Mark Lyons may be a farmer and a fisherman, but you won't find him spending his
days out in the sunshine working the land or casting a line. Instead he's toiling
away in a dark, sprawling 5,200-square-foot warehouse on East 34th Street amid a
maze of PVC pipes and humming motors tending to five bubbling tanks, each filled
with 2,000 Nile tilapia.
As the founder of Cleveland Urban Aquaculture, the former biology teacher nurtures
the freshwater fish from hatchling to harvest like an attentive dad. He scoops up
a net full of the glistening and thrashing animals from their 4,000-gallon home
and beams like any proud parent.
"I love all things fish — I have been raising them almost my whole life and studied
them in college," says the 30-year-old entrepreneur, who sells his tilapia to area
restaurants, caterers and markets. "I've always wanted to do something that could
help mitigate the overfishing problems our oceans face and contribute to society.
This idea has been at the back of my mind for a long time."
Lyons decided to move forward with his plan in 2011 when his full-time job at University
School looked like it was turning into a part-time gig. He started in the basement
of his Maple Heights home, expanded into the backyard and a year later decided to
quit teaching completely and sink his life savings and almost all his waking hours
into this venture.
"I banked my extra money for years and then I spent it all in one week, buying used
equipment and moving it from Pennsylvania," he says. It took eight trips back and
forth with a 20-foot flatbed.
The timing couldn't have been better. Concerns continue to mount about depleting
fish stocks as more than 170 billion pounds of fish and shellfish are caught anually
in the world's oceans.
In addition, people want to know what they're eating and where it comes from. But
Lyons admits there's a prejudice among some chefs against any farmed fish because
conditions at most commercial operations are awful. He's working to change that
"I feed them a high-quality plant-based diet, keep things meticulously clean and
carefully control every aspect of their environment," he explains.
It requires seven to eight months for fingerlings — a young fish — to reach optimum
size. "Tilapia are the oldest cultured fish in recorded history," he explains. "They
grow quickly and have a slightly sweet, mild flavor when they reach the right moment
Lyons' prices are competitive, just a bit more than the cost of the same product
from South America. He delivers approximately 200 pounds a week to three downtown
Asian restaurants, carting them there live in the back of his pickup truck.
Toast, a new wine bar in the Gordon Square Arts District, smoked 50 pounds for its
first friends and family event. Kate's Fish at the West Side Market is also a customer,
displaying them on ice with a sign that proclaims their freshness: "These were swimming
at 8 a.m. today."
Lyons describes himself as a born tinkerer who likes a challenge. When heaters or
filters break, it's his job to fix them. He did all the plumbing and electrical
work to set up the recirculating aquaculture system, which conserves water and captures
waste. That waste is also a great natural fertilizer, and he's using it for a secondary
commercial venture — growing lettuce indoors on rafts that float in beds irrigated
with fish water.
He's building out his space on East 65th Street and Euclid Avenue and has dreams
of moving the fish operation into an even bigger facility where he can also raise
shrimp and barramundi, noting that businesses like his could make it unnecessary
to import farmed fish from other countries.
"I worked in restaurants while in college and cook a lot at home, so I understand
the importance of starting with the best ingredients," he says. "I like the idea
that I'm earning a living — or trying to — providing good food to my community."