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SRAC Publication No.


November 1998

Aquaculture: Realities and Potentials When

Getting Started
Marley Beem*

The outlook for aquaculture in packed and heavily fed fish must ■ Fish can be affected by off-fla-
this country is bright. Health-con- be watched closely to detect prob- vor problems that make them
scious consumers are increasing lems early before they turn into unmarketable for weeks or
their consumption of fish and disasters. This is difficult because months.
shellfish, and ocean fish catches fish cannot be readily seen. New ■ Flooding and the resultant loss
are declining and are subject to fish farmers may feel like they are of fish plague many fish farms.
contamination scares. Thus, there working blindfolded and without
is an increased demand for farm- sleep until they become comfort- ■ High feed prices and low fish
raised fish. able using water quality test prices can lead to economic
equipment, water color changes losses even in years when pro-
Southern states have a long grow- duction is good.
ing season and other resources and feeding response as their
that have contributed to the estab- ÒeyesÓ to detect early warnings of Because fish farming overlaps
lishment of large catfish, baitfish problems. Nighttime work is done with public issues such as wildlife
and crawfish aquaculture indus- throughout the warm months and conservation, food safety and
tries. While prospects for fish includes checking dissolved oxy- water quality, a fish farmer must
farming in the South in general gen levels and running aeration be ready to endure a gauntlet of
are very good, the potential for equipment as needed. regulations and permitting proce-
individual success varies widely. As with any other business, find- dures.
This publication is designed to ing and keeping good help also is ■ Fish-eating birds are protected
help individuals interested in a challenge. Workers must be by federal law and can be
aquaculture gain a better under- capable of making the right deci- killed in limited number only
standing of the challenges sions when the farmer/manager after obtaining a permit or
involved in establishing a success- is unavailable. Also, finding and written permission.
ful fish farm. Although most developing good markets for the
■ Approved drugs and treat-
information here applies to tradi- product takes considerable time
ments for fish diseases are in
tional freshwater aquaculture, and energy. A good fish farmer
short supply.
readers interested in marine cul- works to earn and maintain the
trust of buyers while continuing ■ Many states have or are draft-
ture systems and specialty type
to search for new marketing ing laws to control water with-
aquaculture will be able to glean
opportunities. drawal and discharges from
useful information. A glossary,
fish farms.
included at the end, defines many Even with good management
industry terms. practices, fish farmers can still Regulations requiring water con-
face disasters. servation and reuse for crop irri-
Is fish farming for you? gation are likely to become
■ Unusually hot, cold or cloudy
increasingly common for aquacul-
Operating a fish farm is similar to weather can stress fish and
ture in the future. (Refer to
operating a cattle feedlot. Closely bring on disease.
Southern Regional Aquaculture
Center [SRAC] Publication 465.)
* Oklahoma State University
However, in spite of the prob- shallower levee pond structures. known as biofilters. Main advan-
lems, established fish farmers (Refer to SRAC Publications 100, tages of recirculating systems are
enjoy a great way of life. Their 101 and 240.) that ideal growing temperatures
work and lifestyle are rewarding Watershed ponds are standing can be maintained year-round and
experiences. Fish farmers enjoy a water impoundments built by they can be located anywhere.
deep sense of pride and satisfac- damming ravines or small valleys. Main disadvantages are lack of
tion as they watch their fish feed- From 5 to 30 acres of watershed is reliability, high production costs
ing, growing and finally being needed to supply the water for 1 and need for constant attention.
harvested. surface acre of pond. Advantages Biofilters can be killed by chemi-
of watershed ponds include lower cals that are used for disease treat-
Facilities that work construction costs than levee ments. They also can die unex-
ponds and the ability to make use pectedly without any apparent
Although fish farming may seem reason. More research and devel-
like a brand new idea, it really is of steeper sites. Disadvantages
include the inability to refill opment work appears necessary
not. Decades of work by farmers before recirculating systems will
and researchers have led to the ponds at will and lack of oxygen
at greater depths, which can lead be economical for most applica-
development of proven facilities tions. At present these systems are
for growing fish. As a new fish to fish kills if a turnover occurs.
