL, he leads a group of researchers and Extension faculty who help tropical fish farmers in Florida produce millions of dollars in profits and savings throughout the world.

For his efforts the past quarter century, Watson received major recognition this month from the National Aquaculture Association (NAA). The organization honored him with the Joseph P. McCraren Award for Outstanding Contributions in Promoting the Growth of U.S. aquaculture. McRaren was the first executive director of the NAA.

Watson called the honor “humbling.”

“Coming from the National Aquaculture Association, a farmers’ organization, it is the ultimate honor,” he said. “It confirms for me and them that having someone in my job, working so closely with them to solve problems, is really worth it.”

Jim Parsons, president of the National Aquaculture Association, praised Watson.

“It is our honor to recognize excellence in public service through an award to Craig,” Parsons said. “His accomplishments were not achieved in a vacuum. We hope that the faculty and staff at the Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory and the University of Florida will realize, through this award, our appreciation for their dedicated efforts to move the needle for U.S. aquaculture.”

Watson listed numerous accomplishments by TAL faculty and staff over the years:

  • Adding a new species to the menu available from Florida farms can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. 
  • The disease lab sees hundreds of cases each year, with individual cases representing thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of fish.
  • Getting a new pesticide label for farms leads to millions of dollars each year, he said.

Risk management and graduate education are also critical to the mission of TAL.

“Another cornerstone of TAL is focused on assisting the industry and agencies in making decisions on risk management of producing non-native species,” Watson said. “Education through the lab includes work with middle and high schools throughout Florida, teaching UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences graduate school classes and overseeing UF/IFAS graduate student research. Indeed, today, TAL is nationally recognized as a model for how a land-grant aquaculture program should be run.”

TAL falls under the umbrella of the UF/IFAS School of Forest, Fisheries, and Geomatics Sciences (SFFGS). Terrell “Red” Baker, director of the UF/IFAS SFFGS, serves as Watson’s supervisor.

“Over the course of his career, Craig’s many contributions to the aquaculture community have been both broad and deep,” Baker said. “We are very proud that Craig’s vision, dedication and impact are being recognized by his colleagues in the NAA – it is an honor he has earned and richly deserves.”

After earning a bachelor’s in biology from FSU, Watson managed the Florida Fish Co-op’s shipping department for a year, wholesaling tropical fish throughout North America. In 1983, he joined the U.S. Peace Corps and served for three years in Tunisia, working with marine and freshwater aquaculture.

Watson went on to earn a master’s in aquaculture from Auburn University.

In April 1988, Watson began his career with the University of Florida as a UF/IFAS Extension multi-county aquaculture agent, working out of the UF/IFAS Extension Hillsborough County office.

He was named to lead TAL in 1996 and feels confident that he and the faculty at TAL have helped fish farmers in Florida and worldwide.

“I hope I have shown the industry that a strong, open, and honest relationship between farms and the land-grant system — UF/IFAS in this case — can lead to mutual success and growth.”

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The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS brings science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents.

ifas.ufl.edu  @UF_IFAS