New W.Va. facility to help find ways to breed fish faster

November 06, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION

LEETOWN, W.Va. - The world's natural fish populations have peaked after decades of harvesting, yet consumption of fish continues at a brisk pace, according to the director of a new aquaculture facility being built here.

Part of the increased demand for fish can be attributed to the trend of moving toward meat with lower fat levels, such as poultry, according to William K. Hershberger.

So how will the demand for fish be satisfied?

Hershberger hopes to find some answers when the National Center for Cool and Cold Water Aquaculture opens here in September 2000.

Using varying breeding techniques, Hershberger hopes the center will help find ways to reduce the time required to raise fish for human consumption. Eventually, the idea is to turn the knowledge over to farmers, who can use fish farming to supplement their income, Hershberger said.


"One of the best ways to replace (natural fish populations) is through farmed fish," he said.

Success has already been made to cut breeding time for livestock such as poultry, hogs and cattle, he said. By using different breeding techniques, researchers have been able to reduce the breeding time for a chicken to as little as eight weeks, which is remarkable, he said.

Traditional breeding methods may have required up to a month longer, he said.

"That's one of the reasons poultry has developed a much bigger share of the meat market," Hershberger said.

If similar success can be achieved in fish breeding, he believes the industry holds bright hope for farmers who want to give it a try.

"West Virginia has a lot of water resources that are untapped, I think. The water is a major contributing element in this. If you don't have much water, you don't have many fish," said Hershberger, who spent the last 29 years teaching aquaculture at the University of Washington in Seattle, Wash., before accepting the job to open the local research center.

West Virginia may have plenty of water resources, but this past summer marked the worst drought in 100 years.

For eight years, Ron Widmyer had been raising trout at his dairy farm off U.S. 340 north of Charles Town, but in August his water supply went dry, forcing him to shut down the operation.

Although several fish farms have popped up in Jefferson County in past years, Widmyer described the business as struggling.

Not only are fish farmers facing tremendously dry weather, but it is difficult to get supermarket chains to carry locally grown fish, said Widmyer, who at one time was processing hundreds of pounds of trout and selling it to restaurants and wholesalers in the region.

Disease and laws that prohibit fish growers from exporting live fish across state lines also hurt the business, said Widmyer, who raised rainbow trout in 28 large tubs at his farm.

"There's no place to put your product," he said. A dairy farmer, he now plans to retire.

The National Center for Cool and Cold Water Aquaculture, an operation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is being constructed near the National Biological Survey in Leetown, a small village about five miles west of Charles Town. The National Biological Survey is a long established U.S. Fish and Wildlife facility that studies how natural fish populations survive.

The National Center for Cool and Cold Water Aquaculture will consist of a 30,000-square-foot office building and a 20,000-square-foot "wet lab," where fish will be raised, said Hershberger. About 12 research scientists will work at the center and about 20 support staff members will be needed, he said.

Hershberger and another person have already been hired for the center, which is temporarily housed at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Training Center in Shepherdstown.

Hershberger said it is likely research will begin soon, and the ongoing work will be moved into the center as it is being completed.

Besides the long-established National Biological Survey, other fish research facilities have been started in Jefferson County and the center will compliment those efforts, said Hershberger.

The Freshwater Institute near Shepherdstown also works to develop the idea of fish farming as an agricultural business. But the institute also specializes in areas such as ways to control waste from fish farms.

The Herald-Mail Articles