LUSK - Thomas Byrom still hears from old friends in Atlanta who can't believe the reasons behind his move to Wyoming.
"You're where? Doing what? With who?" they ask him.
He has to run it down for them again: He is working with inmates at the Wyoming Women's Center to raise tropical fish in an indoor fish farm for sale to restaurants and grocery stores around the country.
Byrom admits he was skeptical when he first heard about the job.
"I thought, 'This is nuts, but it also sounds cool,' " he said.
"Now, almost everybody is pretty amazed when they hear about it," said Byrom, an aquaculturist specializing in fish farming who was recruited for the job by Bil Carter, manager of Wyoming's prison industries program.
Both men are quick to point out that beyond its quirky appeal, the fish-farming operation is already making an important difference in the lives of the 16 minimum-security inmates accepted to work in the program.
"What we're doing is important to them," Byrom said. "They're developing a real sense of responsibility that's helping their critical thinking and teaching them about cause-and-effect relationships."
After six months of construction and preparation, the $2.1 million facility received in August its first batch of 7,500 tilapia, each about an inch long.
This month, the fingerlings have grown enough to be transferred to larger tanks, and they will be sold in February to a fish broker that will market the tilapia to restaurants and grocery stores.
"Americans like tilapia. They don't taste fishy, they're very light, and they're very fast-growing fish, so they're ideal for fish farms," said Jim Keeton, whose Colorado-based Keeton Industries designed the water filtration system for the project.
"A lot of genetics work has been done, and they've bred a great fish that's very tolerant and has good conversion rates for turning food into body weight," Keeton said.
Tilapia are a freshwater tropical fish native to the Nile River in Egypt, and have been called "aquatic chicken" for their potential as a high-yield, farm-raised food source.
Described as a mild, flaky whitefish that takes seasoning well, tilapia is served in restaurants across the country, including at large chains like Denny's and Red Lobster, and stocked in grocery stores including Safeway and Wal-Mart, Keeton said.
The Women's Center hopes to eventually produce up to 100,000 pounds of tilapia each year, replacing shipped fish with new fingerlings to keep the pipeline full and provide a steady supply to buyers.
With 20 million pounds produced annually in the U.S., and total yearly consumption here of more than 500 million pounds, according to Seafood Business magazine, there's likely to be strong demand for Wyoming tilapia.
"There aren't any other tilapia fish farms in Wyoming, which is one of the reasons we chose it," Carter said, ensuring that the prison wouldn't compete against private businesses.
Carter said he expects the program to break even, including paying for its start-up costs, within four years of operation, and eventually cover its expenses, potentially generating a profit for the state.
Value in training
"We'll be marketing the fish at a regular price throughout the U.S., but we're not putting so much of an emphasis on profit as we are on the training," he said.
Inmates must apply for acceptance into the program, and Carter said he expects to have about two dozen women on a waiting list after the next round of applications.
They must have at least six months left on their sentence to be eligible, Carter said.
Keeton said that because the Lusk wastewater treatment system is small - the town has about 1,400 residents - the state Department of Environmental Quality required an advanced water filtration system.
Water must be kept at 86 degrees, and the system includes 56 giant 1,500-gallon tanks that aerate and filter the water, including through special biofilters that use microbes to remove ammonia and convert it to nitrates, he said.
The system filters about 10,000 gallons a day, with less than 10 percent of that lost as wastewater.
"It's an ongoing process every day to inform and educate the workers about the complex business of raising fish. A lot of people think it's just throwing food into a tank, but it's much more than that," Byrom said.
"They have the opportunity to train on a number of protocols, and they monitor water quality, set feeding regimes, get into data management," he said of the inmates.
While Byrom manages the big picture, the women must constantly monitor water temperature, ammonia, alkalinity, dissolved oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrites and other parameters.
The skills inmates learn could help them land jobs at fish farms, water treatment plants or in other areas that require similar careful oversight, Carter said.
The women got a chance to show off their fish last month to Gov. Dave Freudenthal and a group of community leaders from around the state during the Governor's Natural Resource Tour.
Some expressed pride over the quick-growing fish, while others said they dreaded the day the first batch is sent to market.
Keeton said some prison aquaculture programs raise fish, including tilapia, for consumption by inmates, making it a cheap, healthy, homegrown food.
But Carter said workers at the Wyoming Women's Center won't have to worry about serving their fish to their fellow prisoners.
"In fact, none of these fish will be sold in Wyoming. They'll all be sold live to a company in North Dakota that comes in, picks them up in a truck and transports them live," he said.
That hasn't stopped people from asking for samples, including recipe ideas for the tasty tilapia, which Red Lobster serves breaded and dusted with southwestern spices and topped with salsa.
"There are so many ways you can cook it and serve it," Byrom said.
"But what about just fried?" he is asked by a fellow Southerner.
"Yeah, absolutely. Now you're talking!" he said.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at email@example.com or 307-527-7250.