Aquaculture, the science of farming fish, is a topic on the cutting edge of the sustainable food movement. The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point has operated a facility dedicated to improving aquaculture since 2006 and has recently been accepted by the UW-Sea Grant Program.
The UWSP Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility near Bayfield is one of the premier aquaculture facilities in the Midwest. It is an extension of UWSP and has goals based on applied research, aquaculture demonstration, education and outreach.
The recent partnership with the UW extension of the National Sea Grant Program is a step toward building awareness and training the public on aquaculture. Aside from funding, it gives credibility to UWSP and NADF.
At the core of aquaculture lies the idea that growing fish for food is an extremely efficient and cost-effective way of producing protein compared to traditional livestock methods.
Dr. Chris Hartleb, a professor of fisheries biology and the director of NADF, said the implications could be huge.
“You have to feed fish less for them to grow more,” Hartleb said.
An example of this ideology at work is already underway at NADF. Researchers are working to breed saugeye, a mix between sauger and walleye.
“Walleye is a very popular fish,” Hartleb said.
Hartleb said it takes two years for a walleye to go from an egg to eating size.
“That’s one year too long,” Hartleb said. “If corn took two years to grow, we would not have corn.”
Hartleb said NADF research has produced saugeye that grow to marketable size in 10 months.
Furthermore, NADF provides training for what is called Recirculation Aquaculture Systems that use natural bacteria filters to clean fish waste out of water. The water returned to the tank is clean enough for humans to drink and the only considerable loss of water in the system is from evaporation.
“In the U.S., we tend to see fish as a luxury item,” Hartleb said.
Hartleb said in other countries, people eat fish most Americans see as undesirable. Americans tend to eat less fish than people in other parts of the world.
The facility features multiple buildings, tanks and ponds that are used to raise and study fish. All of the fish grown at NADF are donated to local fish farmers who essentially pay for it through contributions to the facility.
“We’re one of the few facilities in the whole country,” said Emma Wiermaa, the outreach specialist at NADF.
Wiermaa is tasked with getting the word out and educating people on research done at NADF. Wiermaa said in addition to working with fish hatcheries, NADF works with local fish farmers, homeowners and school groups interested in aquaculture. NADF has installed small-scale aquaculture systems at local schools.
“We get some drop-ins,” Weirmaa said. “We’ll stop what we’re doing and give them a tour. No matter who they are, they are all very interested.”
For Pointers, NADF provides an opportunity for learning, research and employment. Students can take aquaculture courses at UWSP with Dr. Hartleb, visit the miniature aquaculture facility in the basement of the science building and even minor in aquaculture. UWSP is the only university in the UW system with an aquaculture minor.
Each summer, the facility hires two to four interns to work at NADF and design research projects.
“We are always looking for students,” Hartleb said.
Hartleb said UWSP students are good candidates because of the rigorous courses they take.
“That background is much stronger than students from other campuses,” Hartleb said.
In the next four years under the UW Sea Grant Program, students and staff at NADF will continue to educate the public about aquaculture and research new ways to improve the science.
“All this research is here, it just needs to be published,” Wiermaa said.