Fishing for a Brighter Future in West Alabama

AG Illustrated
by: Katie Jackson

     West Alabama’s Black Belt region is one of the poorest parts of the state, but it also is an area full of potential economic oppurtunities, thanks in part to the efforts of Auburn University fisheries and allied aquaculture scientists.
     Auburn research and extension experts began working in the Black Belt more than 25 years ago and were primary players in the development of the U.S. catfish industry. In Alabama alone, that industry has grown from a few farm ponds in the 1960s to 25,000 acres of commercially farmed ponds that annually yield some 175 million pounds of fish worth about $150 million at the farm gate. The regional financial impact of the catfish industry at all levels has been estimated at more than $1 billion.
     Needless to say, the catfish industry is an integral and essential part of the local and regional economy, but global competition from imported fish products and ever-increasing production costs threaten its sustainablility.
     For those reasons, Auburn aquaculturists are searching for more cost-effective ways to grow, process and market high-quality catfish and also are exploring options for new fish products and species that can be grown in Black Belt waters.
     Jesse Chappell, assistant professor in the fisheries and allied aquaculture department and an Alabama Cooperative Extension System aquaculture specialist, is helping lead that effort through Auburn University’s Agriculture Initiative, a program designed to help sustain and expand west Alabama’s aquacultural economy. The initiative is funded in part by AU, the Alabama Legislature, private growers, the Alabama Catfish Producers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sea Grant program and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
     “The catfish industry has to become more efficient to compete globally, and that requires a paradigm shift,” says Chappell. “Because increased competition has reduced profit margins, it’s no longer just about how many fish you can pull out of a pond, but rather how you can do it more cost effectively and efficiently to compete in a global arena.”

Options for Efficiency

With that in mind, Chappell and other aquaculturists working in the Black Belt are exploring a wide range of freshwater fish production efficiency options – from growing fish in outdoor raceways and indoor production systems in “greenhouses” to better feeding strategies, farm management and marketing systems for catfish to growing marine fish species in Black Belt salty-water ponds.
     “We are trying to use the existing infrastructure to improve production efficiency and ultimately upgrade farm profitablility,” Chappell says.
     Among the ideas they are exploring is the use of in-pond raceways – structures places within outdoor ponds that confine similarly sized fish in groups where they can be managed more intensively and efficiently. This system helps growers get a better handle on fish inventory and on how their fish are performing and offers ways to easily segregate and grow new species, such as striped bass, red drum and tilapia, in the ponds.
     “Farmers can raise an average of 6,000 to 7,000 pounds of fish a year in a typical Alabama production pond,” says Chappell. “Using the raceway production approach, they can raise three times that amount in the same pond with greater feed efficiency, survival and managerial control. Our aim is not to just produce more fish but to do it at less cost per unit.”
     Another option is growing fish indoors in greenhouse-like structures that allow farmers to produce high-value warm-season species, such as tilapia, in a year-round production approach while also reusing nutrients and water routed from fish tanks through a greenhouse plant production system.
     “A simply designed indoor system that is being demonstrated at the E.W. Shell Aquaculture Experiment Station in Auburn has the potential to produce tilapia at 350,000 pounds per acre per year,” says Chappell.
     The greenhouse system offers farmers a double-cropping option. They can grow fish along with ornamental plants such as ferns, lotus and daylilies as well as food plants such as tomatoes, strawberries and other plant crops in an adjoining greenhouse that uses recycled water from the fish production to irrigate and provide some nutrients needed by the plants.

Salinity A Boon

     Another focus of AU’s Black Belt work is the production of new species in the region’s unique waters. Some Black Belt wells yield water higher in salt content than most fresh waters in the state or region. This saltier water can be a major asset for catfish farmers who manage the salinity to keep their fish healthy. But, it can also be a boon to pond owners willing to explore the commercial production of a variety of saltwater seafood species tolerant to low salinities.
     In an effort to tap into that market, researchers are exploring ways to grow shrimp and other marine food fish in Black Belt ponds. Their efforts have already paid off for some farmers who have found shrimp production to be a commercially viable enterprise.
     Currently there are four growers producing about 300,000 pounds of shrimp each year in their ponds. Other species suitable for food production, such as red drum, flounder and hybrid striped bass, are still in research and demonstration stages. Marine bait fish such as bull minnows and croaker, which can be sold to sport fishing markets along the Gulf Coast, are also being evaluated for pond production in the Black Belt ponds.
     In addition to exploring these new aquacultural options, AU researchers are also looking for ways to better market the staple fish of the area-channel catfish. A new marketing effort currently called the Clue Star Program is under way to improve quality, service and value of catfish labeled with the Blue Star brand. Blue Star-labeled catfish must meet stringent production and processing quality standards for taste, food safety and other quality assurance factors in order to earn the label, which means these fish can be sold at a higher price than fish imported from Asia.

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