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Room in the water for new farmers

April 09, 2015 1:00 am  •  Jane Fyksen Jfyksen@madison.com 715-683-2779


Say “farms” in Wisconsin and fish farms might not be the first type to come to mind.


But aquaculture in Wisconsin generates more than $21 million in economic activity annually, according to Ron Johnson, University of Wisconsin-Extension aquaculture specialist. There are about 2,800 fish farms in the state registered with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Johnson said. Somewhere between 100 and 200 are considered commercial enterprises, yet only 88 did more than $1,000 in gross sales according to the 2013 Ag Census.

Still, Johnson said, aquaculture production worldwide is the fastest-growing agricultural commodity in terms of gross dollars generated, growing at a rate of 8 percent to 10 percent annually in recent years. Wisconsin’s aquaculture industry is growing at a rate of almost 4 percent a year.

Aquaculture includes production of minnows for bait, game fish for stocking, and fish for restaurants and other consumer venues. Fish species grown include trout, walleye and saugeye, which is a hybrid between walleye and sauger. The industry is also moving to yellow perch, which is coveted for its white, flaky meat. Lake Michigan’s yellow-perch population has decreased 80 percent since 1990. As a result, in 1997 Wisconsin banned commercial fishing for yellow perch in Lake Michigan.



Aquaponics is the fastest-growing segment of aquaculture, Johnson said. That’s a combination of fish and plant production using aquaculture and hydroponics systems. Fish waste fertilizes the plants and the plants filter the water for the fish. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says aquaponics is moving from the realm of experimental to commercial, both in backyards and on fish farms. Johnson said tilapia is the primary aquaponics species used in Wisconsin, but there’s even a saltwater shrimp producer in the state now.

A new Aquaponics Innovation Center will be opening April 23 at the business campus of Nelson and Pade Inc. in Montello. Nelson and Pade is the private-industry partner for the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point’s aquaponics programs. The center covers 4,800 square feet of Nelson and Pade’s state-of-the-art , controlled-environment greenhouse facility, and is an applied-research and education center. It has replicate aquaponics-production units capable of raft or deep water, and of media and nutrient-film-technique production.


Waters open to fish opportunity

Johnson said there is huge opportunity for increased domestic production of fish. He estimated that upward of 90 percent of the fish and seafood consumed in this country is imported, with more than half the imports farm-raised. By far, China leads the world in farm-raised fish production. Other major producers are Vietnam and the Philippines.

The major hurdle to greater growth in Wisconsin’s aquaculture industry is regulation. Anyone who raises fish in a private pond for more than 30 days needs to register with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources also has regulations, requiring fish farmers to have environmental permits. The Wisconsin Agriculture Department has fish-health rules that must be followed. Johnson said fish farmers also need to be a certified food processor and obtain a food-safety certificate from the Agriculture Department if they plan to process their fish in order to sell through a Community Supported Agriculture operation, or at a farmer’s market or to restaurants. The only way certification isn’t required is to sell fish whole on ice.

Johnson said there are also major funding cuts potentially facing the industry in Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget, both for the extension’s aquaculture programming and for the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point’s Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility at Bayfield. The latter facility is performing cutting-edge production research for Wisconsin’s fish farmers, both with outdoor ponds and in recirculating indoor aquaculture. The facility has been integral to Wisconsin’s Walleye Initiative. The DNR partners with private and tribal fish farmers to further enhance the state’s walleye stocking of Wisconsin surface waters.


Learn more

There are numerous online sources to learn about aquaculture and aquaponics.

Visit www.WisconsinAquaculture.com or contact Cindy Johnson at cindy@WisconsinAquaculture.com or 814-515-2470.

Visit eatwisconsinfish.org for more information.

Contact Johnson at ron.johnson@ces.uwex.edu for extension aquaculture resources.

Visit aquaculture.uwsp.edu for more information from the university.

Visit the agriculture department at http://datcp.wi.gov/Farms/Fish_Farms/index.aspx for more information.

Visit www.aquaponics.com for more information on Nelson and Pade.Visit https://afsic.nal.usda.gov/aquaculture-and-soilless-farming/aquaponics for more information from the USDA on alternative farming techniques.


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