By CASEY SMITH – Associated Press/Report for America
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – When the drastic rise in food costs spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Andrew Caplinger struggled to find fresh catfish for his restaurants, he decided to try an “experimental” solution – growing his own.
In the coming months, Indianapolis restaurant chain Caplinger’s Fresh Catch Seafood will begin sourcing its second most popular menu item from fish ponds on its 28-acre ranch in southern Indiana. The goal is to produce up to half of the 800 to 1000 pounds of catfish fillets served in the restaurants each week.
“I’ve never done anything like this – I’ve sold dead fish all my life,” he said. “It’s hard and it can be risky. But assuming that things are going well and these fish are growing as they should, we don’t have to look at increasing our retail prices for the time being.”
It’s a move that could boost local appetites for fish, Caplinger said. But even as consumption of fish and seafood in the US increases, the number of aquaculture businesses in the Midwest is declining, and many seafood producers say they face challenges getting their products to consumers in the region.
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Midwestern states make up one-fifth of the country but contain about one-third of all U.S. farms, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
While experts argue that the region could be a strong aquaculture producer, the number of aquaculture farms in the Midwest has fallen to about 271 from 336 a decade ago.
This may be because the region has historically relied on wild-caught fish, said Amy Shambach, an aquaculture marketing associate with the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. Seafood produced in the Midwest also has to compete with cheaper, imported seafood.
“Our input costs are a little higher than other places, and that’s contributing to some of the slow growth,” Shambach said.
Stagnant fish farming in the Midwestern aquaculture industry has national implications, Shambach said. With global seafood consumption expected to grow by £100-170 billion by 2030, the growing seafood trade deficit means more fish must be farmed, opening the door for farmers in the Midwest to meet demand.
Joseph Morris, former director of the North Central Regional Aquaculture Center at Iowa State University, said growing the industry is challenging, pointing to problems with marketing, fish processing and high labor costs.
“The big hurdle to tackle – how can they economically produce a product to meet consumer needs and still stay in business?” he said. “How do you reach the growing market of people who want to eat fish?”
Mike Searcy, owner of a trout farm in Seymour, Indiana, said the state of Hoosier — one of only two in the Midwest to report a boom in farms in the past decade — does not have a central processing facility for gutting and filleting harvested fish. . He sends most of his fish to Kentucky for processing and distribution.
“We have demand from our local customers, but the biggest barrier is the lack of processing, which fills the gap between the farmer and the restaurant owner. That’s holding us back,” said Searcy, who is researching a processing facility on his own farm. † “If we compete with foreign markets and a much cheaper labor force, they can supply a fillet to the supermarkets that is a lot cheaper than what I can.”
Shambach said the lack of processing in Indiana means that only a handful of aquaculture farms in Indiana can produce for food companies. Instead, most fish farmed in the state is sold live to Asian food markets in Indianapolis, Chicago, New York City, and Toronto.
Still, Morris said, fish farmers are vying to grow their business and increase profits — which could succeed if producers can better market their fish.
“A new generation of people is eating more fish and they are asking more often, ‘Where does my food come from?’ That’s where the Midwest comes in,” Morris said.
One solution for farmers could be to recycle aquaculture systems, allowing fish and shrimp to be grown in tank-based systems. The method gives producers control over water quality – often avoiding fish disease and the need for antibiotics – and allows year-round breeding of different species in landlocked areas.
However, the method is costly and excludes many small and medium-sized farmers. Searcy, whose farm runs entirely on the technology, warned that the operation also relies entirely on electricity. Environmentalists argue that recirculating aquaculture systems require abundant water resources and express concern about waste disposal.
Tyler Isaac, aquaculture program manager for Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, said that with sustainably sourced fish feed and the right precautions, the recirculation systems could lead to more fish farms in the Midwest.
“It’s always a game of trade-offs, but in the end I think recirculation systems are a really good step forward,” Isaac said, adding that renewables would also make such operations more environmentally friendly. “Developing an aquaculture industry in a place like the Midwest is a good thing. It should only be done with appropriate safeguards.”
Morris said other emerging technologies — such as AquaBounty’s genetically modified Atlantic salmon grown in Indiana, which grow faster and are less prone to disease — could also be “very attractive to producers,” although it could take “several years” to develop. similar genetically modified fish become mainstream.
“In terms of Midwestern aquaculture in general, the growth has to come from the food fish operation. That’s where your market is — a consumer base,” Morris said. “There are only so many ponds in the Midwest, but so many fishermen. But there are consumers in the Midwest who want to eat more and more fish. That’s what we need to focus on.”
Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a national, not-for-profit service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on classified issues. Follow Smith on Twitter†
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