State’s aquaculture industry must diversify, researcher says

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota’s fledgling aquaculture industry must expand beyond tilapia if it’s going to become a viable enterprise, a North Dakota State University researcher says.
“I’m suspecting that within three to five years the market will demand the diversification,” said Mark Sheridan, a professor of zoology. “You’ll start to see that raising a single species is not economically feasible.”
Mark Willows, a Binford fish farmer and marketing director for the North American Fish Farmers Cooperative, agrees.
“In the near future, tilapia is going to become a commodity, the same as wheat and barley,” he said. “It’s going to be the thing everybody is raising, and of course the price will reflect that.
“I think small farms need to look at higher-value species.”
The problem, Willows said, is that there isn’t enough research on raising other fish. The reason fish farmers go with tilapia, a tropical perch species, is because “they’re pretty easy to raise as far as keeping them alive,” he said.
Sheridan has gotten a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to evaluate how hormones control the growth of rainbow trout and salmon. His goal is to make aquaculture more cost-effective by reducing the amount of time fish have to be fed.
Sheridan said the results will be applicable to tilapia, but he hopes the main benefit from the work will be an enhanced regional production of the higher-value species.
“The most efficient, most profitable operations are going to be those that (have) diverse kinds of species,” he said.
The North American Fish Farmers Cooperative has members in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa and Manitoba. Willows said tilapia production has increased from 20,000 pounds in 1994, the first year of the co-op, to an anticipated 1 million pounds this year. The projection for 1999 is 3 million pounds, he said.
The increase is mainly because of new members beginning production, a trend that could slow in coming years, Williams said.
“It just depends on how the research turns out on some of the new species,” he said. “Profitability dictates what’s going to happen. If they can determine a species that’s going to make some pretty good money, then I think some others are going to come on line.
“If it stays just with tilapia, I don’t think it’s going to grow that fast.”
North Dakota has five tilapia-producing facilities — in Binford, Kulm, Williston, Beulah and Lakota.