Harvesting yellow perch from Brehm's Perch Farm in West Liberty. Photo provided by Matt Smith.

Feeding fish with Ohio soy

By Matt Reese

In Ohio farm country it is no secret many people likely enjoy a higher percentage of meat, eggs, and dairy in their diets than other segments of our agriculture society. The foods raised by Ohio agriculture feed the people of Ohio agriculture. Often overlooked though, on rural Ohio farms, are fish.

“The average person in the U.S. only eats around 17 pounds of seafood per year, even though recommendations for a healthy heart are more than triple that number,” said Matt Smith, program director, aquaculture Extension, Madison County Extension Office. “There is probably a local seafood farmer near you — shop local.”

Even if it has scales and gills instead of hooves, aquaculture is a growing part of domestic agriculture.

“There are some segments of U.S. aquaculture that are exploding in growth. In particular, our coastal states are seeing significant growth in shellfish production. There are well over 1,500 shellfish farmers now along the East Coast. Indoor recirculating aquaculture systems, specifically for salmon production, is another segment of aquaculture that is seeing substantial investments and growth,” Smith said. “In Ohio, we know that in 2021 there were over 170 individuals holding Ohio Division of Wildlife aquaculture permits, but only 59 responded to USDA National Ag Statistics Services’ 2018 Census of Aquaculture. Of those who responded, 33 produced food and 29 produced aquatic animals for sport. The total farm-gate sales for Ohio were $6.6 million, compared to $1.5 billion in farm-gate in the U.S. The major food species produced in Ohio are rainbow trout, tilapia, and largemouth bass. Ohio raises over 30 species that are ultimately stocked into private and public waters for forage, fishing, environmental remediation, etc. Examples of pond stocking species are largemouth bass, bluegill, yellow perch, golden shiners, and even tilapia.”

Much of the diet for Ohio and U.S. aquaculture includes soy.

“Nutritional needs and diet tolerances vary by species. Many species, such as our U.S. catfish, are extremely tolerant to high soybean meal concentrations in their diet. Other species, such as salmon, are less tolerant of soy in their diet. Fish meal and fish oil are currently the main ways of providing high-quality protein and fats to carnivorous species that do not tolerate soy well, such as salmon. However, substantial research, largely funded by soy associations throughout the country, including the Ohio Soybean Council, is being conducted to understand how to increase soy in diets of major carnivorous aquaculture species. One example is by removing any anti-nutritional factors that may impact a specific species. As fish meal and oil continues to increase in price, and research advances, we can expect the demand for soy to increase right here in the U.S. This will support domestic demand for soy,” Smith said. “U.S. catfish farmers continue to purchase the largest amount of soybean meal of any U.S. aquaculture sectors. There has been an increase in U.S. catfish production since 2014 after a sharp decline in the early 2000s.”  

Along with market ups and downs, Ohio aquaculture faces challenges similar other types of agriculture. 

“Most aquaculture researchers who have a significant understanding of U.S. aquaculture agree that the regulatory environment is substantially complicated and burdensome for our farmers. Data from Virginia Tech and other universities have shown that the costs of maintaining regulatory compliance is significant. Virginia Tech’s results showed that regulations account for approximately 25% of total baitfish and sportfish farm costs. For U.S. catfish, total regulatory costs are estimated at $45 million annually. In my opinion, other significant challenges include limited access to capital, limited ability to process our seafood, lack of social license to operate, and significant required time commitment,” Smith said. “Aquaculture is agriculture, and agriculture is hard work. Many of our aquaculture farmers are also up before the dawn to check oxygen and feed fish. We must fix and build things, prepare for the next phase of production, harvest, and direct market our products. Additionally, just as those families in traditional agriculture, most aquaculture farmers have at least one person in the farm household that has a job or income off the farm.” 

And, ultimately, Smith said, more regularly adding domestically raised fish to dinner plates in rural Ohio can be a nice way to mix up diets and support Ohio’s farmers. 

“Supporting U.S. aquaculture, by default, supports soy producers,” he said. 

Livestock is the most important market for soybean producers. The Ohio Soybean Council is highlighting Ohio’s livestock industry in 2022 to showcase this vital partnership facilitating global food production.

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