Tim Ohlrich scoops up fathead minnows at the Fin Farm fish hatchery in Napoleon, Ohio.
It's not personal, but when ducks and geese show up at Remlinger Fish Farm in Kalida, Ohio, co-owner Mark Remlinger uses loud noises to quickly scare them off.
As operator of a private fish hatchery -- a small but key niche in Ohio's budding aquaculture industry -- Mr. Remlinger doesn't want a bird-friendly place where any fowl, especially predators such as blue herons and kingfishers, can come dine on his crop of young fish.
The Putnam County fish farm is one of four private hatcheries in northwest Ohio and among 20 to 25 statewide.
Exact counts are hard to come by because not all such businesses buy state permits. The Ohio Aquaculture Association uses figures based on its membership, but the number could be higher.
Only a small portion of Ohio's estimated 200 fish farms hatch their own fish. And those that operate hatcheries don't do so exclusively. They hatch a few species, primarily yellow perch and bluegill, then get fingerlings of fish such as largemouth bass, catfish, and trout, from hatcheries in other states.
Laura Tiu, an aquaculture specialist with the Ohio State University extension service, said most of Ohio's hatching is the yellow perch species because the state has become proficient at developing spawning techniques for the species.
Ohio's fish farming industry has 140 aquaculture farms with total sales of $6.6 million, according to 2007 census statistics, the last available. The hatchery niche is part of that but there are no dollar estimates.
Customers Kylee Taylor, 13, and her father, Mack Taylor, of Swanton, examine fish inside the Fin Farm fish hatchery in Napoleon, Ohio.
Opportunities for hatchery growth are limited because Ohio -- unlike other states that purchase fish for public uses from private hatcheries -- does not permit fish from private hatcheries to be used for public waterways.
Ohio owns and operates six hatcheries -- including one in Castalia in Erie County that is undergoing a new $5 million expansion and will reopen in September -- that produce 23 million fish annually to resupply Lake Erie and the state's rivers. The state spends about $700,000 annually on equipment and supplies to grow its fish, a state official said.
"On our end of things, we're more concerned about providing sport fishing and reintroducing threatened or endangered species back into the wild," said Tim Parrett, administrator for the state Department of Natural Resource's fish hatchery program.
"The private aquaculture industry is more of a segment for providing sport fish for private waters and they are more into the food thing."
Efforts are under way to help expand the private hatchery niche with new university-sponsored research on a small fish, the spotfin shiner, for bait. Also, efforts are increasing to sell perch, bluegill, and other species to food processors, restaurants, and the retail fresh fish market in several major cities.
"Food fish, I think that's where the growth is at," said Bob Hesterman, owner of Fin Farm LLC, a 15-acre, 20-pond operation in Ridgeville Corners in Henry County.
But the annual crop at the farm that Mr. Hesterman began in 1986 is mainly fingerlings, including largemouth bass, bluegill, and yellow perch that are sold to sportsmen's clubs and to those stocking private ponds and lakes.
"Primarily, it's a cash-and-carry business. But for larger orders we have hauling tanks," he said.
Air bubbles are added to a bag of newly purchased minnows to help them survive the trip home from the Fin Farm.
At Remlinger's, a 30-pond operation begun in 1989 by Mr. Remlinger's late father, Carl, some of the crop is for pond stock, and a small percentage is for human food.
"We contract with truck drivers who haul them to Toronto for the Chinatown market. There's a big demand there for live fresh fish," Mr. Remlinger said.
Bob Calala, of Calala's Water Haven Inc., who is president of the Ohio Aquaculture Association, said, "The largemouth bass is sold to food markets in Toronto, Chicago, New York, and Atlanta, while the yellow perch is usually processed here in Ohio and typically sold here."
His family has been fish-farming for 50 years, and he owns a 132-acre fish farm in New London in southeast Huron County.
"You'll find the hybrid bluegill in local markets and restaurants. You've gotta feed people, and fish as a source of protein is growing in demand."
The country spends $10 billion on seafood from overseas, he added.
Most of what private hatcheries produce ends up in Ohio's privately owned ponds and lakes, but the food fish usually goes out of state, he said. If better markets could be found in Ohio, production could really take off, Mr. Calala said.
Mr. Parrett, the state hatchery official, said that because both the private and public hatchery sectors promote sport fishing, there is a point where they intersect: fish bait.
Fin Farm raises fish in 20 ponds, including this one, on its 15 acres in Ridgeville Corners.
The state's wild fish such as walleye and muskie love live bait, and efforts directed at the spotfin shiner look promising. The research is being pioneered at OSU's Bowling Green Aquaculture Center, at the Agricultural Incubation Center on Middleton Pike.
"We would have a huge market on Lake Erie. All types of bait are worth $20 million, but we've traditionally produced very little [bait fish], so that's why we're working on that now," said Shawn McWhorter, a research associate and aquaculture specialist at the Bowling Green center.
Mr. McWhorter said most live bait comes to Ohio from other states. If a suitable bait fish such as the spotfin shiner could be mass-produced at private hatcheries in Ohio, it would cut transportation costs and help state fish farmers flourish.
Thus far, about six private hatcheries, including Woodside Farms Inc., a fish-farm operation in Bellevue in Sandusky County, are attempting to spawn spotfin shiners.
Mr. Calala said that between the spotfin shiner and a new black fly larva to feed fingerlings, the future for hatcheries looks promising.
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