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Aquaculture - netting bigger profits.

For a "new" idea, fish farming has some surprisingly ancient roots.

Any complete list of "how-to" books on aquaculture would have to include "Fish Culture Classics," penned by Fen Li in China in 460 B.C. to describe his experiments in raising carp.

And Fen Li could be called a comparative newcomer to the field; the first written references to fish culture trace back to 1100 B.C., in the writings of Wen Fang from China's Honan Province. In Europe, the ancient Romans farmed fish and shellfish.

When fish culture finally made it to the New World, it proved to be a money-making venture. One early hatchery operator in Caledonia, New York, cleared a profit of $1,000 in 1865, 2 years after beginning his business; 3 years later, his profits had leapfrogged to $10,000.

Early fish culture in this country concentrated on species such as trout and carp for stocking. Today, market-ready catfish is king.

In 1990, U.S. catfish growers sold more than 360 million pounds of catfish to processors - a gain of 5 percent over the previous year, but perhaps still a letdown of sorts to those who had enjoyed double-digit increases in years past.

Some 166,000 acres nationwide are now submerged in catfish ponds, a total that does not include an estimated 13,000 acres of ponds under construction, being renovated, or currently out of production. Surveys have shown that many producers in the catfish industry are operating at less than full capacity and could quickly expand their operations.

Of course, catfish is only a part of the American aquaculture picture, albeit an important one. Trout is still a major aquatic commodity, and the field also includes crawfish, salmon, shrimp, bait fish, and even tropical fish.

Overall, the U.S. aquaculture industry has grown more than 15 percent annually in the past decade, booming from $200 million in 1980 to $860 million in 1990.

Per person consumption was about 16 pounds of fish and fish products from all sources in 1990. Experts predict this total will jump to 20 pounds by the year 2000 and to 25 pounds by 2010.

Why this growing consumer interest in fish? Fish is rich in protein and low in calories, a nutritional profile that appeals to consumers watching not only their waistlines, but also their intake of substances such as cholesterol and food additives. Fish is also a good source of calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and vitamin A.

A boom in fish farming could improve the health of the U.S. economy, too. The edible fish and shellfish trade deficit totaled $2.5 billion in 1990, as we imported $9 billion worth of fish products - an amount of imported nonmanufactured goods exceeded only by petroleum products.

Gains in fish farming not only help alleviate that trade imbalance, but also create demand for other U.S. farm goods, such as soybeans and corn. Fish farming offers new crop choices for farmers, as well as providing jobs for off-farm workers.

For example, in Mississippi, where 75 percent of domestic catfish production is based, the Delta region has seen the coming of three major catfish feed mills.

In addition, industry-support businesses have emerged that include hatcheries and nurseries, equipment manufacturers and suppliers, and providers of services such as custom harvesting, consulting, laboratory analysis, and hauling of live fish.

Catfish isn't the only success story in U.S. aquaculture. Trout exports are on the rise, valued at $2.1 million for the first half of 1991. And exports of ornamental fish were up 7 percent for the first half of the year.

And then there are crawfish. While much of the nation's crawfish are produced and consumed in Louisiana and adjacent states, crawfish production is actually one of the largest aquaculture industries in this country.

Crawfish "yields" per acre have not been particularly impressive - 71 million pounds from 121,000 acres in Louisiana in 1990, compared with 67 million pounds of catfish from only 16,000 acres of ponds in Louisiana that same year.

But crawfish do offer some alluring advantages to the small family farmer: relatively low fixed costs of operation, natural reproduction of the "crop," and the ability to be doublecropped, or grown on the same acreage that at other times of the year sports golden heads of rice.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working to encourage aquaculture expansion through research and distribution of information on these new commodities. More than a dozen USDA agencies are involved either in research, marketing, or ensuring that consumers can count on an abundant and safe supply of fish products.

One such agency, the Cooperative State Research Service, administers funds to nonfederal agencies for aquaculture research.

Another, the Agricultural Research Service, has aquaculture-related research under way at labs from Alabama and Louisiana to Oklahoma and Hawaii, tackling problems ranging from fish diseases to off-flavors in the finished product. This issue of Agricultural Research highlights a new trout research facility at Shepherdstown, West Virginia, that addresses the problem of aquaculture wastewater disposal.
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Author:Smith, Lewis W.
Publication:Agricultural Research
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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