A key to a pond for aquaculture is building it so fish can be easily harvested. Photo by Matt Smith, OSU Extension.

A look at Ohio’s aquaculture industry

By Brianna Gwirtz, OCJ field reporter

Fishing alongside dad or grandpa is a core childhood memory for many people — baiting the hook with a worm, casting the line as far as you could, and feeling that sense of excitement at that tug on the end of the line. 

For Bill Lynch of Union County, fishing alongside his dad made such a lasting impression that he decided to pursue a career in the fish industry. Lynch attended the Ohio State University, graduating with a B.S. and an M.S. degree in Fisheries Management in 1980 and 1982, respectively. Lynch worked for the School of Environment and Natural Resources for 18 years and then Ohio State Extension for another 12 years as the Aquatic Ecosystem Management Specialist. 

Over his lifetime, Lynch completed many studies. One particular research subject made an impact on him. 

“When I was at Ohio State, I had a lot of research experience with yellow perch. I had a strong background in fisheries and fish management, so in 2001 I started building ponds and then in 2002 we started growing yellow perch,” Lynch said.

His farm, Millcreek Perch Farm near Marysville, began selling fish for food for the first several years. 

Bill Lynch has been raising perch since 2002.

“We got a call from a pond and lake management company one day and they wanted to buy some of the perch to stock private ponds. Well, it didn’t take long to realize we would be better off to continue selling to private companies for pond stocking, so today we are a wholesaler selling to those types of companies,” Lynch said. 

Lynch grows first-year fish, meaning he starts with eggs from his broodfish, or fish meant for breeding purposes. The eggs are collected in March and are then incubated indoors. 

“We keep the eggs indoors because one of the leading causes of death to perch eggs is cold snaps. With Ohio weather, it’s pretty common to have some cold days in April, so we like to keep the eggs in a stable temperature,” Lynch said. 

The fish will go through a series of growing stages where they are transferred between indoor and outdoor ponds. Their feed rations change as the fish continue to grow, evolving from natural microscopic material to powder to then small crumbles. The fish will grow to be about four to seven inches by October. 

“If everything goes right and we are at full production, we are capable of producing between 300,000 and 350,000 perch a year,” Lynch said. 

Lynch currently serves as the Ohio Aquaculture Association (OAA) president. Ohio’s start in aquaculture began in the late 80s when Ohio House Representative Vern Riffe put forth legislation to create the Ohio Center of Aquaculture Research and Development. The OAA began in 1990 then, with the goal to provide educational and networking opportunities to Ohio’s fish farmers. The organization also lobbies for fair aquaculture regulations and laws. 

“We are really blessed here in Ohio to have good relationships with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Ohio Department of Agriculture. I would say that out of the Midwestern states, we are the best state as far as regulations go,” Lynch said. 

Pond site selection is also very important for fish production.

There are currently 149 members in the OAA. 

“The Ohio Aquaculture Association represents members that follow traditional aquaculture practices as well as aquaponics. The more traditional practices in Ohio are typically hatcheries that are using pond culture. There are two main types, watershed and levee ponds,” Lynch said. 

Pond sites have to be carefully selected. Soil type, slope, depth and water quality are huge factors that impact their success. 

“You want to build ponds so that you can easily harvest fish from them,” Lynch said. 

Another popular aquaculture system is recirculating aquaculture systems, known as RAS. This type of aquaculture uses indoor tanks to grow fish. Special care is needed to ensure that waste is properly managed and the water has been filtered. Due to being indoors, there is a bit more flexibility on where these tanks can be placed. A lot of the RAS systems are being built in old, repurposed hog barns. 

Lastly, several members of the OAA do aquaponics, or the farming of both fish and vegetables. The system pairs aquaculture with hydroponics to maximize food production.

“Aquaponics is a recent phenomenon for the most part. It has probably just started to be popular within the last 10 years,” Lynch said. “You can grow a wide variety of things, but it comes down to what you make money off of and that typically has to do with the turnaround time of your crop. If you’re growing lettuce, you can harvest a crop every 6 to 8 weeks, whereas if you grow peppers or tomatoes, you can expect it to take a while longer.”

The most popular farmed species of fish in the state include yellow perch, tilapia, bluegill and largemouth bass. The last census from Ohio State University Extension found there were 36 species being raised in aquaculture settings, including many fish species, fresh and saltwater shrimp, plants, crawfish, and even saltwater coral. The ODNR Division of Wildlife also owns and manages six hatcheries in the state. The majority of the species grown in state-owned hatcheries are sportfish species that are released into public waters. They have also reared non-sport species in order to increase populations, when particular species were threatened. 

Most of the aquaculture farms in Ohio market their products to pond and lake management companies. A few sell to retailers for food sources. 

“Tilapia were originally grown in Ohio as a food fish. There’s still a fair amount going to ethnic markets, but in the last 10 years we’ve realized that if you stock tilapia in your pond, they do a good job of controlling algal plant growth,” Lynch said. “So stocking tilapia in your pond can help diminish the use of chemicals, which is a good thing. The only drawback is they do not survive the cold winters, so they’ll have to be restocked every year.”

Before anyone decides to metaphorically and literally dip their toes in the water with aquaculture, Lynch says that a business plan is key. 

“A good, well thought out business plan would include research on inputs, on marketing options, and overall goals. It’s important to think critically. In Ohio, our market is holding steady. Most of the fish farms I know were fortunate to do fairly well during COVID,” Lynch said. “While more people were home, they must have realized they needed to stock their ponds because the wholesale, pond stocking business was good. There was a ton of demand that we are still trying to catch up on. The food fish industry suffered, but a lot of those folks were able to pivot their business to sell to pond stocking companies instead.

“Our input costs are going up, much like everything else. Our fish feed cost alone has increased by 25%. That’s been a major impact and is causing a lot of people to be cautious to expand their business. Going into 2023 we may need to dust off the business plan and revisit it.” 

The Ohio Aquaculture Association is hosting its annual conference on January 20-21, 2023. More information is available on their website, ohioaquaculture.org

The perch eggs are collected in March and are then incubated indoors to protect them from cold spring weather.

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