(Refer to SRAC Publication 102.) being used successfully in some
farmer, you should keep things hatchery systems and for brood-
simple by sticking closely to these stock conditioning and production
tried and proven designs. Control ÒAfter I got into it, I realized the of very high value species. (See
your urge to invent until you producers I visited early on SRAC Publications 451-454.)
have several years experience in werenÕt as dumb as I had thought
fish farming and fully understand and I wasnÕt as smart.Ó
all the reasons why things are
Location is everything
done certain ways. Much time, effort and money
The great majority of aquaculture Cages are floating enclosures in have been wasted trying to force
products in the South are pro- which fish are grown and fed a fish farms to fit in impractical
duced in levee and watershed complete feed. The main advan- locations. First and foremost, a
ponds. Other production facilities, tage of cages is that fish are cul- fish farm needs abundant, good
including cages, raceways, flow tured in existing water bodies that quality water. To raise just 1,000
through tanks and recirculating would otherwise be impractical to pounds of catfish requires about
systems, have not been as widely harvest. Main disadvantages are 244,000 gallons (0.75 acre-feet) of
successful for a variety of reasons. quick spread of disease and water. This is in a typical levee
greater vulnerability to theft, pond that is drained once every 5
Levee ponds are standing water disturbance and moderately low to 10 years. Raising the same
impoundments built by excavat- oxygen levels. (See SRAC Publica- amount of catfish in a raceway
ing the pond area to a shallow tions 160-166.) requires an enormous amount of
depth and using the soil obtained waterÑroughly 65 times as much
to build a perimeter of levees or Raceways and flow through
tanks are long channels or tanks as in a levee pond!
dikes. The advantages of levee
ponds include the ability to har- through which fresh water flows Underground water from wells
vest by seine without draining continuously and is then discard- and springs is preferred for fish
and the availability of oxygen all ed. Main advantages of raceways farming because it is free of wild
the way to the bottom of the and flow through tanks are ease fish and parasites. Some fish
pond. Disadvantages include rela- of handling and harvesting fish farms do use water from lakes
tively high construction costs and and control of waste buildup by and creeks but problems with fish
the need for a site with a slope of flushing. The main disadvantage parasites and invasion by trash
less than 5 percent, soil clay con- is the shortage of sites having fish are a constant battle. Surface
tent of at least 20 percent and abundant water of the right tem- waters also carry the threat of ran-
wells or other reliable water perature, that is artesian water or dom contamination by pesticides
sources. Occasionally, a fish water available without excessive or other harmful chemicals.
farmer will choose a site with a pumping costs. Groundwater in Some ground and surface waters
shallow water table and excavate the South is generally suitable for are totally unsuitable for fish
down into it. This should not be cold water fish such as trout, but farming. The water source should
done because management of too cold for warm water species be tested before purchasing prop-
such a pond is difficult. such as catfish. Heating water for erty or breaking ground for con-
raceways is prohibitively expen- struction. The county Extension
Levee ponds may not be fascinat- sive.
ing, but they are state of the art agent or aquaculture Extension
when it comes to reliable, eco- Recirculating systems are tank specialist can assist in determin-
nomical production of catfish and systems in which water is filtered ing how best to test the suitability
most other warmwater finfish. and reused. Filtration is conduct- of water for fish farming.
Crawfish are produced in much ed by large beds of bacteria,
Suitable soils and slopes are vital Ideas for developing markets are species of crawfish are the most
for the proper, economical con- contained in SRAC Publication commonly cultured. Key require-
struction of ponds of the type 350, Small Scale Marketing of ments for these and other burrow-
used to produce most aquaculture Aquaculture Products. In major ing species include heavy clay
products in the South. To hold aquaculture areas, there are soils and 70 to 100 gallons per
water, soils generally need to have processors and other established minute of water per surface acre
20 percent or more clay content markets for certain products. of pond. Flat sites are needed to
and be free of rock outcroppings, Many prospective fish farmers allow economical pond construc-
sand layers and other causes of want to concentrate all their time tion. The hand labor needed to
excessive seepage. Ponds built and effort on growing fish, but empty and reset traps daily dur-
where soils do not hold water often it is the marketing of their ing the harvest season may be dif-
well often must be abandoned product that determines success ficult to obtain outside of major
because corrective measures are or failure. This is especially true if crawfish production areas. An
costly. Levee ponds generally are new markets will have to be investment of approximately
built only in areas with less than 5 developed for the final product. $90,000 is required for a 40-acre
percent slope; about 1/2 percent is This has even been true for those crawfish farm, excluding land
ideal. (See SRAC Publications 100 selling to established processing costs. (Refer to SRAC Publications
and 101 for more information on plants. A new fish farmer must 240-242 and video V003.)
