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For decades, the principle farm-raised baitfish species in the U.S. have been the golden shiner, the fathead minnow and the goldfish. A number of shared attributes account for their popularity among fish farmers: acceptance of manufactured feeds, ease of reproduction in captivity, adaptability to pond conditions and tolerance of handling and transport. Their long history of use in most parts of the country and lack of documented adverse impacts makes them species of minor concern for most regulatory agencies, although some states restrict the use of goldfish as bait. As a result of these characteristics these three species continue to dominate the industry.
As recreational fishing increased in the years following World War I, the demand for baitfish increased to the point where many wild populations were depleted. Dr. H.S. Swingle began research on the culture of golden shiners, fathead minnows and goldfish in 1934 at Auburn University in Alabama. Golden shiners have been commercially farmed for bait since the 1940’s, and farmed goldfish and fathead minnows became widely available in the 1950’s and 1960’s with a rapid increase in their use as bait for both commercial and recreational fishing. Arkansas has led the nation in baitfish production for many decades, with production levels reaching 6 billion fish annually in recent years. These fish are shipped to distributors throughout the country.
In more northerly regions of the U.S., cool water species such as white suckers and various chubs have been the focus of interest for baitfish farming. In these regions, private impoundments are often leased for natural, low-input production of baitfish species. White suckers have historically required artificial spawning, resulting in the need for collection of wild brood stock (often requiring licenses and permits) and more complex hatchery management, followed by low-input culture methods in ponds. Constraints from winterkill and inefficient overwintering strategies have also held back the development of economically viable culture of these cool water bait species. Wild caught baitfish continue to compete with farmed product, especially in northern regions.
Throughout the Gulf and Atlantic coastal regions, demand for saltwater baitfish is also increasing. Although supplies of wild-harvested marine baitfish are limited, there are few if any examples of commercial aquaculture for any saltwater species. While bull minnows have been the subject of extensive research in a number of states, currently available production strategies have not shown commercial viability.
Many baitfish operations in the U.S have evolved over the past several decades to incorporate indoor hatchery facilities and outdoor production. This approach has resulted in better biosecurity, reduced labor needs and more uniform sizes of fish. In the spring, spawning mats are deployed in ponds with mature golden shiners or goldfish. Eggs are then brought into the hatchery for incubation and fry are subsequently stocked in newly prepared ponds for larval rearing. After 6 to 10 weeks they are transferred to grow-out ponds where they are fed daily and provided with night-time aeration as required. The grow-out period and stocking density will depend on target markets, which should be determined during production planning. Once fish reach harvestable size partial harvests occur weekly. Harvested fish are maintained in large vats with clean flow-through water and aeration. From here they are packed for transport and sale. This practice works well for golden shiners and goldfish, but is not feasible for fathead minnows.
Fathead minnows are also stocked into spawning ponds prior to the spring. Fry can then be reared in place or transferred to other ponds. If a pond will be used for spawning and rearing, up to 2000 fathead minnow brood fish are stocked per acre, at a ratio of 1 male to 5 females. If juveniles will be transferred after hatching, stocking rates may be as high as 25,000 fish per acre. Fatheads like to deposit their eggs on the underside of materials such as irrigation pipe, boards, pallets, and other types of artificial material.
Rearing ponds for baitfish fry should be completely dried, then filled with well water. Normally, 50 to 100 lb. rice bran per acre is added on the first day of filling, followed by an additional 25 lb. per acre every 3 days for the first month. Some producers also use inorganic fertilizer if needed to establish a suitable zooplankton bloom.
Feed should be provided as soon as fry begin actively feeding, and it is best to find an established commercial supplier of baitfish feeds even if there are none nearby. Keep in mind that delivery costs can significantly increase the overall price of feed if there are no suppliers near the operation. In pond culture, golden shiners will consume natural food even when fed manufactured diets. Recommended feeding rates vary, but a typical recommendation is 3% body weight daily – or up to 2% twice daily.
At every opportunity when transferring fish, grading is recommended. Grading improves production efficiency and marketing opportunities. However, grading must be done with care to minimize stress and injury, especially for golden shiners because they are fragile and lose scales easily. Other common causes of fish loss include bird depredation, various diseases, water quality problems and equipment failure. All should be considered when planning production and developing cash flow projections.
The 2018 Census of Aquaculture reported a total of 168 baitfish farms in the U.S., with sales of $32,778,000. Arkansas led the nation with 29 baitfish operations, followed by Ohio with 14 and Missouri, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, each with 11 farms. Altogether, 31 states reported baitfish production. Eighty-nine farms reported sales of less than $25,000 while 12 reported sales between $25,000 and $50,000 and 16 reported sales of $50,000 - $100,000. Thirty-three farms reported sales between $100,000 and $500,000, 10 farms had sales between $500,000 and $1,000,000 and 8 farms reported sales of $1,000,000 or more.
Fathead minnow production was reported for 114 farms, with sales of $12,802,000. Some 67 farms produced golden shiners, with total sales of $16,385,000. Suckers were produced on 18 farms with sales of $1,363,000, and goldfish production for bait and feeder purposes, valued at $1,162,000, was reported from 35 farms. Production of other types of shiners and other species of baitfish was reported from 9 and 23 farms, respectively, with a combined value of $857,000. Average farm-gate prices per lb. for golden shiners, fathead minnows and bait goldfish were $4.25, $4.04 and $3.55, respectively.
