COLUMBUS, Ohio — When fish farming in Ohio enjoyed an upswing in interest in 2000 the timing was right for anyone with the capital and time to invest in such a lucrative business. By 2007, the same year the Fish Farmers of Ohio Assoc. was established, the word was out the market was becoming saturated.
How the market changes. According to the USDA’s Census of Aquaculture, Ohio now has 140 fish farms with annual sales of $6.6 million, compared to $1.9 million in 1997, a rise of nearly 250 percent. Employment at these Ohio fish farms more than doubled in that period, from 75 to 156 full-time operators.
Factor in a widely accepted economic multiplier of 7.5 (to account for feed mills, seafood shops, equipment suppliers and others) and the industry’s total economic impact in Ohio hits $49.5 million – up from just a little more than $14 million a decade ago.
And those numbers are on the rise. According to a recent report led by the World Resources Institute (WRI), global fish production needs to more than double by 2030 to meet the demand for it. The WRI study states the world’s oceans, lakes and rivers are fished to the limit, and encourages sustainable growth of aquaculture, or fish farms.
Dr. Laura Tiu, aquaculture extension specialist with the Ohio Center for Aquaculture Research and Development at The Ohio State University, believes there’s room for growth. She said the United States has an estimated $9 billion-$10 billion seafood deficit, importing more than it produces.
"We’re an agricultural state, and most people who are successful in aquaculture have a good understanding and experience in agriculture," Tiu explained.
Ohio has large population centers with millions of potential customers for food fish as well as for baitfish and pond stockers.
"We have state and private organizations that are willing to work together to help grow this industry," Tiu said, citing the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Ohio Department of Agriculture, Ohio Soybean Assoc. (in developing new feed based on soybeans), Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, North Central Regional Aquaculture Center, producer groups, Hocking College and OSU among them.
As demand for seafood increases worldwide, so do the number of fish farms. "It’s a relatively young industry but it grows at about 9 percent a year, and we expect to keep that growth rate going in the next couple of decades," said Mike Velings, founder of Aqua-Spark, a company that invests in sustainable aquaculture businesses.
Velings said China is the world leader in producing farmed fish. "The U.S. relies heavily on wild-caught and on imports, and only 1 percent of the world’s farming today is done in the U.S," he added.
Dave Smith, a scientist by training, and his father, Dick, an electrical engineer, established Freshwater Farms of Ohio in 1983, after acquiring a bankrupt chicken farm about 50 miles west of Columbus. Now, three generations of the Smith family in Urbana raise more than half a dozen species of fish in oxygenated troughs – or raceways – that crisscross the 300-by-40-foot barns that formerly housed squawking poultry.
Hatchlings dart back and forth in bubbling tanks ranging in size from 700-15,000 gallons. Freshwater Farms is the largest indoor aquaculture operation in the state, producing up to 100,000 pounds of fish annually. The Champaign County business supplies several area restaurants and sells fresh, frozen and smoked fillets at an on-site retail store.
"We’ve had a lot of good support from Ohio State," Dave Smith said. "The extension program there has really helped show people how to do it."