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Catching a big one: with $790 million in 1987 retail sales, fish farming is booming all around Arkansas.

Catching A Big One

With $790 Million In 1987 Retail Sales, Fish Farming Is Booming All Around Arkansas

By 1987, the retail value of farm-grown fish reached $790 million. Two years later, fish consumption reached a record of 15.9 pounds of edible fish per person -- a 23 percent increase in just 10 years.

In response, Arkansas aquaculturists are adding 12 percent more catfish-farming acres to the 19,000 already in production. Inventories of food-sized catfish leaped 111 percent in Arkansas last year, and total live weight is up 43 percent.

Now the fifth-selling food fish in the United States, demand for catfish is soaring, and some people believe that it may become number one someday.

With all this good news, the state's fish farmers are riding high. However, some say the potential market hasn't even begun to be tapped.

Consider that Arkansas has 3.5 million acres of suitable fish-farming land, yet only 58,840 acres are in production. Plus, Arkansas also has the only federal laboratory in the United States dedicated to aquaculture, a magnet for fish-farming operations.

Eighty percent of the catfish industry is within a 150-mile radius of the research center, and most of the baitfish industry (worth about $26 million annually) is within a 50-mile radius.

Aquaculture has grown in the United States in the past 30 years, and Arkansas is uniquely qualified to lead the way.

Long Hours, Big Start-Up Costs

"Health and diet considerations are a major reason for the growth in demand," said Dr. Harry Dupree, director of The Fish Farming Research and Development Center near Stuttgart.

The fish farming center was established by federal law in 1958 on 85 acres of land in Arkansas County. This October, ground was broken for an additional 18,000-SF laboratory to be completed by 1992. Upon completion, the center will receive a $1.5 million operating budget and 26 additional staff members.

The federal research center is a rich source of knowledge for fledgling fish farmers, but hard work and high capital costs still keep many entrepreneurs away.

"You have to put a year's work into about eight months," says Bob Hopper of Hopper-Stephens Hatcheries Inc. near Lonoke "It's difficult to get into if you don't have a start. It's tremendously expensive."

Start-up costs are estimated at $5,000 an acre to buy land, build ponds and buildings, and buy aeration equipment, machinery, feed and starter stock. Plus, an ample supply of water, labor, managers, and support industries are needed. That's part of the key to Arkansas' success.

Leola and Lake Village boast modern processing plants that handle about 500,000 pounds of fish a day. A third such plant is being built at Eudora. The state also has 16 smaller plants that process less than 20,000 pounds a day.

"Lack of technical assistance can keep fish farming out of an area even if you have the other ingredients," Dupree said.

Yields Increased Six-Fold

Hopper, who has been in aquaculture for 21 years, says that technology has driven production to new heights.

In 1969, he explained, fish farmers were satisfied to harvest 1,000 to 1,500 pounds per acre annually. Today, 6,000 pounds per acre is not unusual, and higher yields occur.

Harold Farmer of Edgar Farmer and Sons Inc. sees other developments.

"The whole situation has changed," Farmer says, citing higher yields, increased acreage and improved feed. "There are just so many changes that I have a hard time pinpointing anything in particular."

Farmer's father began the farm near Dumas in 1956. He helped to create the first pelleted fish food. Now the founder's grandchildren are involved, and the main crop is catfish.

Baitfish Center Of The Nation

Catfish and baitfish are the two primary fish types raised in Arkansas today, although research is being done on other species of food fish. Lonoke County, which has 16,000 acres of ponds, is the baitfish center of the nation. Prairie and Garland counties have another 14,000 acres devoted to baitfish. Arkansas produces 80 percent of the U.S supply.

"There are more baitfish raised in Lonoke County than in the rest of the United States," says Hopper.

Catfish is the primary food fish grown in Arkansas for many reasons. First, since it is not considered a sport fish, catfish farming is not complicated by laws regulating sport fish. Second, consumers like the taste and texture of the meat and the relatively few bones. Finally, it is a cost-effective species: Minimum yield is 4,000 pounds per acre, and good farmers can get twice that much. Arkansas now has 214 catfish farms, with an average size of 89 acres.

The market has absorbed a yield increase of 50,000 pounds a year for several years, according to center director Dupree, who predicts that, by 2000, 2.2 million pounds of catfish will be produced per year, triple today's yield. This increase will result in 16,310 new jobs.

Most of Hopper's and Farmer's 1,000-plus acres each are in catfish, just like other Arkansas fish farmers.

Their 9,640 acres not in catfish or baitfish are used to raise stock for recreational fishing, other food fish, ornamental fish and crawfish. The total value of these crops is a whopping $80 million a year.

Hybrid Striped Bass

Other food fish species being researched at the center include striped bass, spoonbill catfish, sturgeon, tilapia and Chinese carp. The research center hasn't had space to study these species before, but the new lab will enable them to do so.

Meanwhile, amateur aquaculturists are doing their own research.

Keo Fish Farm has 200 acres in hybrid striped bass, making it "the world's largest striped bass producer," says partner Bob Goetz.

The Keo farm raises more fry and fingerlings than anyone else in the United States, says partner Mike Freeze. "Hybrid striped bass is going astronomically. We're doing quite a bit of overseas business."

Hybrid striped bass is replacing rockfish in the northeast United States and Mediterranean sea bass in Europe, both ocean species that have become scarce. Freeze estimates that the Keo farm will do $600,000 to $800,000 worth of business this year, more than triple last year's business.

Hopper's hatchery also raises several types of sport fish in small quantities for study, among them three species of bream, two species of bass, and black crappie.

He is also interested in carp, as food fish and for other purposes. Currently, carp are not considered edible by most people, but Hopper says they are "tasty." The hatchery raises sterile grass carp for control of unwanted water plants, and has a customer on the West Coast who buys it as a food fish. Three of the eight hatcheries in the U.S. raising grass carp are Hopper's, Farmer's and one owned by Jim Wilson of Lonoke.

Next spring, Hopper's hatchery will begin stocking black carp, which can be used to control snails in city water supplies.

"The food fish industry is really taking off," said Hooper. "The ascendance of catfish is coming to an end."

PHOTO : BIG FISH: Arkansas' fish farming industry is booming as retail sales hit $790 million in

PHOTO : 1987.

PHOTO : GIMME THAT CATFISH: Demand for catfish is at an all-time high with Arkansas inventories up

PHOTO : 111 percent in 1989. The fifth best-selling food fish in the U.S., some catfish fans say

PHOTO : its heading to the No. 1 spot.
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Author:Hunter, Renee
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Oct 8, 1990
Words:1239
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