Moving and shaping the ‘aqua’ field
Worldwide, raising fish as food for humans ranks third among farm industries, behind poultry and swine but ahead of cows. Yet in the United States, fish ranks a distant fourth. There are a number of reasons why:
Someone hungry for fish can catch one themselves – not possible with chickens, pigs or cows.
Seafood is seen by many as a luxury delicacy, one reserved for special occasions.
“Seafood” itself is a vast, diverse food category – it is difficult to create a comprehensive marketing campaign for salmon, catfish, clams, lobster, shrimp, etc.
Despite all of that, seafood has a lot going for it, including lower production costs and less saturated fat than other sources of protein. The commercial culture of food-fish (aquaculture) is less mature than its rivals, which has led to an estimated 15 percent industry growth rate during the past two decades.
At the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, a number of developments have emerged to perpetuate this trend. Under the leadership of Professor of Biology Chris Hartleb, the university is uniquely positioned to lead aquaculture research and business development.
On campus, about 17 students are typically enrolled in the aquaculture minor. Upon graduation nearly all of these students find work in the fisheries/aquaculture world or enroll in graduate programs that actively seek out UW-Stevens Point students. This year, the university will offer a certificate program in aquaponics (integrated soilless fish and plant production) aimed at better training personnel for this growing industry. The university is believed to be unique in offering a semester-long aquaponics course at an accredited institution.
Off campus, the Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility (NADF) in Bayfield, Wis., nears its 10th year as part of UW-Stevens Point and continues to gather outside interest and funding for research projects focusing on cold weather fish farming.
“Most other states don’t have to deal with tough winter conditions, a northern climate where you basically have to deal with six months of winter,” said Hartleb. “We partner with industry, and are contacted to co-administer projects by other universities who say, ‘You guys really do have strange weather up there.’”
To assist NADF facility manager Greg Fisher, Emma Wiermaa has been hired as a part-time outreach specialist. Her position, funded by the Sea Grant Institute, was created to help spread the word about NADF’s work, from visitors to the Bayfield facility to conferences around the state.
“It’s incredibly unique that a liberal arts undergraduate university has one of the very few research stations on aquaculture in the country,” said Hartleb.
More recently, UW-Stevens Point has taken a leadership role in aquaponics. It stems from Hartleb’s interaction with Rebecca Nelson and John Pade, Montello entrepreneurs who operate an eponymous aquaponics business. The couple identified the lack of college-trained personnel as an obstacle to aquaponics’ growth, and worked with Hartleb and continuing education program manager Julie Hellweg to create an online course on the subject. Twenty-six students from UW-Stevens Point and around North America signed up for the first class. Enrollment expanded to 47 students in the second year, 56 students in the third.
In June 2013 UW-Stevens Point hosted the first International Aquaponics Society Conference. The conference drew 144 participants from nine countries and was a resounding success. It also saw the establishment and first meeting of the International Aquaponics Society, established by the UWSP Foundation.
“It was one of the best conferences I’ve attended in my life, full of energy, people with all sorts of questions and ideas,” said Hartleb. “One of the things to come out of the conference was if there isn’t scientifically conducted research going on in aquaponics, it’s going to stall at some point.”
Beginning this fall, this research will take place in Montello at Nelson and Pade’s new 15,000-square foot facility. Part of the facility will be a 5,000-square foot Aquaponics Innovation Center, funded by a $677,500 state economic development incentive grant. The AIC will be part of an effort to establish a track record for people interested in joining this burgeoning industry.
“This economic development grant is an opportunity to take this to the next level,” said Hartleb.