Fish farming is gaining ground in Iowa

Fish farming is gaining ground in Iowa

Aquaculture research and outreach at Iowa State University is evolving with this new developing industry.

For the aquaculture research center at Iowa State University, just keeping up with the current isn't an option.  If the North Central Regional Aquaculture Center (NCRAC) does its job right, it has to stay on top of emerging trends in the industry and identify research questions that will help the industry progress. Floating merrily along with the current won't get the job done.

"Aquaculture in the Midwest has grown and matured in recent years," observes Joseph Morris, professor of natural resource ecology and management and the director of the ISU center at Ames. "At the same time, people are eating more fish, and there's a growing acceptance of fish as a source of healthy protein."

CORN, SOYBEANS, FISH: Fish farming is Iowa's newest ag enterprise. A report by USDA on the number of fish farms in Iowa shows they jumped from 21 in 2005 to 31 in 2013. Several more were built in 2014 and are planned to be completed in 2015.

USDA Midwest regional aquaculture center is at Iowa State
A USDA report on the aquaculture industry released last year showed that the number of fish farms in Iowa jumped from 21 in 2005 to 31 in 2013. Sales generated by Iowa fish farms totaled around $1.47 million in 2005 and grew to $2.81 million in 2013, according to the report.

And it's the North Central Regional Aquaculture Center's mission to stay on top of the trends and provide the research and outreach necessary to keep the progress coming.

The center is one of five regional aquaculture centers established by Congress and administered by USDA. The center gathers input from the aquaculture industry in 12 Midwestern states and directs federal funds to research and extension projects that advance the industry's needs in partnership with regional university and governmental partners. The center, based at Iowa State since 2012, will host its annual meeting in late February amid what Morris calls a continued focus on those research and extension projects that can best support the industry.

Producers are getting the fish farming business figured out
Unlike pork, beef or poultry production, Morris says many basic questions about aquaculture remained unanswered as recently as 20 years ago. In those days, an aquaculture firm's primary focus was figuring out how to keep fish alive, the consequence of a limited understanding of how to systematically produce fish for mass consumption.

Producers have gotten a better feel for production methods since then, he says, so they can now devote more of their time and resources to other concerns like marketing and distribution. Producers are using social networks and advanced data management to identify and reach new customers. It's a trend that Morris says the center is working to advance.  

One of the center's biggest challenges is dealing with the sheer diversity of aquaculture in the 12 states under its jurisdiction, everything from perch and walleye to sunfish and bass. "There's a lot of interest in aquaculture from a lot of angles right now," he says. "We've got to make sure we're aligning research and outreach projects with what the industry needs to be successful."

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