Historically, live hauler sales have been the main marketing outlet for baitfish producers, followed by direct stocking for recreational purposes, wholesale deliveries to other producers, and direct sales to retailers. In the baitfish industry, markets must drive production - not vice versa. The first step in planning or updating a baitfish marketing strategy is to identify potential buyers and determine what they want or need to buy. This will include customers that require delivery, but it may also include other types of buyers that will purchase fish at the farm.
Keep in mind that many potential customers may already have long standing relationships with their current suppliers. For several decades, industry observers and participants have acknowledged that well-established distribution channels throughout the baitfish industry serve to discourage the entry of new producers. It is never advisable to try to disrupt established business relationships by offering lower prices. Instead, focus on buyers’ expressed needs in terms of quality, variety, frequency and reliability of supplies.
Throughout the U.S., baitfish value chains are influenced by large wholesalers and distributors with broad geographic ranges. While these businesses represent a significant source of competition, they also offer marketing opportunities. Many of them are constantly looking for reliable suppliers of good quality baitfish.
Baitfish aquaculture requires significant investment in specialized equipment, so economies of scale are significant. If a small producer’s cost of production is higher than what large-scale (commodity) buyers are willing to pay then lower-volume niche markets must be identified. In these markets, it will be necessary to compete based on superior quality and customer service. Additionally, the initial production cycle will involve a number of start-up costs such as filling ponds and acquiring brood stock.
Even small operations should plan on a minimum monthly production volume of 500 lb. simply to establish a presence in target markets – small buyers will require consistent supplies and reliable delivery schedules, usually once or twice weekly. Perhaps to a greater extent than in any other aquaculture industry in the U.S., in baitfish production the amount of fish produced often exceeds the amount of fish sold. Demand is variable based on economic conditions and weather events.
Nonetheless, some baitfish species are in seasonally short supply in some regions year after year, resulting in marketing opportunities if production parameters (stocking densities and feeding rates) can be adjusted to accommodate this heightened demand. Conversely, at times supplies exceed demand for certain species, but in many cases these imbalances are also seasonally predictable.
Small buyers often want access to a variety of products, and this is usually the case with baitfish dealers so consider producing and marketing several species if possible. In most parts of the country, production of golden shiners, goldfish and fathead minnows can be integrated within the same operation. And in more northerly regions, production of fathead minnows can often be done alongside suckers. Selling in bulk to live haulers or large distributors is one way to simplify production strategies.
Competition from wild harvested baitfish is still a significant factor for producers in some parts of the country. However, restrictions on wild harvests have become more widespread in recent years due to concerns over biosecurity and adverse ecological impacts. It should be noted that in some states these concerns are increasingly being expressed over cultured baitfish as well.
Other factors that have limited the expansion of baitfish aquaculture include improved artificial lures, fewer retail bait outlets and a drastic reduction in the development of new reservoirs across the country. Unchecked expansion of many species of fish-eating birds in recent decades, especially cormorants, has also increased costs associated with predator control on baitfish farms, significantly reducing profitability in many cases.
Variations in regulations from state to state pose a number of legal problems for baitfish producers. A permit is required to transport live fish in some states, and depending on the state of origin or destination, certificates of health and disease-free status may also be required. Documents such as farming permits or purchase receipts are often required to accompany live fish shipments. Many states have also adopted rules and regulations to minimize the chance of aquatic nuisance species being accidentally introduced through baitfish shipments. In some extreme situations, the importation of any live baitfish is unlawful.
- Baitfish Industry. https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/baitfish-industry-3641/Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Central Arkansas Library System.
- Baitfish production in the United States. http://fisheries.tamu.edu/files/2013/09/Baitfish-Production-in-the-United-States.pdf University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service.
- Common Farm-Raised Baitfish. http://agrilife.org/fisheries2/files/2013/09/SRAC-Publication-No.-120-Common-Farm-Raised-Baitfish.pdf Southern Regional Aquaculture Center.
- Production Enterprise Budget for Golden Shiners. http://agrilife.org/fisheries2/files/2013/09/SRAC-Publication-No.-122-Production-Enterprise-Budget-for-Golden-Shiners.pdf Southern Regional Aquaculture Center.
- A white paper on the status and needs of baitfish aquaculture in the north central region. https://www.ncrac.org/files/biblio/baitfish32900.pdfNorth Central Regional Aquaculture Center.
- Marine baitfish culture. https://www.vims.edu/GreyLit/VIMS/MRA77.pdf Virginia Sea Grant.
- An overview of baitfish aquaculture in the Northeast. https://www.nrac.org/_files/ugd/5d062c_6c2ed48e29f3463eab8bddadae424b66.pdf Northeast Regional Aquaculture Center.
- Baitfish culture in the South. [Some aspects of egg collection, hatching and aeration are now outdated, but most of this video remains relevant] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2Qy4J2I17o Southern Regional Aquaculture Center.
- Aquaculture potential for Hornyhead Chubs. http://agrilife.org/fisheries2/files/2013/09/NCRAC-Technical-Bulletin-Series-No.-116.pdf North Central Regional Aquaculture Center.
- Cocahoe minnow production manual. https://fisheries.tamu.edu/files/2013/10/Cocahoe-Minnow-Production-Manual.pdf LSU AgCenter, Louisiana Sea Grant.
Prepared by C. Greg Lutz, Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, May 2022