The Contento family were regulars at lake and Tyler, now 21, was the three-year-old boy honed-in on catching everything and anything he could.
“We started the boys off with those little plastic poles and went to TCNJ Lake to fish with the family,” said Turba Contento, a preschool teacher and Tyler’s mother. “Tyler was always a spirited little boy and we just wanted him to not go into the pond, so we brought him that matching plastic chair so he’d have a place to sit. He would actually sit still and not move a single muscle until the entire time we were there—it was amazing.”
Little did Tyler and his family know at the time that his love of aquatics would become a lifelong pursuit. One that would take him to the other aside of the world to a college in Australia. But more on that later.
The Ewing native’s passion for all things aquatic started at a very young age. His father Tony, who is a mechanic, and his Grandfather sparked his love for fishing with their own passions for it.
“I’ve been fishing for as long as I can remember,” Tyler said. “I just always had a pole in my hand and always wanted to be near water.”
His brother Kyle, now 24 and living in Virginia, was also an inspiration to Tyler growing up. Kyle didn’t fish quite as much as his younger brother, but instead was heavily involved in Boy Scouts and eventually became an Eagle Scout. Aspiring to be like his brother, Tyler too became involved in Scouting and followed his brother to camp, but not with the same kind of enthusiasm.
“Tyler honestly could’ve cared less about what was going on with Scouts because fishing was his obsession,” Kyle said. “The leader of the troop once told me about Tyler not participating and asked if he should take away his pole or what he should do. I just said, ‘let him go and fish since that’s what he absolutely loves to do.’”
Although he never went on to achieve Eagle like his brother, Tyler did make sure reeled in all of the fishing badges.
“Scouts gave [Tyler] and Kyle exposure to things they have never been exposed too,” their mother said. “He learned a lot, like how to clean a fish, and he credits that to the program. Cleaning a fish was the one merit badge he could get, so he made sure he got that one.”
Other than Ceva Lake, Tyler fished at his grandparent’s home in Manahawkin.
“It would be 5 a.m. when everyone else was asleep and Tyler would wake someone up to ask if they could watch him while he went down to the dock…He wouldn’t come in to eat or drink at all, so my mother-in-law would run ice cream out to him just so he’d eat something!” Turba reminisced.
When Hurricane Sandy destroyed the Jersey coastline in 2012, Tyler, a senior at the time, jumped in his truck and drove down to Belmar Beach to help “restore the shore” just a day after the storm made landfall. It became his passion to help make the place that gave so much to him through fishing to get back on its feet.
“We fed a lot of people that Thanksgiving. As long as my kids give back a little I am happy—he doesn’t need to be a millionaire,” Turba said.
When it came to college Tyler wasn’t completely sure what he wanted to do or where he wanted to go. He expressed that he really only loved fishing and wanted to follow that passion. After searching for months via Google for schools with a Bass Pro Team, Turba came across aquaculture and the program at the University of Rhode Island.
Most people sit, scratching their heads when the word “aquaculture” is said. What exactly is it? Simply put, it’s sustainable fishing where freshwater and saltwater fish become cultivated over time.
“There’s an endless list to the benefits of aquaculture. The U.S. hasn’t delved into it the way other countries have and it’s so important that we do,” Tyler said. “I see it as my personal responsibility to pursue aquaculture and take pressure off wild fish stocks by focusing on more sustainable aquaculture practices.”
His mother added that she believes it is “the way of the future.”
“Just a couple of years ago you couldn’t find sustainable seafood anywhere,” Turba said. “And now you’re seeing it in Whole Foods, BJs, everywhere.”
And she couldn’t be more right about that. Tyler credits his professors for coming together his freshman year of school and inspiring him to be the change in the world. He also credits them for his absolute obsession with aquaculture.
On the second day of classes at URI, professors talked about a program to study abroad with their major. It was set in stone that Tyler and his “three buddies” could travel to Australia and study with the aquaculture program where the industry is booming.
In January, Tyler followed his dream and headed for the land down under at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia. He spent the semester taking two graduate-level classes in hatchery techniques and production of aquaponics operations.
