Researchers Hope to Foster Fish Farming in Georgia

Fort Valley State University aquaculture specialist Pat Duncan says fish harvesting from the oceans is at a maximum and fisheries that are depleted are unlikely to recover.

FORT VALLEY, Ga. — The gurgling tanks in Pat Duncan's greenhouses are filled with colorful fish and lush water hyacinths. Nearby, herbs are growing, sustained by the tanks' nutrient-laden water.

Duncan is an aquaculture specialist and hopes her fish production research at Fort Valley State University will provide Georgia farmers with an alternate source of income. And with the latest compact recirculating systems costing as $1,000 to $2,000, fish farming can be an option for just about anyone, from Atlanta condo dwellers to plantation owners.

"We're here to help Georgians with any type of aquacultural systems they set up, whether it's in ponds, raceways, recirculating systems or in cages," Duncan said.

Duncan's push for aquaculture comes at a time when demand for fresh and saltwater shrimp, catfish and tilapia, all of which can be produced in Georgia, has been increasing. U.S. seafood consumption climbed three straight years before hitting a record 4.8 billion pounds in 2004, the latest year for which government statistics are available.

"Aquaculture is a viable alternative type of agriculture," Duncan said. "There's no doubt there will be an increasing demand for seafood now and in the future."

Duncan said fish harvesting from the oceans is at a maximum and fisheries that are depleted are unlikely to recover.

"So with the growing demand and population growth, farmers will have to fill the gap," Duncan said. "This gives them opportunity."

Georgia has lagged behind Mississippi, Alabama and Florida in fish farming, but still manages to rank among the top 10 or 11 states in production.

Duncan, who has worked in five other Southern states, said some states have made a stronger commitment to the industry. Despite this, Georgia still has some successful fish farmers.

Gary Burtle, a University of Georgia aquaculture expert, said the successful ones just don't make headlines like those who fail.

"You hear about the guy who went in in a big way and failed," Burtle said. "But you don't hear about the guy who is producing, who has his market problems solved and who has sent his kids to college."

Marketing is critical, Duncan said, adding that prospective fish farmers need to line up buyers before they produce a single fish. Duncan said, "I tell people to be careful."

Duncan hosted a conference Tuesday, focusing on research with recirculating systems at Fort Valley State, the institution designated by the governor as Georgia's Center for Aquaculture Development. Burtle also spoke there.

Duncan's greenhouses hold about a dozen recirculating systems, allowing her to raise tilapia, catfish, freshwater shrimp known as prawns and other species.

The systems have some of the same components as aquariums, only on a larger scale. The water constantly circulates through filters that clean it while pumps maintain healthy oxygen levels.

Duncan grows water hyacinths on the water's surface to remove nitrogen, and has hydroponic herb gardens nearby with dill, parsley and basil nourished by nutrients from the fish tanks.

The tanks can range in size from a motel swimming pool to a child's wading pool, but three or four feet deep. And while a low-end system might cost as little as $1,000, larger ones can run $100,000 to $200,000, Duncan said.

Ed Pate, 48, a substitute letter carrier in southwest Georgia's Randolph County, attended the conference. He said he learned about aquaculture at a farm show last summer and has been interested in producing catfish and trout ever since.

"I've got a friend who raises shrimp," he said. "Everybody likes seafood and fish. I wonder if it's feasible to produce them."

Source: Associated Press

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