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Baitfish Mean Business

Down on the farm... classes of commercially farmed fish in Minnesota by weight. 2005 data.

Down on the farm... classes of commercially farmed fish in Minnesota by weight. 2005 data.

Suppose all the fish raised annually by Minnesota’s commercial fish farmers could fit on a balance scale. To achieve equilibrium, about 4,100 beef cattle (or 660,000 chickens) would need to be herded onto the opposing scalepan. Before digging out your favorite chowder recipe, however, you should be aware that over half of this cultivated fish flesh is not directly destined for the dinner table. It's destined for the business end of a fishing line.

Jeff Gunderson, Minnesota Sea Grant director and aquaculture specialist, reports that Minnesota has the largest baitfish aquaculture industry (and aquaculture industry in general) in the federally recognized jurisdiction of the North Central Regional Aquaculture Center (NCRAC), which includes 12 states from Ohio to North Dakota to Missouri. Much of this aquaculture is conducted in leased lakes or ponds connected with croplands or wetlands. About 2000 ponds are licensed for aquaculture in Minnesota, involving a total acreage of about 12 square miles (31 km2).

State-run aquaculture

Above and beyond Minnesota’s commercial aquaculture industry, the Minn. DNR raises a significant number of fish (about one-third of Minnesota’s total aquaculture production) in ponds and wetlands throughout the state. Their efforts are channeled toward raising fish for stocking (walleye, trout, and muskies) and raising prey fish in support of stocking efforts.
State and Commercial Aquaculture

1=sportsfish (90,538 lbs), 2=foodfish (MinAqua tilapia, 1,692,030 lbs), 3=baitfish (1,777,976 lbs), 4=MN DNR (1,850,000). 2005 data.

The bait swimming or wriggling about in Minnesota bait shops is either wild caught or raised in aquaculture ponds or facilities within the state. It is illegal to bring live bait over Minnesota borders without proper permits, which are exceptionally difficult to get since the fish-killing virus VHSv struck fear into the hearts of fisheries managers and anglers. Even black market bait trafficking has all but ceased because of a concern and awareness about how the virus could damage Minnesota's legendary sportsfishing opportunities. The threat of transferring the deadly virus among waterbodies also compelled the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MN-DNR) to require fish farmers to take extra precautions, which have dramatically increased the time and money required to raise baitfish.

Tighter regulations and lower returns not withstanding, aquaculture in Minnesota has a promising future. "Raising fish in northern latitudes is a unique proposition," said Gunderson. "A cold climate means fish kept outdoors struggle to make it to marketable size within a season, but the flipside is that winterkill is really helpful for purging aquaculture ponds. Winterkill removes disruptive species, like bullhead and carp, as well as 'leftovers' from the previous year's production."

Fish Farming Facts

  • Aquaculture is defined as agriculture by U.S. federal and most state governments, and must be afforded the same benefits (e.g., legal, tax advantages, building codes).
  • Fish, because no energy is needed to maintain their body temperature, require less than 2 pounds (0.9 kg) of feed per pound of live weight. Cattle require 8-10 pounds (3.6-4.5 kg). Poultry require 3 pounds (1.4 kg).
  • Despite the growth of U.S. aquaculture, the U.S. trade deficit in fisheries products is more than $9 billion per year.
  • Fish products are the largest contributor to the U.S. trade deficit among all FOOD items. The widely believed claim that fish products are the largest contributor to the trade deficit behind oil IS FALSE.
  • Catfish compose the majority of aquaculture production in the U.S. Rainbow trout is a distant second.
  • Asian carp, common carp, and tilapia represent, by weight, the most widely produced finfish species in the world.
  • China is the world's largest aquaculture producer, accounting for 61 percent of aquaculture products.

Adapted from Fisheries Technology Associates.

Winterkill depends on sustained ice and a continuous blanket of snow that will lead to lethally low levels of oxygen. With Minnesota’s winters becoming milder, Gunderson anticipates that bait and sportsfish production could likely decrease unless alternatives for killing bullhead, carp, and leftover fish are available. Assuming the MN-DNR would even sanction such an approach, applying piscicides (fish-killing chemicals like rotenone) would make live bait prohibitively expensive. NCRAC is exploring an alternative: bubbling CO2 through the pond to push its chemistry into winterkill conditions.

Gunderson says this is just one of the ways NCRAC is supporting northern aquaculture. Another way is by documenting the needs of fish farmers in the region, who, to remain solvent, are looking for ways to make more efficient use of wetland ponds. Development, habitat loss, agricultural practices, and increasingly tight regulations make aquaculture ponds more difficult to procure. Also, ponds and lakes seem to be generally producing fewer minnows, leaving markets for some species short and perplexing fish farmers who are accustomed to higher yields. Conflicts with waterfowl interests also concern the industry. Evidence suggests that ponds used for raising bait become a lot less interesting to scaup (bluebills) and mallards as zooplankton vanish into the mouths of fathead minnows.

Constructing indoor Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS) is an alternative to rearing fish exclusively in ponds and lakes. MinAqua Fisheries, a major aquaculture venture in Renville, Minnesota, uses RAS to raise tilapia (see below, Tilapia). Through NCRAC, Sea Grant has been experimentally raising baitfish at least partially in RAS conditions. Both redtail (hornyhead) chub and spotfin shiners might someday be profitably cultivated indoors, or partly indoors. Golden shiners are on that experimental list, too. But, for now, the most popular baitfish raised in Minnesota remain creatures of the great outdoors. With fathead minnows, golden shiners, and white suckers sales reports of almost $5 million*, in Minnesota, little fish are big business.

For more information about Minnesota baitfish aquaculture, visit Minnesota Sea Grant online at www.seagrant.umn.edu/aquaculture. Also, visit the North Central Regional Aquaculture Center (NCRAC) online at www.ncrac.org.

*Census of Aquaculture 2005, U.S. Department of Agriculture


Surprise! North America’s second largest tilapia-producing facility is located in Renville, Minnesota. The edible African perch need 85-degree water to survive and are vegetarians. These characteristics inspired about 300 crop farmers to buy into the MinAqua Fisheries Co-op. The aquaculture cooperative capitalizes on the heat generated by a nearby sugar beet processing plant (also a co-op) to operate the Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS) where the fish are raised. Given their minimal water consumption and waste removal methods, RAS have a smallish environmental footprint. The farm-reared tilapia eat pellets made in Minnesota with local ingredients (primarily soy meal and corn) and their waste fertilizes surrounding cropland. How eco-friendly is that?!

Mel Stocks, president of MinAqua Fisheries, said, "Like raising any other type of livestock, raising tilapia is a 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week enterprise subject to vagaries, like disease and the commodities market. It’s sophisticated and you have to do the right things every day or suffer the consequences."

Note: It’s unlikely that you’ll eat one of MinAqua’s tilapia. The Co-op sells live fish, primarily to Asian markets in Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, Chicago, and Minneapolis. The value of a dead tilapia is 40 percent lower making it difficult for MinAqua to compete with overseas fish processing facilities, which are not subject to the same FDA regulations.

By Sharon Moen
July 2010

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