NEW YORK — In the basement of an ivy-covered building on the surprisingly leafy campus of Brooklyn College is something even more surprising: thousands of tilapia packed tighter than a subway car into 300-gallon fiberglass fish tanks.
Overseeing this watery domain is Martin Schreibman, a professor emeritus and the director of the college's Aquatic Research and Environmental Assessment Center.
A mild-tasting fish that was unfamiliar here a few years ago, tilapia is increasingly available in the United States, almost all of it farmed and imported from China and Central and South America.
Schreibman hopes to change that. He believes that urban aquaculture -- raising fish in big tanks in places like New York -- could be the solution to the overfishing of wild populations and provide Americans with jobs and healthful food.
"We're subsidizing everybody in the world to grow fish that we can buy back from them," he said. "It doesn't make any sense to me. We should be creating jobs here."
Schreibman didn't set out to be the Johnny Appleseed of tilapia. He conducts research on aquatic animals, including horseshoe crabs, octopuses and chambered nautiluses, and his interest in fish farming was an offshoot of research into tilapia reproduction.
Schreibman believes that New York, with its countless restaurants and immigrants from fish-eating parts of the world such as Asia, is ripe for aquacultural development.
The tanks could be situated "in a variety of diverse places, from warehouses to skyscrapers, from green fields to brown fields," he argued in his contribution to a 2005 book, "Urban Aquaculture."
Jennifer Dianto, who manages the seafood watch program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, said there were concerns about farmed tilapia in China escaping and possibly breeding with wild fish. She said a system like Schreibman's that uses tanks is better. "That's a great use of space, in my personal opinion."
Americans ate about 300 million pounds of tilapia in 2005, making it No. 6 on the list of seafood consumption by weight, just behind catfish.
But not everyone's a fan. Top chefs disparage it, and they're not crazy about the idea of growing fish in a tank.
"The problem with tanked fish is it tastes like tanked fish," said David Pasternack, the award-winning chef at Esca in Manhattan's theater district. "There are people that like it, but people also like McDonald's."