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Winter a tough time for US tropical fish farmers already hurt by Asia imports

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LAKELAND, Fla. - It's a tense time at Florida's ornamental fish farms. Millions of platies, mollies and guppies in outdoor ponds could die quickly from the drastic drop in temperature — it went from beach weather to below freezing two weeks later — or they could fall sick and linger from stress or a fungus.

Almost all the U.S.-raised tropical and ornamental fish come from Florida, and when cold weather strikes the results can be devastating.

In 2010, many Florida ornamental fish farmers lost between 80 and 100 per cent of their stock because of the cold.

"The last three winters in a row it seems like we have been just clobbered," said David Boozer, executive director of the Florida Tropical Fish Farms Association, a group that counts 231 farmers as members.

Already, imported fish from Asia have taken over the consumer market, Boozer said. Labor in countries like Malaysia and Thailand is cheaper, and it's warmer. Florida farmers' biggest competition is from Southeast Asia.

There are also more environmental regulations for U.S. farmers.

Florida's fish farms are not as well known, or as lucrative, as oranges, strawberries or tomatoes. But the sales figures are still substantial. The state's tropical fish sales were $32.2 million in 2007, the last year statistics were gathered.

The industry started in Miami in the 1920s, and farmers migrated north as land there became more expensive. Tropical fish farmers now keep dozens, if not hundreds, of small outdoor ponds on their property.

The recent and unusually cold winters are only part of the industry's problem. A bad economy, the imports from Asia and the ubiquity of the Internet all play a role in why there are hundreds fewer fish farmers today than 20 years ago.

"Kids a lot of times aren't looking at an aquarium anymore," shrugged Kevin Kramer, the breeding manager at Imperial Tropicals. "They're looking at video games."

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Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush .

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