levee ponds.) consider what to do if the intend- Baitfish production consists
Areas with more than 5 percent ed processor goes bankrupt, as mainly of golden shiners and
slope are generally better suited many have. Consequently, plan to smaller amounts of fathead min-
for watershed type ponds. SRAC spend a considerable amount of nows and goldfish. Arkansas
Publication 102 has more informa- time and energy developing pri- dominates baitfish production.
tion on watershed ponds. The mary and secondary markets for Key requirements include a site
county Natural Resources products, and be ready for all pos- suitable for levee ponds and 20 or
Conservation Service office can sibilities. more gallons of water per minute
assist in evaluating the suitability Catfish are the major aquaculture per surface acre. The investment
of a site for pond construction. product in the South. Production required for a 160-acre baitfish
Raceways and other production is centered in Mississippi, farm is $720,000. (See SRAC
facilities are less dependent on Arkansas, Alabama and Publications 120-122 and video
soils and slopes. Louisiana, although smaller V019.)
Laws and regulations can prohibit industries exist in most other Largemouth bass, bluegill and
fish farms on certain sites. A site southern states. Catfish produc- other sport fish fingerlings are
classified as a wetland usually tion is divided into fingerling pro- widely produced for stocking
cannot be developed. Feeding of duction and food fish production. recreational fishing ponds. Key
any livestock in the watershed of Many producers specialize in one requirements include land and
a municipal water supply lake or the other. Key requirements for water resources suitable for levee
may be prohibited. Sites close to levee pond catfish farms include or watershed ponds. Special skills
public waters may not be feasible 25 gallons per minute of water for are required to handle, protect
for fish farms because of concerns each surface acre of pond and and provide food for very young
about escape of fish or discharge land suitable for levee ponds as fish. Experience in producing
of water. Contact a county described in the previous section. large fish is usually obtained
Extension agent or aquaculture The investment needed ranges before the production of finger-
Extension specialist for a list of from $3,000 to $5,000 per surface lings is attempted. (See SRAC
agencies involved in permitting acre, excluding land costs. Key Publications 140-142, 200 and
fish farms. Obviously, it is best to land and water requirements for 201.)
investigate possible restrictions watershed pond catfish farms Rainbow trout farming in the
and have permits in hand before include those listed for watershed South centers in the Smoky
making a major investment in a ponds in the previous section. The Mountains of North Carolina,
site. investment needed ranges from Tennessee and northern Georgia
$2,000 to $4,000 per surface acre, where water from mountain
What to grow? excluding land costs. (Refer to streams is diverted to flow
SRAC Publications 180 and 181 through concrete raceways and
Like any other business, fish and video V001 as well as catfish
farms must produce, at a profit, a tanks. A small farm is considered
farming fact sheets available in to be one with a water flow of 500
marketable product. Fish farmers your state.)
located outside of major aquacul- gallons per minute. The establish-
ture areas must work doubly hard Crawfish production is centered ment cost required for such a
to be sure that their resources are in Louisiana and eastern Texas, small farm is approximately
suitable for what they wish to although there are small farms $26,000 excluding land costs. (See
produce and to build their own scattered throughout the South. SRAC Publications 220-223 and
markets from the ground up. The red swamp and white river V005.)
