University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point: Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility Manager Greg Fischer has a passion for all types of fish but confesses a special affinity for the lake sturgeon. Credit: Contributed Photo
Beginning in February, Sea Grant plans to undertake a formal relationship with the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point: Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility (UWSP-NADF) to enhance technology transfer and the sharing of aquaculture knowledge with Wisconsin’s would-be and current fish farmers.
Sea Grant would provide funding for the facility based in Red Cliff at the northernmost tip of Wisconsin near Lake Superior. In return, Sea Grant will be directly dialed in to the UWSP-NADF’s innovative work to optimize the health and growth potential for fish species such as hybrid walleye and sauger, known as saugeye; lake trout; lake herring; Arctic char; yellow perch; and Atlantic salmon. It’s all in pursuit of a robust commercial aquaculture industry in the state.
Prof. Chris Hartleb said he doesn’t particularly like to highlight a negative but it is a fact: “One of the criticisms we hear about the UWSP-NADF is that it’s as far north in the state as you can go.” That balances with the fact that there are wonderful demonstration projects underway and learning opportunities abound. However, those in the aquaculture industry face travel challenges when trying to access the projects and learning.
Hartleb said the new relationship with Sea Grant will help. Given new funding expected to come through in early 2014, the UWSP-NADF will be able to more easily spread the word and strengthen the state’s diverse
There are one- to two-week training modules for aquaculturists to work alongside the UWSP-NADF staff to learn the engineering systems and fish biology.Credit: Contributed Photo
The UWSP-NADF in Bayfield County is co-directed by Hartleb and his colleague Dr. Matt Rogge of the College of Letters and Science at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Despite its far-flung location, the facility is a part of the school located in the central part of the state.
Greg Fischer is the facility’s manager. He chuckled as he recounted past phone conversations with campus colleagues. “I’ll be on the phone and the person will say, ‘Can we meet? Can you come to my office’?” not realizing that Fischer is more than 200 miles away.
But distance doesn’t hinder productivity or passion. “We take a lot of pride in what we are doing,” Fischer said.
And, just what is it that three full-time people, plus two part-time employees, are doing at the $5 million facility?
Hartleb said many aquaculture demonstration facilities work with one, maybe two systems. At the UWSP-NADF, it’s all of them—recirculating systems, ponds, raceways and even, increasingly, aquaponics. Plus, there are Bell jar and Heath tray incubation set-ups and a water-quality testing lab.
Then, there’s the fish. “A real interesting and real exciting project we are working on is saugeye. It’s work that is really starting to take off,” Fischer said. “It just seems to fit so well in the Midwest.”
Like walleye, the sauger
is a member of the perch family. Interbreeding can occur where the walleye and sauger exist together, resulting in fish known as saugeyes or hybrid walleyes.
Lake herring are one of the cool- and cold-water species the facility raises, along with saugeye, Arctic char, Atlantic salmon, lake trout and yellow perch. Credit: Contributed Photo
The saugeye project is based on seven years of work raising the fish in an indoor recirculating system where they can bring the fish to market size—about a pound—growing four times as fast as yellow perch. Encouragingly, Fischer and his staff have been able to get the saugeyes onto formulated feed from the larval stage. No one else has been able to do that. The UWSP-NADF crew and Hartleb plan to replicate the feed training and hope to publish results in a year or so.
Fischer stressed that the walleye work is significant because, “I don’t think the current world market can sustain the demand for walleye. We have a market for walleye and we want to feed it.”
Virtually all of the walleye consumed in the U.S. is imported from Canada where the fish are commercially harvested from wild fisheries. Walleye are considered a high valued species, with retail prices up to $18 a pound for skin-on fillets.
Innovations with saugeyes—refining out-of-season spawning, as well as larval feed-training, stocking densities and system engineering and water quality—are a marquee effort for the facility. Outreach and training are other activities. The UWSP-NADF hosts several tours a week with participants coming from nearby locations as well as from across the country and even overseas.
In addition, there are one- to two-week training modules for aquaculturists to work alongside the UWSP-NADF staff to learn the engineering systems and fish biology. “They get wet. They get dirty. They clean the tanks. They take it all home with them. We’ve been doing that for free, developing modules and we want to get more folks involved,” Fischer said.
The UWSP-NADF coordinates an annual workshop with the Wisconsin Aquaculture Association that attracts 70 to 100 people. On top of those training and hands-on activities, Fischer, Hartleb and Rogge publish in peer-reviewed journals as another method to share the learning.
It’s all in pursuit of success. Fischer said “The things we have seen in Wisconsin that are the failures are because of an incorrect aquaculture system. We want people to see that when you put in good systems and hire good people you will be successful.”
Hartleb weighed in: “Wisconsin’s aquaculture industry is rather stagnant. About as many new people come in as go out in a year. So in that regard, there is a real potential to grow.”
He said the UWSP-NADF can help solve problems or try new things on behalf of the industry. And, he said it’s an industry that is “amazingly diverse.” Hartleb said Wisconsin’s aquaculturists embrace cold-, cool- and now warm-water species (using aquaponics). He said you go to the South and it’s all catfish. In the West, it’s Pacific salmon. One of Wisconsin’s strengths is its varied species and varied operations.
Successful operations also require an understanding of marketing, about which Fischer commented, “You can raise as many fish as you want but if you can’t sell them or sell them at the right price, you shouldn’t be doing this.”
He can point to tanks full of Arctic char at the UWSP-NADF. A private firm, AquaTerra, funded research on the pink-colored fish similar to salmon. The firm is now setting up a production facility of its own in Kenosha, Wis. Company officials plan to sell the fish to restaurants, where it fetches as high as $27 a plate. AquaTerra’s officials shared the marketing ins and outs necessary to command that kind of a price with Fisher. He, in turn, can now share that wisdom with aquaculture brethren.
Fischer also has a commitment to training the next generation of aquaculturists. “That’s been really gratifying. We’re pretty proud of them,” he said of the dozens of high school and college undergraduates who have spent time at the UWSP-NADF or whom the UWSP-NADF has placed at private aquaculture facilities around the state to foster their skills and eventual marketability in the industry.
Those on-farm placements also help overcome the distance to the Red Cliff facility, moving information and expertise throughout the broad sweep of the state.
About the students, Fischer said he, “Starts them young and hooks them.” In particular, he proudly recalls one young man who started while in high school, developed a career in natural resources and is now working as a biologist for the Red Cliff Tribe.
As for the college students, the training is unique. The UWSP-NADF has developed an aquaculture minor that is administrated through UW-Stevens Point’s Department of Biology. This minor is the only undergraduate aquaculture education program in the state and is one of only a select few in the country.
There is a consistent annual enrollment in the minor of approximately 14 students.
These students are highly recruited by graduate programs and businesses throughout the U.S. with nearly a 100 percent employment and graduate program enrollment rate.
Fischer and Hartleb can relate to those students and their early-career interest in fish. Fischer said he has always been involved in wildlife management, tracking grey owls, managing the Red Cliff Tribe’s resources and now the UWSP-NADF, a facility he helped engineer and construct. He’s got 25 years of fish experience under his belt and has worked with 20 species. His favorite? The charismatic lake sturgeon.
For his part, Hartleb has some top-notch academic training from the University of New Hampshire and the University of Maine’s Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research. In the face of all that time in labs and in the field he has remained faithful to his “first love, the brook trout. It’s just a beautiful fish.”