Bluegill and Sunfish
The family Centrachidae includes the sunfishes and also a number of other species such as the crappies, and black basses. Sunfishes often do not reach very large sizes, but when they do they provide good table fare and sportfishing opportunities. At smaller sizes, they are still important forage fish for predators like bass.
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 in pursuit of superior culture characteristics, the most important of which are hybrid vigor for growth and a reduction in unwanted reproduction which can lead to stunting. Other advantages of hybrid sunfish include higher acceptance of artificial feeds, increased hardiness and higher vulnerability to angling.
Pure bluegills, however, are by far the most widely cultured and stocked sunfish in the U.S. The distribution of bluegills (Lepomis macrochirus) includes most of southern Canada, and east of the Rocky Mountains in the U.S. This species has also been introduced throughout the rest of the U.S. and in many other countries, resulting in established populations in Mexico, Cuba, South Africa, Morocco, Mauritius, Madagascar, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and elsewhere.
Bluegills prefer clear warm pools in streams and thrive in lakes and ponds, usually inhabiting shallow, weedy waters. Bluegills and related “sunfish” are common and highly prized game fish, widely cultured in private impoundments primarily to provide recreational fishing or for stocking as a prolific forage fish in combination with predatory gamefish 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 any food-size sunfish due to concerns over the potential for illegal harvests of wild stocks.
Most aquaculture production of bluegills and other sunfish is in minimally managed private ponds for recreational fishing and personal consumption, so no reliable data is available on the number and pounds reared, stocked or harvested under these conditions. 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.
Historically, culture of bluegill and other sunfish (redear, warmouth and green sunfish) has focused on hatchery methods to produce fingerlings for stocking. As government hatcheries’ budgets declined over the past half-century, even while demand increased, private hatcheries have sought to meet the demand for bluegill and redear fingerlings. Additionally, over the past two decades there has been considerable interest in raising these species and their hybrids as foodfish for consumption. Much of the demand for food-size sunfish comes from Asian and Hispanic communities, where live fish of half a pound or larger are preferred. There is also some limited demand for live fish in the quarter-pound size range for stocking in private ponds and fee-fishing operations.
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. When spawning, species identification is extremely important if pure bluegill offspring or specific hybrid crosses are to be produced, because most of the various sunfish species will hybridize readily without any coaxing. Best results are obtained when broodstock are at least a quarter pound and 2+ years of age. This, however, can potentially translate into a prolonged start-up period for a new operation.
Bluegill and sunfish culture is most efficient when small ponds are available. For example, it will cost significantly more to construct 6 half-acre ponds than on 3-acre pond, but the latter will not be useable for spawning and rearing these species commercially. Having a number of smaller ponds also provides more flexibility in production and marketing strategies.
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.
Diseases can disrupt production and marketing schedules and occasionally result in catastrophic losses. Bacteria, fungus, and external parasites can result in mortalities in all sizes of fish, and internal parasites (grubs) can reduce or prevent marketability in food-size fish.
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 ½ 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.
According to the 2018 USDA Census of Aquaculture, 171 farms in the United States raised sunfish, including fingerlings and fry (78 farms), stockers (63 farms) and foodsize fish (34 farms) with total sales of $7,116,000. Fingerlings and fry for stocking represented the largest segment of the market, with a 2018 value of $5,382,000 (75.6% of total sales), followed by stockers with sales of $1,484,000 (20.9%). Ohio led the nation in the number of farms reported (21), followed by Alabama (14), Arkansas and Texas (each with 12). In terms of total sales, data for Alabama was not available, but Arkansas reported $2,201,000 in sunfish sales, followed by Ohio with $576,000 and Texas with $189,000. Informal surveys of aquaculture contacts in various states, taken in conjunction with the Aquaculture Census data, suggest there are probably closer to 300 commercial operations producing bluegill and other sunfish in the U.S.
Regulatory issues will persist for the sunfish aquaculture industry for the foreseeable future. The first contact a prospective sunfish producer should make is the wildlife and fisheries agency in their state, in order to establish the legal framework for culturing and selling the species and hybrids they intend to farm. Many fish and game agencies lack either the resources or the interest to develop regulations that protect wild stocks and simultaneously advance commercial sunfish culture beyond fingerling sales.
Sunfish and their hybrids are not particularly difficult to raise once trained on artificial feeds, but the cost of production may often exceed what consumers are willing to pay. Realistic cost projections will be required in order to structure production, marketing and financial strategies. Unfortunately, there are few or no available budgets for sunfish production, so projections must be based on exhaustive research and possibly communicating with producers in other states that would not be in direct competition with the proposed operation.
Sunfish fingerlings are fragile, and should not be harvested or transported until they reach 2 inches in length. The attainment of this size usually coincides with cooler temperatures in the fall and early winter which facilitates sales, handling, transport and stocking activities. Spawning periods are more protracted for sunfish than for many other pond raised species like bass and catfish, so this allows more flexibility in marketing strategies over the grow-out period.
Markets must be available to accommodate your production when it is ready for harvest because maintaining fish beyond a harvestable size requires excessive feed, labor and energy costs as well as unproductive use of facilities and capital. It also prolongs the period of time fish will be vulnerable to predators and disease. Keep in mind that developing and maintaining committed relationships with both suppliers and buyers will be crucial. No matter what your scale of production will be, you will need to provide value through quality control, harvest scheduling and customer service. In turn customers such as brokers or live haulers must also be willing to provide reliable outlets for your fish when you need to move them.
Your projected costs (variable, fixed, marketing and opportunity costs) must be compared to prevailing market prices for the sizes and quality of the fish you intend to produce. Keep in mind economies of scale – a smaller operation will have higher per-fish costs and will require a number of small-volume, local markets that are willing and able to pay higher prices. Or, the operation must be managed to have product available when the industry typically experiences shortages.
When a small operation loses a customer, alternatives may be limited or nonexistent. Your input suppliers (feed, fingerlings and equipment) must be reliable and trustworthy, even when larger customers are competing with you. Consider your feed requirements – who will supply it, at what cost, and in what quantities will it be delivered? If buying in bags instead of bulk deliveries, your cost of production will automatically go up.
Small scale sunfish production may not be profitable without a competitive edge in local markets gained through accessibility, customer service and logistics. Fee fishing or on-site processing and sales of food-size fish may improve revenues, but these approaches usually involve excessive focus on permits, licenses and liability insurance. Nonetheless, any number of marketing campaigns can be developed ranging from in-store product demonstrations, to visits by local school groups, to targeted marketing through ethnic-oriented print and radio media that serve communities accustomed to purchasing live or fresh fish in those areas where such sales are permitted.
The widespread demand for fingerlings for stocking, and the 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.
Prepared by C. Greg Lutz, Louisiana State University Agricultural Center