BOWLING GREEN, Ohio — Most Ohioans know how to catch a fish. A line and reel, a bobber, a farm pond and a bucket full of night crawlers or crawdads and even the novice can be successful.
But a growing industry in the state promises to produce as many or more fish than can be caught, and there’s nothing fishy about what local experts say it could bring to Ohio’s economy and agribusinesses.
Aquaculture — the rearing of aquatic organisms such as fish, mollusks, crustaceans, reptiles and plants — has grown over the past 40 years by nearly 9 percent each year.
Demand is so great, and natural fish supplies limited, that aquaculture now accounts for 50 percent of marketed fish. Next to oil, seafood represents the nation’s second highest deficit, at $9 billion.
And with world population increasing, so, too, is the demand for aquaculture and fish protein. Globally, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization projects fish consumption to rise from 97.2 million metric tons this year, to nearly 115 million by 2025.
In Bowling Green, Ohio, Shawn McWhorter is studying new kinds of baitfish and developing the best ways they can be produced. An aquaculture specialist for Ohio State University, he operates the university’s Bowling Green Aquaculture Satellite Center.
Tank upon plastic tank is filled with fish in different stages of development. Currently, he’s working with the baitfish “spotfin shiner,” a hardy choice that withstands transportation and produces two-thirds of its body weight a year in eggs, a lot for an animal specie.
Spotfins are popular among fisherman, but are in too short a supply to be collected from natural bodies of water.
McWhorter is not in it for profit; instead, he’s trying to develop new methods that can be shared with other producers.
Sharing the word. “We try to hand off the technology that we discover and put it into terms that the producer can use,” he said.
Aquaculture is still in the “log-cabin era” as an industry, but with lots of frontier to claim, he said.
On a recent visit to the Bowling Green facility, Tony Forshey, state veterinarian with Ohio Department of Agriculture, said Ohio fish is “at the infantile stage, but with huge potential.”
The industry will know more following a feasibility study being conducted at OSU’s Piketon Center, which will help determine a strategic plan for the state, and identify any necessary infrastructure.
Already, Ohio has more than 200 fish farms. Sales in 2007 were reported at $6.6 million, up from $3.18 million in 2005. But those numbers still aren’t good enough for a state that has so many resources — clay soils, good groundwater and close proximity to lakes and population centers.
“Our goal is to be No. 1 in the country in production,” Forshey said.
It’s unclear just yet, what kind of production will be needed to make Ohio the nation’s forefront in fish. But the state is already first in bluegill production, and fourth in perch.
“We’re already on our way, we just got to keep rolling,” Forshey said.
Ohio will need dependable infrastructure for marketing fish, he said, and the ability to produce a “consistent, constant product” for retailers.
Walking around the various tanks of fish, McWhorter discusses them like they are part of his family. He’s been billed “the fish guy” by some of his colleagues and he feeds and monitors fish daily.
He spends hours reading fish books several inches thick, learning of new tips for producers. He’s even invented a few devices along the way, one being used for the fish to lay their tiny eggs.
With a microscope attached to a computer monitor, he shows what 10,000 fish eggs look like, in a sample no bigger than a dime. It’s a small sample of an industry that could grow to be very big.
McWhorter is one of several researchers working to develop alternative fish feeds, including soybean feeds that would provide more market for Ohio and U.S. soybean growers.
With all the work being done, Ohioans have the opportunity to “close the loop” on the fish industry, building what he calls a “pyramid of economic impact.”
That “pyramid” includes increased soybean demand, increases in fish production and sales, as well as fish-related equipment and education.
Forshey said aquaculture is appropriately included in the state’s definition of agriculture, and fish should be considered a potentially profitable commodity.
Growers can raise fish at many levels, he said, but if the industry is to take flight, it must be considered a way of farming.
“There’s always going to be a place for that niche market deal, but if we really want (aquaculture) to move forward, then we’ve got to make it look like traditional agriculture for the existing agribusinesses,” he said.
ODA’s responsibility, he said, is to make people see “this is real agriculture.”
(To see the sidebar to this story, which examines the practicality of fish farming, read Does fish farming make sense for you. Next week’s edition will feature two stories about fish entrepreneurs in in northcentral Ohio.)