MIAMI -- Spanish entrepreneur Albert Buscato was hitting golf balls into a net at a sporting club on New York's Hudson River a few years back when he had a brainstorm: a golf ball that would dissolve quickly in water with no harm to the marine environment. Even better, he thought, would be a biodegradable ball with fish food inside it.
Buscato, 45, spent two years researching and developing the Ecobioball -- targeted to waterfront resorts, cruise ships, private yachts and oil rigs. Made of a vinyl polymer coating, it takes 36 to 96 hours to degrade, revealing a mixture of fish oil and vegetable protein that Buscato said is certified nontoxic to fish and crustaceans.
Buscato recently set up the Albus Golf USA distribution center in Coral Gables and is hoping to expand his customer base in South Florida and Latin America.
"I think this is the best potential market -- especially in Florida because you guys are crazy for golf," he said.
The Ecobioball is a single-use product aimed strictly at waterfront venues. It is not approved by the U.S. Golf Association for play on golf courses. The ball is a little heavier than regulation golf balls and so it doesn't travel as far. Buscato believes it will catch on with golfers who want to practice driving freely from ships without the limitations of nets or cages. Under international laws, hitting regular golf balls into the ocean is prohibited because they are considered pollutants, taking hundreds of years to degrade.
"The goal of Ecobioball is not for long distances," Buscato said. "It's to allow you to play in a marine environment. I found a way to have added value by putting fish food inside. If we could add something that makes them positive for the environment, that would be good."
Buscato said his invention is certified safe and nontoxic by the LGAI Technological Center in Spain and is being sold in 35 countries.
Mackee France, director of recreation at Four Seasons Resort Nevis in the Caribbean, introduced the new golf balls to his guests about 18 months ago and said they are a big hit.
"You feed the fish when you hit the golf balls. You're saving the environment," France said.
He credits the Ecobioballs with drawing fish, crabs and lobsters to the nearshore waters where the balls land.
"After we realized hitting the golf balls was feeding the fish, we saw a dramatic growth in marine life around the rocks," France said. "We started offering more guided snorkel tours."
However, not everyone is convinced that hitting dissolving golf balls loaded with fish food into the ocean benefits the ecosystem.
Max Appelman, an avid golfer and graduate research assistant in the fisheries lab at Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center in Dania Beach, believes the Ecobioball warrants further study.
"They tested it on one freshwater fish -- the zebrafish -- and are claiming it is harmless to all fish," Appelman said. "It's an erroneous statement. All they can say is that it's harmless to zebrafish."
The researcher also is concerned that sending lots of golf balls into the ocean where none were allowed before could cause problems for marine life.
"I don't understand how they can say that by hitting the balls into the water, you are improving sustainability and biodiversity," Appelman said. "I don't think it's a good thing."
Appelman pointed out that the balls could be gobbled by fish and sea birds long before they dissolve.
Currently, Ecobioballs are sold in lots of 100 for about $116. Buscato also sells accessories such as practice mats, tees and floating flags.
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