“The classes there were really hard. They were different because they weren’t the typical sit in a classroom setting, but they were out there actually doing things and seeing aquaculture in action,” said Tyler, who returned from Australia in early June.
Each class had 20 students from around the globe. In the hatchery class, the students were responsible for hatching Barramundi, a popular Australian fish that can live in both fresh and saltwater climates.
“In my field, one of the most difficult issues to overcome is hatching fish from eggs and ensuring their survival,” he said. “Fish larvae for marine finish have a less than one percent survival rate in the wild, which is obviously extremely low.”
To make money, aquaculturists have to figure out new ways to ensure fish survive in greater rates. The class was centered around designing a hatchery to house these fish.
In the other class, Tyler learned about the production of aquaponics. The group focused on growing both fish and plants together in a symbiotic relationship in a small ecosystem. Although fish waste is highly toxic to humans, it acts as a natural fertilizer and is absorbed by plants and used in their growth. As the plants absorb the nutrients, the water is purified for the fish.
“In the system, which we designed and built, we grew 2,600 barramundi in conjunction with basil, lettuce, arugula, chives, parsley, tomatoes and mint. Overall, our system grew over 30lbs of basil alone in just three months time,” Tyler said.
He also worked to raise larval clownfish and peppermint shrimp —think Finding Nemo— which are popular in the aquarium trade all the while taking two demanding classes and enjoying his experience in Australia.
Since classes were so hands on, Tyler took courses for an hour and a half on Monday and Fridays, but supplemented that with a 30 to 40 hours in the lab.
Although he didn’t have a ton of time to explore, Tyler did make sure to hike and fish while he was there.
“The fishing wasn’t as good as it is here honestly, but I did get to see a black-tip shark, which was awesome,” he said.
He also traveled to Sydney one weekend to explore the sea ports and fish. His favorite part about being abroad?
“My classes were entirely international students coming together—it was real worldly. They came from Indonesia, Vietnam—everywhere. My friends and I were the only ones from the United States, so not only was I in a different country experiencing their culture, but I got to experience the customs of numerous other countries just through the kids I was with.”
After he returned home, the Barramundi the class cared for were donated to a local restocking program in Australia where they were released into the wild to replenish their own species.
This summer he isn’t slowing down after his world-wide trip overseas. He will be interning back in Rhode Island in a joint project between Greenfins and the University of Rhode Island to help establish the very first sustainable tuna farming industry in the U.S.
“The goal of Greenfins is to close the life cycle of Bluefin and Yellowfin tuna, which means spawn them completely in captivity and produce a crop that does not rely on the wild population,” Tyler said. “If successful, we will be the first in the United States to spawn Bluefin tuna in captivity and raise them to a marketable size.”
There will be five people working on this project—two graduate students, two undergraduate students (Tyler included) and a professor. The program will last through next year.
Before he left for Australia, Tyler wanted to make sure to get in fishing trips down in Manahawkin and in Long Beach Island where he will continue to assist in shark tagging. He began tagging three years ago while spending his first summer home from college with friend and mentor AJ Rotondella.
“There are a lot more sharks than people know and they’re right off the bathing beaches,” he said. “Most are Brown and Sand Tiger sharks, but there are also some Black Tip like I saw in Australia.”
Although he won’t be tagging in Rhode Island, he promises to come back to enjoy his hobby a couple of times this summer.
As for short-term and long term goals, Tyler has already set them.
“Short-term I want to give back. I have had the privilege of an education and I want to spread that to people that had no opportunity.”
Tyler is planning on joining the Peace Corps after graduation where he wants to develop a sustainable food system in a third world country. If he had his choice, he would go to South East Asian or Zambia in Africa to jumpstart these communities.
He has hopes of serving in the Peace Corps for two years, he then plans on attending graduate school either at the University of Miami or go back to James Cook University in Australia.
Long-term, Tyler wants to begin an aquaculture business with his buddies from school where they would farm one to two species to benefit the U.S.
“Tyler is unique and kind. He always says ‘I wish high school Tyler knew college Tyler because I would’ve worked harder.’ And now his determination to change the world is untouchable. He truly lives and breathes this,” his mother said.
For now, Tyler will continue dreaming of the ways he can change the fishing industry and will continue fishing wherever he sees water.