Fall 1992 // Volume 30 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA7

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Aquaculture Opportunities

Fish farming, or aquaculture, has strong potential to become one of America's growth industries in the coming decades. It offers Extension an opportunity to play a leading role in the development and dissemination of much-needed, localized technology. For Extension, aquaculture demonstration can mean a challenging new program of applied research and teaching that brings new faces into the ranks of Extension clientele.

Fred L. Snyder
Associate Professor and District Extension Specialist
Sea Grant
Ohio Cooperative Extension Service
Ohio State University-Port Clinton

One of Extension's major roles has been to respond quickly to new priorities and needs voiced by clientele. When the subject is one that goes beyond the expertise available within a particular state, Extension responds by combining information networks and designing demonstration projects that generate information and develop techniques applicable to regional areas.

Fish farming, or aquaculture, has strong potential to become one of America's growth industries in the coming decades. It offers Extension an opportunity to play a leading role in the development and dissemination of much-needed, localized technology.

The importance of aquaculture development has been recognized by Congress and federal agencies. The National Agricultural Research, Extension, and Teaching Policy Act (1977), National Aquaculture Act (1980), and Food Security Act (1985) all encourage aquaculture development. As a result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture now administers five regional aquaculture centers to develop a national program of cooperative and collaborative research, extension, and development activities.

High Demand, Low Supply

America's markets for fish are growing, but are still small when compared to some other countries. Between 1986 and 1988, average annual per capita consumption of fish products in the U.S. was 45 pounds (live weight) compared to 157 in Japan and 204 in Iceland. In 1990, U.S. consumers spent $27 billion for fishery products.1

Wild fish stocks in most of North America currently are being harvested at maximum sustainable levels. The aquaculture industry presently isn't large enough to make up the difference between supply and demand, so imported products supply the market deficit. Fish have become the second largest nonmanufactured contributor (after oil) to the U.S. trade deficit. The U.S. has operated under this fishery trade deficit since 1895,2 making aqua-culture our best route toward fishery deficit reduction.

Localized Technology Need

Currently, U.S. commercial aquaculture is very regional. The South Central states have considerable acreage dedicated to channel catfish and crayfish, while numerous bait fish producers are concentrated in Arkansas and a few other Mississippi Basin states. Idaho supplies the majority of the country's farm-raised rainbow trout and the Pacific coastal states are expanding their efforts in salmon culture. Extension programs in these states have helped growers identify specific combinations of water resources, climatic conditions, and markets that make particular species profitable for culture in a specific area.

Opportunities to stimulate similar development exist in most other states. Extension, with its access to land grant and Sea Grant college research and its network of field agents and specialists, is ideally suited to bring leadership to the development of this important, expanding industry.

In Ohio, Extension agriculture agents and Sea Grant specialists receive inquiries about starting fish farms, usually following media reports of successful operations. The local limitations of climate and water resources, startup capital and technology, and inexperience often discourage potential growers.

Ohio Situation

Financing expensive aquaculture systems is frequently a problem for potential growers. Little or no grant money is available to private culturists, and loans are available only through conventional sources. Thus, aquaculture loans for operations can pose considerable risk, which often must be collateralized by the borrower's personal property.

The financial risks pointed to the need for Extension to develop and demonstrate an aquaculture system allowing growers to: (1) begin with minimal investment and biological training and (2) produce a crop in one season that would find a ready, local market. A low-input system would allow aspiring aquaculturists to begin pilot projects, developing their expertise and confidence for larger endeavors.

A potential market in northern Ohio emerged in the 1980s because participation in Lake Erie sport fishing increased dramatically while supplies of emerald shiners, the region's favored bait fish, declined sharply. Also, supplies of crayfish for the live bait market historically have been far below demand, leading to extremely high prices.

In Ohio, more than 95% of bait fish are imported from out-of -state suppliers.3 A single growing season and high prices to the producer make bait fish potentially lucrative for aquacultural enterprises. A research and demonstration project was begun in 1986 to identify inexpensive culture techniques for appropriate live bait species, using ponds at Camp Perry in Ottawa County, Ohio.

Aquaculture Demonstration

Since emerald shiners aren't biologically suited to pond culture, golden shiners, a species similar in appearance and suitable for pond culture, were selected. Papershell crayfish also were selected for culture because of their desirable small size and adaptability to pond conditions.

Golden shiner breeders were stocked in the Spring and allowed to spawn on natural vegetation. Papershell crayfish weren't stocked since a small, natural population already existed in the demonstration ponds. But, subsequent private growers were advised to stock mature crayfish in early autumn, according to published recommendations.4

To decrease labor inputs and feeding costs, the ponds' natural plankton communities were enhanced with liquid fertilizer in the Spring and supplemented weekly with alfalfa meal and pellets beginning mid-Summer. Under this system, seines and dipnets were the only equipment items that had to be purchased.

The golden shiners were harvested in September, and the crayfish were harvested gradually from August through October. The production of golden shiners over three years averaged 43.75 gallons per acre. Production costs averaged $7.50 per gallon, while typical wholesale prices for this species range from $24 to $32 per gallon.

Crayfish production in the same period averaged 70.3 gallons per acre with an average count through the period of about 50 dozen per gallon. Because of fewer inputs, crayfish production costs averaged $3.36 per gallon, or 6.7 cents per dozen. In northwestern Ohio, bait-sized crayfish can be sold to dealers for $16 per gallon while hard-shelled, but $2.00 to $2.40 per dozen when soft-shelled.

Clientele Response

The demonstration project allows clientele to examine ponds and observe culture and harvest methods, rather than drawing their perceptions strictly from literature. The crayfish project also provides a needed source of broodstock for aspiring growers.

The progress and results of this project continue to be publicized through Extension newsletters and news releases and presented to clientele and colleagues at meetings, conferences, and personal visits. It allows people to assess simple, low-cost culture techniques, compare them to their individual pond siting and construction costs, and determine whether a pilot project is feasible for them. Once experience in fish culture has been gained, sophistication and investment can be increased with a reasonable chance of success.

Participating clientele have been able to evaluate and make decisions about their own prospects for aquaculture. About 20 Ohio growers currently have entered the aquaculture business with these methods, or have adapted the low-input techniques to their existing operations. Their output, although profitable, still is far below the market's demand, allowing considerable opportunity for new growers.

Similar projects can be valuable to clientele whether the crop is bait fish for the Great Lakes, tilapia for the South, hybrid striped bass for the Mid-Atlantic, or any other. For Extension, aquaculture demonstration can mean a challenging new program of applied research and teaching that brings new faces into the ranks of Extension clientele.


1. U.S., Department of Commerce, Fisheries of the United States, 1990, B. K. O'Bannon, ed. (Silver Springs, Maryland: National Marine Fisheries Service, May 1991).

2. Fisheries of the United States.

3. J. M. Pierce and M. E. Wachtman, The Life Bait Industry in Ohio: Its Extent, Condition, and Problems (Columbus, Ohio: National Marine Fisheries Service, Commercial Fisheries Research and Development Project,1971).

4. J. L. Forney, "Raising Bait Fish and Crayfish in New York Ponds," Extension Bulletin 986 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University, New York State College of Agriculture, 1958).