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Stuttgart has hook in fish farming market.

Arkansas' Aquaculture Gets Boost From Work at Research Laboratory

THEY LOOK LIKE ANY OF the hundreds of minnow and catfish ponds throughout the Grand Prairie. At this one, water is being pumped in from an adjacent pond. In an amazing sight, large fish by the hundreds orderly take turns drawing in the nutrients moving into the pond via the pump.

These fish are Chinese bighead carp -- not your everyday household name quite in the way of, say, tuna or salmon.

But one day, Americans may be eating bighead carp with no thought of Charley Tuna. At least, taste tests in a college research project reportedly indicated an 80 percent favorable rate for the carp.

Raising and studying the carp is one of the many ongoing projects at the Fish Farming Experimental Laboratory, about nine miles east of Stuttgart. The warm-water fish lab, the largest facility in the state for fish farming information, is under the auspices of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, an agency of the Interior Department.

The experimental laboratory, finished in 1962, was a result of the Fish-Rice Rotation Act of 1958. Since August of last year, the lab has been housed in a newer, spacious 18,000-SF facility costing $5.6 million.

It is under the direction of Harry Dupree, Ph.D., who has headed up the Stuttgart facility for 19 years.

"In order for the fish farmer to increase sales, he has to be more competitive, and we provide the farmer with information on better products and lower production costs," Dupree says.

Aquaculture in Arkansas is a $92 million business. The state produces about 80 percent of the nation's bait fish, or minnows, at a value of $40 million. Arkansas' catfish market has grown from 400,000 pounds worth $100,000 in 1960 to nearly 58 million pounds valued at $38 million in 1992.

Like other government programs, the experimental lab has a problem acquiring enough funding. Several individual research labs are available at the facility but aren't manned because the funding isn't available. According to his staff, Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., often has pushed for more funds for the facility.

But plenty of work abounds for Dupree and the 20 researchers and support staff. The facility has a $1 million annual budget.

"For all these years, we have been involved in research and development of fish husbandry," Dupree says. "We also provide technical services. We help the farmer solve his problems with his fish production."

The lab, he says, receives about 15,000 inquiries a year.

New Projects

Dupree is hoping work on several new projects will lead to industry growth like that seen with the channel catfish.

Among those projects is the work with bighead carp. Dupree and is staff have found that the carp will clean up the water holding catfish; hence, the setup where water is pumped from one pond, holding catfish, into another holding the carp.

So, for every acre pond of catfish raised, Dupree says, that's about 1,000-1,500 pounds of carp that don't have to be "fed." The feed is already in the water. "It's a big plus, a benefit to both," he says. The work, Dupree adds, may be part of a demonstration next summer.

Another project is work with eels. "Why? Eel beings a minimum of $3.50 a pound," he says. "We want to develop this as an industry."

Dupree guides a couple of visitors to a small, warm building with a metal tank. One visitor who has been there before has built up some courage when Dupree says to put a hand in the water. The tiny eels, like live linguine, all rush to the hand, bumping around as they are apparently attracted to the saltiness of skin. The other visitor takes some coercing before finally dipping in a finger and watching in amazement as hundreds of tiny eels move around it.

Other similar rooms house containers such as one holding six-week-old catfish, no bigger than tiny minnows. Outside on the 80-plus acre site are more than 80 ponds of varying sizes holding the many species of fish. The lab has done research on 30 species, Dupree says.

"Keep in mind, we import half the fish we consume," he says. "We have a $3.5 billion deficit of payments, we import more than we export. As a nation, we're eating more fish than we produce. The oceans have just about exceeded their maximum sustained rate of harvest. If we're going to have a quality product, we're going to have to grow it."

The Stuttgart facility shares its research with neighboring labs in other states. They all contribute to a nationwide industry that is producing about 800 million pounds annually. The National Science Foundation estimates that 1.8 billion pounds will be produced by the year 2000.

Some other numbers tell a larger story about the impact of the state's aquaculture. A study at Mississippi State University revealed that for every 10 million pounds of fish, 230 jobs are created. Roughly 1,000 jobs in Arkansas are supported by catfish farming along, Dupree says.
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Title Annotation:Fish Farming Experimental Laboratory, Stuttgart, Arkansas
Author:Harris, Jim
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Aug 30, 1993
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