Striped bass, hybrid striped bass Fish farming may not be to your lik-
and red drum for food are newly ing. The labor or management
developing species for fish cul- required may not be what you
ture. Farms are concentrated had expected.
along coastal areas. Levee pond
culture predominates with some Water quality management
interest in flow through and recir-
culating systems. Water should The most important factor in
have an alkalinity of 100 mg/l or aquaculture is water quality.
more. ( See SRAC Publications Dissolved oxygen levels in water
300-303, 320-324 and videos V006 can drop quickly and suffocate
and V002.) fish. Wastes produced by fish can
build up, harm their delicate gills
Tropical aquarium fish for the pet and lead to other problems. Fish
market are raised mainly in farmers can deal with these dan-
Florida because of the favorable gers, but only after they have
climate. Both small earthen ponds learned how to use water quality
and recirculating systems are test equipment. The Cooperative
used. The conditions required to Extension Service in most south-
spawn and rear tropical aquarium ern states offers water quality
fish can be difficult to provide. workshops for fish farmers. These
Requirements vary from species workshops provide hands-on Figure 1. The price of poor water
to species and information may be experience using test equipment,
difficult to obtain. quality management is dead or sick
and teach what the water quality fish.
Other species may be feasible for numbers mean and what manage-
individual situations. Some ment actions to take. (See SRAC
species, however, may never be Publications 370, 371 and 462- Following are some questions that
developed beyond the experimen- 464.) must be asked before a major
tal stage. Many types of fish and investment in a fish farm is made.
New fish farmers who delay buy-
shellfish are uneconomical or ing and learning to use test equip-
impossible to produce because of Production technology
ment often believe the warnings
lack of proven feeds or fingerling do not apply to them. Then sud- ■ Is the species you plan to pro-
rearing techniques or other techni- denly they discover an entire duce being profitably produced
cal problems. Tried and proven pond of dead or sick fish (Figure on commercial farms or is it
forms of fish farming are the best 1). Producers who take the time to still in the experimental stage
methods for beginners. There is check oxygen, ammonia, nitrite of development? Be skeptical of
no easy money to be made in and other water quality factors on claims of recent breakthroughs.
aquaculture. If someone offers a regular basis find that it pays off ■ Has the proposed production
something that sounds too good by greatly reducing fish kills and facility design been proven
to be true, it probably is. disease problems. through widespread profitable
use or is it an experimental sys-
Reasons to start small Do your homework tem? Experimental species or
Big mistakes are expensive. There is production systems may be
As you make plans, you will find more interesting, but few indi-
little use for facilities built the it to your advantage to ask some
wrong way or on the wrong site. viduals can afford to risk the
hard questions. Find out if your money needed for such
The most common examples are ideas make good technical and
ponds that will not hold water or research.
economic sense by talking with a
cannot be drained. wide range of people. This Physical resources
More time is available to develop includes potential customers,
markets and learn what your cus- ■ Does the proposed site have the
Extension specialists, Natural
tomers need. You may find a more Resources Conservation Service right soil, slope, water and road
profitable market than you had professionals, businessmen and access conditions for the type
originally planned and need to others. Visit as many fish farms as of production facility to be
change your way of growing and you can. Keep an open mind but built?
harvesting to fit this new market. remember that some fish farmers ■ Is there a better type of produc-
Design of ponds and facilities can be have pet theories and ideas that tion facility for this site?
improved. Changes in pond size or may or may not apply to your sit- ■ Is the proposed site only mar-
other structures can be made easi- uation. ginally suitable? If so, consider
ly when expanding. other sites before committing
■ Is it feasible to obtain needed ■ Can your financial situation on borrowed money, etc. These
permits for the proposed site support a new fish farm that are your variable costs.
and type of production system? will suffer a loss or only break Finally, make a list of costs for
Some sites may be located in or even the first several years of everything associated with
close to highly regulated operation? machinery. These are your fixed
resources such as public water costs. Examples include pond con-
supply lakes or sensitive Personal factors struction, wells, pumps, trucks,
wildlife habitat areas. ■ Can your personal situation feed bins, tractors, aerators and
stand the extra stress of start- buildings. Do not overlook the
Marketing ing a new enterprise? cost of buildings, tractors or other
■ Who are your planned cus- equipment that are already pur-
■ Do you and/or your employ-
tomers? ees have the skills needed to chased. Part of their costs should
■ How much will they buy from make the proposed operation be charged off each year of their
you, how frequently and at work? Consider management expected life, as they eventually
what price? skills as well as mechanical and will need to be replaced. Equip-
farming skills needed. ment also used for other jobs on
■ What are their preferences/
the farm should be partially
demands in product size, form, ■ Would you hire yourself to do charged so each enterprise can
uniformity and other factors? the planning, management and stand on its own. For example, a
■ Is the market already saturat- day to day labor required? Be tractor that is used 20 percent of
ed? honest with yourself about the time for fish farming would
your strengths and weakness- show up on the list as 0.20 trac-
■ Who is the competition and es.
