Bluegill and Sunfish
By Dan Burden, content specialist, AgMRC, Iowa State University, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Revised by C. Greg Lutz, Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, April 2012.
The distribution of bluegills (Lepomis macrochirus) includes most of southern Canada and the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. This species has also been introduced throughout the rest of the United States and in many other countries, including South Africa, Morocco, Mauritius and the Philippines.
Bluegills prefer clear warm pools in streams and thrive in lakes and ponds, usually inhabiting shallow, weedy waters. Bluegills and related “panfish” are common and highly prized game fish throughout the United States.
These fish are widely cultured in private impoundments, mainly to provide recreational fishing or for stocking as a prolific forage fish in combination with gamefish species such as largemouth bass. Some states allow commercial culture and sale of bluegill and/or certain other sunfishes and their hybrids, but many others prohibit commerce in food-size fish due to concerns over the potential for illegal harvests of wild stocks.
No reliable data is available on the number and pounds of bluegill reared, stocked or harvested, since most production is in private ponds for recreational fishing and personal consumption. However, there are an estimated 4 million private impoundments throughout the U.S., and bluegill are an important component of the population in nearly all of these ponds.
The term sunfish generally refers not only to bluegill but also to other closely related species, most of which are in the genus Lepomis. The most commonly recognized of these include the redear sunfish, the green sunfish, the pumpkinseed and the warmouth. Hybrids between bluegill and other sunfish are often produced due to superior culture characteristics, the most important of which is a reduction in unwanted reproduction which can lead to stunting. Other advantages of hybrid sunfish include improved growth rates, higher acceptance of artificial feeds, increased hardiness and higher vulnerability to angling.
According to the 2005 USDA Census of Aquaculture, 217 farms in the United States raised sunfish, including fingerlings and fry (109 farms), stockers (63 farms) and foodsize fish (54 farms). Fingerlings and fry for stocking represent the largest segment of sales with a 2005 value of $3.3 million, compared to total sales of nearly $5 million for all types and sizes of sunfish. With 13 reported sunfish farms producing fingerlings and fry, Ohio had total sales of $590 thousand in 2005. Alabama placed second with 8 farms producing just under 2 million fish, which generated total sales of $425 thousand. Sales of stocker sunfish totaled $695 thousand in 2005, and sales of foodsize sunfish totaled $950 thousand. Informal surveys of aquaculture contacts in various states, taken in conjunction with the Aquaculture Census data, suggest there are currently between 300 and 400 commercial operations producing bluegill and other sunfish in the U.S.
Typically, the product to be sold in most sunfish culture facilities is a live fingerling of suitable size for stocking. Adult bluegill (and/or related species) are stocked into open ponds and allowed to spawn naturally. Fingerlings are usually raised to a marketable size in the same pond and harvested before they deplete the natural food items in the aquatic environment. Bluegill have become widely established beyond their natural range largely as a result of their tolerance of a broad range of environmental conditions, but certain guidelines must be followed for successful commercial culture. Breeding stock should be placed in ponds in early spring, before temperatures reach 69 degrees Farenheit. Best results are obtained when 40 to 50 pairs of fish are stocked per acre. Under culture conditions, optimal temperatures for embryo development are 72 to 81 degrees Farenheit while 81 degrees Farenheit is optimal for growth of adults. The pH should remain between 6.5 and 8.5 for all life stages. Although dissolved oxygen levels of less than 1.0 ppm may be tolerated for short periods, a level of greater than 5.0 ppm should normally be maintained, with mechanical aeration if necessary.
If high densities of fingerlings are present, or if fish are to be raised to larger sizes for human consumption, the use of artificial feeds will be required. Protein requirements are generally somewhat higher than those of catfish, so fingerling and grow-out diets should have at least 40 percent and 36 percent protein, respectively.
If they are being raised for human consumption, growth rates and feed conversion ratios for bluegill and other sunfish will be inferior to those of most commercial aquaculture species. Two years or more are often required to raise these fish to a marketable size (minimum 1/2 pound per fish), with approximately 4 pounds of feed consumed for each pound of fish harvested. Unwanted reproduction is also a persistent problem when growing these fish to larger sizes in ponds. bluegill and other sunfish are adaptable to cage culture and to recirculating production systems, but both approaches involve higher capital costs, more expensive diets and greater risk.
The wide demand for fingerlings and relatively small number of producers throughout the U.S. suggests a significant marketing opportunity for potential producers of bluegill and other sunfish. In most cases, however, a number of legal, technical and biological constraints must be addressed for economic success. Learning curves must be confronted in terms of broodstock management and fingerling or foodfish production, and markets must be developed on a case by case basis.
- Aquaculture America 2005. - Results from preliminary pond production trials in West Virginia.
- Aquaculture America 2012. Advances in Sunfish Aquaculture. Recent sunfish aquaculture research results.
- Aquaculture (Domestic Production and International Trade Information), FSAonline, USDA.
- Aquaculture Resources - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), fisheries market news and statistic summaries (aquaculture results by catch), available grants, new marine product food safety guidelines, endangered natural stocks, export guidelines for shipments to the European Union, links and addresses of many National Marine Fisheries Support Offices, and other information. Site includes information on Department of Commerce Aquaculture Policy, the National Aquaculture Act of 1980, recent NOAA Aquaculture Policy and breaking research and legislative news.
- Baitfish Production in the United States; G. Burtle, University of Georgia; L. Dorman, University of Arkansas; and L. Gray, University of Arkansas - History of the industry, overview of production systems and marketing strategies.
- Bluegill Sunfish Production in Missouri, University of Missouri Extension. - Production methods for bluegill culture in Missouri. PDF Version.
- Census of Aquaculture (2005), USDA, 2006.
- Aquaculture, Economic Research Service, USDA.
- FishLink.com - An Internet information and resource for aquaculture and fisheries. Contains directories, news, statistics and other related information.
- Fishing for Bluegill, Iowa DNR - How to find the best spot to fish during every season, and what type of tackle works the best.
- Great Lakes Aquaculture (Sea Grant): Aquaculture and Sea Food Safety - Overview of various programs and initiatives of the Great Lakes Sea Grant Program. Sea Grant researchers are studying several fish species suitable for aquaculture in the Midwest, including walleye, sturgeon, hybrid striped bass, sunfish, bait fish, yellow perch, tilapia, bluegill, crappie, bullhead, crayfish and a variety of salmonids. A variety of techniques are being examined, including pond culture, cage culture and indoor contained systems. The Great Lakes Sea Grant Network also has developed a regional resource list of aquaculture publications and audiovisuals for current and potential aquaculturists.
- Hybrid Bluegill, Kentucky State University. - Background on hybrid bluegill production in the Midwestern region.
- National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Commercial Services: Aquaculture and Seafood - Contains leads, current and historical trade statistics, import requirements, news and regulatory information. The mission of the Trade and Commercial Service staff is to promote and facilitate trade for the U.S. seafood and aquaculture industries by expanding existing markets and opening new ones for the U.S. producers and processors.
- NCRAC Sunfish Culture Guide - NCRAC’s Sunfish Culture Guide – a thorough review of the technical aspects of sunfish culture.
- Sunfish - Results from preliminary production trials in the Midwest region.
- World Aquaculture Society - International society of aquaculturalists working to improve education and communication within the industry.
Links checked March 2013.