Why not Number One?
A UW official believes the Wisconsin aquaculture industry is swimming in a sea of opportunity and could become the Number One state in aquaculture.
Ray Cross, who has served as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and UW-Extension since 2011, spoke at the Wisconsin Aquaculture Association's annual meeting here recently.
Cross called on the state's fish producers to collaborate by building partnerships and expanding their communications, education and support. They need to develop short- and long-term visions for the state's industry, and the state needs to do basic and applied research and have a legislative agenda that support that vision.
"We need to rally behind a vision that we share," he said.
Cross encouraged producers to dream bigger. He believes a Wisconsin aquaculture innovation center - a non-brick-and-mortar idea center - would help the industry, that the Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility needs to be enhanced and that the industry needs to find a chef spokesperson to promote Wisconsin fish, for example.
"I'm not sure we dream big enough," he stressed.
In the food sector, the demand for fish among U.S. consumers is high and increasing yearly, and farm-raised fish is the fastest growing segment of agriculture, Cross noted.
"I'm not sure we realize this. . . but the only way to meet the increasing demand for fish is through aquaculture," he said.
In 2008, aquaculture in the U.S. was a $1.1 billion industry, and it was valued at $14 million in Wisconsin. Even though demand for fish experienced a 25-fold increase between 1950-2012, Wisconsin today produces less than three percent of the total seafood consumed in the state, he noted.
Wisconsin ranks third in the value of its bait and game-fish industry in the U.S. Arkansas ranks first with a $20 million value, followed by Minnesota at $4 million and Wisconsin at $3 million.
Of Wisconsin's 1.4 million anglers, 90 percent use live bait coming from Wisconsin aquaculture producers.
Cross sees opportunity in the "stocking gap" of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. He would like to see more aquaculture producers partner with the DNR to provide the 416,000-pound gap between what the DNR produces and what is needed to stock the state's waters.
Aquaponics is another area of opportunity, he stressed. The state currently has 12-15 aquaponic growers in the state, most of them relatively small. Small aquaponic businesses are the norm throughout the nation, but Cross noted that growing fish and vegetables within the same system is both a growing industry and growing opportunity.
He recognizes aquaponic production presents some challenges in nutrient management and biosecurity, "but it has tremendous potential if we can figure some of this stuff out," he stressed.
A unique partnership between a private business and UW-Stevens Point is working to help people interested in aquaponics.
Chris Hartleb, professor of fisheries biology at UW-SP and Rebecca Nelson, co-owner of Nelson & Pade of Montello, teamed up to describe to WAA members collaborative aquaponics education programs offered by the university and company. They announced the availability of a new two-credit course in aquaponics.
Nelson & Pade has been working in aquaponics - which combines soil-less plant production and fish production - for about 20 years, and interest in aquaponics has seen tremendous growth over the last five years, Nelson said.
"The interest is to the point where it's about to explode," she noted.
Driving the aquaponics industry are individuals who want to raise their own fresh food, entrepreneurs, educators, governments concerned about food safety, grocers and social groups.
Aquaponics operations use about 10 percent of the water used in traditional aquaculture production, plus they require relatively small spaces, make efficient use of labor and are valued by people who desire local food production.
Nelson & Pade has offered three-day aquaponics workshops on an every-other month basis for many years. People from over 30 countries have participated in Nelson & Pade's workshops, and partnering with UWSP a year ago has taken aquaponics education to a "whole new level," Nelson said.
UW-SP and Nelson & Pade launched its first collaborative three-credit aquaponics course in 2012. The semester-long course includes online lectures and discussions and an intensive, hands-on three-day program at the end of the semester, with students participating in labs on building aquaponic systems, water quality, fish production, plant production, marketing and business operations. A total of 27 students took the first course.
New to the course line-up is a two-credit course, Hartleb noted, and UW-SP is working to develop an aquaponics certificate program that would include several courses.
UW-SP began offering a minor in aquaculture seven years ago.
In addition, the International Aquaponics Society, which was established through UW-SP, is hosting an International Aquaponcics Conference on June 19-21, at Stevens Point. The conference will feature speakers from around the world and include information and research on the industry, biosecurity and a global view of aquaponics.
Bob Robinson, a fisheries biologist with Kasco Marine, a company that manufactures pond aerators and other equipment, noted the U.S. aquaculture industry creates 250,000 jobs and currently is a $1.2 billion industry at the farm gate that generates a $7 billion value to the U.S. economy.
With wild populations of fish shrinking, Robinson said fish farms provide a consistent supply of fish to U.S. consumers, add healthy Omega 3 to diets and can achieve feed conversion rates of 1:1, higher than the swine, cattle and poultry industries.
Robinson said Wisconsin has over 2400 registered fish farms, with about 125 of them earning more than $1000 annually.