WisconsinAquaculture.com - Fish farmers produce more cool-water species  Focus on walleye, perch and bluegill
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Fish farmers produce more cool-water species Focus on walleye, perch and bluegill

Dan Hansen, Correspondent, Wisconsin State Farmer

MARSHFIELD   Members of the Wisconsin Aquaculture Association and others engaged in the state’s fish production have a long and successful history in raising trout and other cold-water species.

Now, thanks to a new initiative designed to bring more walleyes to Wisconsin’s waters, there’s a renewed emphasis on several cool-water species.

The Wisconsin Walleye Initiative was developed by the Department of Natural Resources and the Governor’s office to increase the number of walleyes in state waters by expanding production of large fingerling walleyes (6-8 inches) at state, private and tribal fish hatcheries for stocking in waters accessible to the public. 

Now in its second year, this historic investment in Wisconsin’s walleye fishery is benefitting all users and Wisconsin’s angling related economy, according to Dave Gollon, president of Gollon Bait and Fish Farm near Dodgeville.

“The success of the walleye stocking program is a direct result of the positive relationship between the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Industry,” Gollon said. “Credit for the program must be given to Governor Walker, It was his vision that started the initiative.”


Initiative update

During the recent Wisconsin Aquaculture Conference, DNR staff and others involved in the initiative reported on the progress of the program.

David Giehtbrock, DNR Fish Culture Section Chief, who supervises 11 DNR fish hatcheries throughout the state and 55 people who work full time at these facilities, provided a progress report on the initiative. 

He noted that agreements with nine grant recipients, including six private fish farms and three tribal fish farms, have been established, and a total of $2 million has been committed for proposed infrastructure improvements among the partners, and that $500,000 was provided annually, starting in fiscal year 2014-15, to purchase large fingerling walleye from the private fish farms.

DNR has committed to purchasing 369,000 fish from the nine grant recipients in 2015, 362,000 in 2016 and 100,000 in 2017.


Grant recipients

Private fish farms approved for grants, and amounts requested, include:

• Gollon Bait and Fish Farm, Dodgeville, $423,535;

• Northside Enterprises, Black Creek, $136.344 

• Coolwater Farms LLC $76,600

• Sokaogon Chippewa Community $298.900;

• Hayward Bait & Bottle Shoppe, $125,000;

• Central Wisconsin Fish Farm LLC, Stevens Point, $29,841;

• St. Croix Chippewa, $283,253;

• Taal Lake Hatchery, New London, $194,370, and;

• Lac du Flambeau Chippewa, $432.157.


Giehtbrock reported that many of the infrastructure construction projects began last year. “Eggs were distributed to the grantees at the beginning of May, and the program has already proven successful, reaching 97% of its first-year stocking goal.

“Even though some of the grant recipients won’t start supplying fish until this year, during 2014, 719,670 extended-growth walleyes were stocked in 151 bodies of water,” he said. 

Last year, the DNR and its cooperators produced 508,891 fish; Gollon Bait and Fish Farm, 179,966, Sokaogon Chippewa Hatchery, 19,873, Taal Lake Hatchery, 9,660, and Hayward Bait and Tackle, 3,280.

The program also has spurred additional private investment by recipients. For example, Gollon Bait and Fish Farm, which received a grant of approximately $400,000, invested another nearly $300,000 in their facilities, building new ponds to increase walleye production.

Tim Gollon summed up the goal of the walleye initiative, ”The result we’re looking for is more walleyes stocked, more license sales, more people fishing, more walleyes being caught, more tourism and more dollars for the Wisconsin economy.”


Perch and bluegills

With consumer demand for wild perch outpacing current supplies, there’s renewed interest among private fish farmers in producing additional quantities of perch and bluegills for the table.

To provide WAA members with the latest information on raising these species, the Wisconsin Aquaculture Conference presented a workshop session offering affordable, practical methods for raising these cool-water fish.

The session was led by Bill West of Black Creek, who is the senior scientist at Blue Iris Environmental and co-owner of Blue Iris Fish Farm. He has 35 years of experience encompassing the disciplines of biological and chemical assessment of aquatic environments.

West specializes in outdoor culture and conducts research on intensive outdoor aquaculture, specifically pond-side tank culture.

“In the last five years, we spent a lot of time developing new techniques and new technologies to enhance our ability to get perch and bluegills to market faster and more economically,” he related. “We have to achieve this or we won’t be in business very long.”

One of the biggest problem with bluegills, according to West is that they spawn so frequently, at about three times a year, while perch spawn only once a year. “This leaves way too many bluegills in a pond, and they out produce their capacity to find food,” he explained. “To get bluegills to grow as fast as you want, you either have to stop the breeding or start feeding.”

The fastest growing perch is the female but the fastest growing bluegills are males, West noted. “If you’re growing them for food, you have to concentrate on the fastest-growing, most profitable, fish,” he advised. “To be successful to need to have even-aged groups of fish.”


Feed training

Jim Held, UW-Extension outreach specialist, stressed that perch and bluegills need to thrive at every stage of life. “Given the right circumstances you can feed-train fish that are as small as a half-inch,” he said. “However, the fish are so fragile at that size, and you tend to lose a lot of them through physical handling stress while transferring them from ponds to tanks.”

Generally, the smallest size perch Held cares to work with are 3/4-inch fish. “This size gives me the most fish coming out of the pond, and also the best success at feed training,” he stated. 

Held’s research revealed that 1-1/4-inch fish take about 30 days to feed train, while it takes only 20 days to freed train the 3/4-inch fish. “That’s a really important thing if you have limited room to feed train your fish,” he affirmed.

“If I can get these fish through in 20 days rather than in 30 days, I’m going to have more fish because I harvested them at a smaller size, and I’m going to get my feed training done quicker so that I can either bring in another batch or I can get rid of those onerous tank-cleaning duties,” Held stressed.



After spawning and feed-training, the final step in successfully bringing these fish to market is grow-out.

“Once we get the fish to this final stage, we can use standard diets because they’re a lot hardier,” West noted.  “When I bring fish to the market, I can’t take the chance that they will be full of parasites because they won’t sell,” he emphasized.

 “In my research, I discovered that by creating movement in the water, I can get rid of the parasites in the fish even if the water is infected,” he reported. “Using a pond and series of tanks with a small pump and gravity flow, I’ve created an outdoor recirculating system, that beside the cost of the food, only costs $1 a day to operate.”

West grows about 1,500 fish to market size in an 1,100-gallon tank. “I don’t have any aeration but I move water in and out at the rate of about one tank per hour. There’s no difference in the water temperature, and I’ve never seen them go off feed in July and August, which is sometimes pretty typical,” he said. 

The major benefits of West’s system are the elimination of parasites and weeds. “This year I hit 51 percent yield on my fillets, and when I’m ready to harvest them, I don’t have to chase them with a net, I just pull the plug,” he said.



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