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U.S. aquaculture farms struggle to stay afloat

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Because of rising production costs, Steve Kahrs is converting some of his catfish acreage at Osage Catfisheries to other species for 2013. (Kristofor Husted for Harvest Public Media)
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Kristofor Husted is a reporter for KBIA in Columbia, Mo.

At Osage Catfisheries, about one mile off the highway in rural, central Missouri, sit dozens of rectangular ponds with rounded corners. Some of them are empty, some have water, but not one is completely full.

Co-owner Steve Kahrs dons a pair of shorts on an unusually warm December day and surveys his ponds. Today, the water is fairly still with a few ripples from the warm breeze. He stands in front of one pond filled with catfish about 8 to 12 inches long. He points to the dirty rings circling up a white PVC pipe for about a foot before it becomes white again. 

“They’re out of the water a ways,” he said. “Our average depth is still about 5 feet. But we’re a good 10 or 12 inches down of where we’d keep it.”

This year’s drought delivered a pricey punch to U.S. aquaculture, the business of raising fish like bass and catfish for food. Worldwide, aquaculture has grown into a $119 billion industry, but the lack of water and high temperatures in 2012 hurt many U.S. fish farmers like Kahrs who were already struggling to compete on a global scale.

“We did fall short on our production numbers that we wanted,” he said.

The dry conditions and high temperatures forced many fish farmers in the U.S. to dig deep to keep their fish healthy and hungry. For Kahrs, that meant paying for more energy to pump clean, cool water out of his wells and into the ponds around the clock.

“We probably chewed through about 30 percent more of our power than we did the year before, and the year before was not that good,” he said.

It wasn’t just the water levels. The soaring temperatures in the summer turned up the burner on the ponds. When that happens, oxygen levels in the water drop and a fish’s metabolism slows down. To counteract this, Kahrs said, he was pumping water nearly every day from April through September.

Farmers also saw the price of fish feed shoot up because it contains soybean and corn, which underperformed this year because of the drought.

John Hargreaves, a former aquaculture professor at Mississippi State University who now consults for global aquaculture development projects, said acreage of catfish ponds have dropped considerably since the early 2000s. The rising production costs of fish farming, erratic weather and a less expensive type of catfish from Asia have all hurt the catfish industry in the U.S. — essentially cutting it in half.

“Production is down and one of the big drivers for that was the increase in imports of pangasius catfish from Vietnam, China and so forth,” he says. “Those imports have substituted for domestic catfish.”

In 2010 alone, 20 percent of U.S. catfish farms shut down.

So what can fish farmers do to survive the stiff competition and spells of inhospitable weather? Some researchers have been looking into modifying the pond system to make it more energy efficient. Others are experimentingwith new feed recipes requiring less expensive ingredients. But, Hargreaves said, even that might be not enough to save this domestic industry.

“There’s no silver bullet or game changer. That’s for certain,” he said.

In the meantime, Kahrs plans to repurpose at least 20 acres of catfish ponds to raise other species, like paddlefish and bass. He hopes they’ll be more lucrative. But most of all he’s hoping for a solid snowpack this winter and lots of rain in the spring.