Half of U.S. farmed fish production is catfish.
By Shawn Williamson
If you’re not in the business of aquaculture, you probably don’t think about it much.
However, every day there are more people entering this booming business around the world. During the last 30 years, the aquaculture portion of fish production has increased from less than 10% of total production to about 50% today. Even per capita fish consumption has increased rapidly – from about 20 pounds per year in 1961 to about 45 pounds today.
Now fish accounts for about 17% of all animal protein consumed by the global population. A lot of people hope that aquaculture will be one of the key components to feeding the rapidly growing world population.
Over the last 60 years, total arable land worldwide has barely budged. According to the World Bank, it has moved from 9.7% up to 11% of total land area. However, during that same time frame, the global population has increased from about 3 billion to over 7.5 billion people. That’s a 13% arable land increase to meet a 150% population increase.
Farmers worldwide have been able to keep up with the population growth, step for step, by way of productivity gains.
Can that continue? Hard to say in the face of fertilizer runoff laws, suburban residential development, anti-GMO sentiment in certain countries, pollinator stress, competition for irrigation water, and other potential headwinds.
My opinion is that we’ll need both continuing agriculture productivity gains and rapidly expanding fish farms to feed 8, 9, or 10 billion people.
Recently, I spoke with Steven Hedlund, communications manager for the Global Aquaculture Alliance, which is a trade organization that establishes best practice standards.
We discussed the particulars of establishing and running an aquaculture operation. How much labor is involved? According to Hedlund, oyster and clam operations take the least amount of labor – perhaps just a few people. Fin-fish, like tilapia and trout, are much more intense. Surprisingly, half of U.S. farmed fish production is catfish, and you can raise them in many states, even cold places like Wisconsin.
Per Hedlund, 50% of the cost of a fish operation is fish food, which consists mostly of fish meal and soybean meal. When I heard “soybean meal,” I started thinking about vertical integration and economies of scale for soybean farmers.
However, says Hedlund, very few traditional American row crop farmers are involved in aquaculture. He says it’s more common in Asia, especially India, Thailand, and Indonesia. Some of those operators will have agriculture and aquaculture production and even fish processing facilities.
No one that he has heard of is doing the full vertical integration loop, which would mean growing soybeans, processing soy meal, using it in fish food production, growing fish, processing fish, and reclaiming the unused fish parts (fish meal) back into the fish food processing plant.
The cost to get started in aquaculture varies quite a bit depending on what species of fish you are trying to grow and whether it’s a low-level or more intense operation.
Start-up costs can run as little as $100,000 or over $1 million. You can establish a raceway on just a few acres if you have access to a small river and the right to divert some of it. A raceway is what they call a long, slender fish growing pond, and it can be concrete or dirt-lined. The river diversion is to keep fresh water running through the raceways for the health of the fish.
The U.S. is still a small player in aquaculture worldwide, says Hedlund, so there is plenty of room for U.S. expansion – if you’re interested. Even if you’re not interested, it’s good to keep up with what’s going on in the rest of the global food supply chain.