Wisconsin's fish farms grow to meet product demand

Wisconsin State Roundup

Published July 1, 1998  | July 1998 issue

Aquaculture is the fastest growing segment of the U.S. agriculture industry, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture—a trend supported by a recent survey of Wisconsin aquaculture businesses.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, which conducted the survey, 1997 gross sales of food, game and bait fish sold by Wisconsin fish farms totaled more than $9.7 million, an 11 percent increase from 1994, when the last survey was taken. The 319 surveyed businesses project a 64 percent increase in sales, to nearly $16 million, over the next five years for all aquaculture products.

While the entire industry is growing, the most dramatic increase is in food fish, which is fish raised for sale to restaurants and retailers, and which posted gross sales of nearly $4 million in 1997. This segment of the market anticipates an 82 percent increase in sales over the next five years, according to Ed Lippert, the Department of Agriculture's survey coordinator.

Growing in popularity are panfish, mainly yellow perch and bluegills; nearly 61 percent of farms reported raising a species of panfish, more than any other category. And with a ban on commercially fished yellow perch in Lake Michigan, the demand for farm-raised perch is expected to increase. Most restaurants currently import perch from the Canadian side of Lake Erie for the state's traditional Friday night fish fries. But Lippert says Wisconsin fish farmers can now compete by raising perch in indoor tanks year-round using new filter technologies.

Erwin Sholts, director of agriculture development and coordinator of aquaculture development for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, predicts nothing but increased demand, and hence continued growth, for aquaculture products as the world's commercial fisheries continue to decline. He cites the case of a Milwaukee exporter who recently tried to locate large quantities of fish to ship to South America and Europe. "It's truly a global market," Sholts says.

Ruby Kettula of Seven Pines Fishery in Lewis, Wis., which primarily sells live trout for stocking, says there is a growing demand for farm-raised fish in the Midwest with wild fish harvests down. "We can't compete with Western states like Idaho," but she adds that Wisconsin ranks 16th in U.S. production of rainbow and brook trout, which also account for 52 percent of fish raised in the state.

In addition to food fish, Wisconsin aquaculture includes fish raised for stocking, aquatic plant firms that supply aquariums and museums ($1 million in sales annually), and a $35 million bait industry, which is also growing rapidly, says Sholts. The total value of the state's aquaculture products sold in Wisconsin and exported in 1997 reached $45.7 million. All told, Wisconsin claims about 330 licensed commercial aquaculture operations.

"There's potential for more growth if we can get along with the Department of Natural Resources on water issues," says Kettula, who is also executive secretary of the 200-member Wisconsin Aquaculture Association. "We're blessed with a lot of water in Wisconsin, and if we're not held back [by regulations] aquaculture is the wave of the future."

Kathy Cobb