how will you compete against tors.
them? Get a realistic picture of Planning for the unexpected A major reason to estimate income
your strengths and weaknesses and expenses is to be able to pro-
■ How will you minimize or
by looking at the situation from ject your return or profit. Another
the customerÕs point of view. cope with construction delays use of the same numbers is to pro-
caused by bad weather, slow ject a break-even cost for what
Seedstock, feed and specialized acquisition of government per- you produce. To obtain these criti-
mits, lack of specialized equip- cal numbers, organize the infor-
ment or other bottlenecks? mation into an enterprise budget
■ How will you obtain a reliable Hope for the best but be pre-
supply of fingerlings or other format. The numbers already are
pared for the worst. divided into three lists: income,
seedstock at a reasonable price?
variable costs and fixed costs.
■ Can you afford the extra invest- Think like a banker Now put these numbers into four
ment in time and money need- columns: item, quantity, dollars
ed to develop your own seed- Take the plunge into aquaculture
only after careful planning. per unit ($/unit) and total as
stock production capacity? shown in Figure 2. Do not forget
Sample enterprise budgets that
■ Is there a proven, economical are available through the to include any charges for interest
feed available for the species Cooperative Extension Service are if variable or fixed costs are
you plan to produce? a good starting point. Read them financed.
■ Do you have a reliable, afford- carefully and make all changes Do not get discouraged if the esti-
able source for other special- needed to fit your situation. mated return is tiny or even nega-
ized supplies and equipment? Other financial statements tive. The first budget is just a
required for business proposals starting point. Consider ways to
Financial factors are discussed in SRAC Publica- reduce costs. For example, doing
■ What is your strategy for
tion 381. your own pond construction work
obtaining funding? A formal Raising nontraditional species with used equipment may reduce
business plan should be pre- will require an original budget. pond construction costs by half.
pared any time a major invest- First, consider the income your Another way to reduce costs
ment is planned. The county fish farming operation will pro- would be to use your own funds
Extension agent should be able duce. Generally this means esti- instead of borrowing.
to provide fact sheets or other mating the amount of fish you A third way to reduce costs would
assistance in preparing busi- will produce and the price you be to expand. This is often the
ness plans. (Also see SRAC will receive for them. Next, make only way to earn a profit when
Publication 381.) a list of the expendable items you selling to high volume, low price
■ Are there other ways that the
will need to buy each year to pro- buyers such as processing plants.
money could be invested for duce your fish. This will include Try developing budgets for differ-
greater return at less risk and feed, fingerlings, labor, fuel, elec- ent size fish farming operations to
equal personal satisfaction? tricity, equipment repair, interest determine how large your opera-
Figure 2. An enterprise budget format. Agriculture has never been an
easy way to make a living. Far
Income from leading a peaceful, worry-
Item Quantity $/unit Total $ free life, farmers often face weath-
er problems, low market prices,
____________ _______________ _____________ ____________
crop losses to diseases, and long
Total income ____________(A) working hours. Farming today
requires much more than just
Variable Costs being able to produce a crop.
Item Quantity $/unit Total $ Successful farmers must have a
sound understanding of the eco-
____________ _______________ _____________ ____________ nomics of their operation, keep
____________ _______________ _____________ ____________ good records and work to devel-
____________ _______________ _____________ ____________ op the best markets for their
____________ _______________ _____________ ____________
Interest ____________ The bottom line
Total variable costs ____________(B)
Commercial aquaculture involves
all the struggles that go with any
Fixed Costs form of farming. In addition to
Item Quantity $/unit Total Useful life Annual depreciation these, fish farmers must plan care-
fully to make sure that their pro-
_____ _______ ______ _____ __________ _____________ duction facility is based on a tried
_____ _______ ______ _____ __________ _____________ and proven design, the site condi-
_____ _______ ______ _____ __________ _____________ tions are right, and reliable mar-
_____ _______ ______ _____ __________ _____________ kets exist or can be developed.
_____ _______ ______ _____ __________ _____________ In return for their efforts, fish
farmers enjoy an independent,
_____ _______ ______ _____ __________ _____________ countryside lifestyle and can
Total fixed costs _____________(C) expect to receive a reasonable
return on investment, similar to
Estimated return (A - B - C) ____________________ many other forms of agriculture.
Breakeven cost (B + C)/total lbs. produced ________/lb.
Further information and
tion must be in order to reach dif- For non-farmers County Extension offices are like-
ferent income levels. ly to offer the SRAC publications
Most of todayÕs farmers were listed, as well as other fact sheets
Managers of small operations born and raised on farms. Very
generally need to seek out buyers tailored to fish farming conditions
few farmers learned how to farm in your state. County agricultural
other than processing plants in as adults. As a non-farmer, this
order to operate profitably. SRAC Extension agents, especially those
puts you at a considerable disad- in major aquaculture regions, are
Publication 350 discusses many of vantage. You will need to go
these alternatives. Be creativeÑ increasingly likely to be knowl-
through a period of on-the-job edgeable about opportunities for
time spent finding and develop- training. Are you the kind of per-
ing specialty markets can yield aquaculture in your area. Also,
son who does most of the mainte- most southern states have aqua-
good returns. nance and repair work? Can you culture Extension specialists who
put up with outdoor work during are accessible through the
ÒIf it wonÕt work on paper, chances bad weather and odd hours? If so, Extension office.
are it wonÕt work at all.Ó greatÑthese are skills and toler-
ances you will need on a fish The county Natural Resources
farm. If not, you may wish to Conservation Service offices offer
reconsider the vocation of fish free pond planning and layout
farming. services based on expert knowl-
edge of local soil conditions. The
pond specifications they provide
can help ensure that fish farming
ponds are built properly.
Glossary Levee ponds Ð Standing water Turnover Ð Mixing of top and bot-
impoundments built by excavat- tom water than can lead to fish
Aquaculture Ð The production ing the pond area to a shallow kills, especially in watershed
and sale of farm-raised aquatic depth and using the soil obtained ponds. During summer, a cold
plants and animals. to build a perimeter of levees or bottom layer of water lacking in
Bacteria Ð Microscopic animal life, dikes. These should be built so oxygen develops. In fall, the bot-
some kinds of which are responsi- they can be drained by gravity. tom and top layers can suddenly
ble for the decay of dead materials Off-flavor Ð Aquatic animals can mix or turn over.
and wastes. absorb and take on bad flavors Watershed ponds Ð Impound-
Biofilters Ð Plates, beads or other from the water in which they live. ments built by damming streams
media that provide a large surface These musty, muddy or otherwise or small valleys. Runoff from the
area upon which bacteria can undesirable flavors usually come surrounding watershed fills the
grow using fish waste products as from substances put out by certain ponds.
food. The bacteria break down species of microscopic plants Water quality Ð The degree of
ammonia and nitrite into forms (phytoplankton). suitability of water for growing
much less harmful to fish. A com- Raceways Ð Long channels fish and other aquatic organisms.
ponent of recirculating systems. through which large amounts of Water high in dissolved oxygen
Dissolved oxygen Ð Oxygen dis- new water flow continuously and and low in animal wastes such as
solves poorly in water and is often are then discarded. Usually built ammonia is generally considered
in short supply for aquatic ani- of concrete, these also can be to be of high quality. Other fac-
mals. Warm water holds even less earthen channels or long tanks tors, such as alkalinity, chlorides
oxygen than cold water. constructed of other materials. and harmful substances like iron
Fingerlings Ð Young fish from 1 Recirculating systems Ð Tank sys- and hydrogen sulfide, also affect
inch in length up to 1 year of age. tems that rely on biofilters to quality. Water quality can change
This stage comes after the fry break down harmful fish waste quickly in fish farming situations
stage. products so water can be reused. and must be checked regularly on
Fry Ð Young fish from the time of Seine Ð A long net used to capture
hatching up to 1 inch in length. fish.
The work reported in this publication was supported in part by the Southern Regional Aquaculture Center through Grant No. 94-38500-0045 from
the United States Department of Agriculture, Cooperative States Research, Education, and Extension Service.