Startup Profile: Yellow Perch at Sea in the Cornfields of Indiana
May 31, 2011 | Robert Puro
“Most of the time you don’t hear of an aquaculture center in the middle of cornfields in the Midwest.” – Norman McCowan, President of Bell Aquaculture
Aquaculture, or fish farming under controlled conditions, is growing faster than all other food producing sectors worldwide. According to the FAO, aquaculture has maintained an average growth rate of 9.2% per year since 1970 and as of today accounts for nearly 50% of total fish production by weight. The industry, which is dominated by operations in Asia, is just now starting to take off in the US.
Startup companies are beginning to emerge as the potential for aquaculture to meet growing seafood demand, help restore depleted freshwater and open ocean fisheries, increase food security and stimulate local economies becomes more apparent. Recent advances in aquaculture technology enable it to be done in a far more environmentally friendly manner using sustainable technologies and sustainable feed to produce the types of fish that the public demands.
Bell Aquaculture, an early-stage aquaculture company that sits on family farmland in Albany, Indiana is helping to lead the sustainable aquaculture revolution in the US. The company formed in 2005 to sustainably meet consumer demand for yellow perch in the Midwest. “In the mid ‘80s Purdue [University] had done a study and the consumption of yellow perch within the Great Lakes region was just over 38 million pounds and that has fallen to less than 10 million pounds today,” said Norman McCowan, President of Bell Aquaculture. “Yellow perch is a customary fish of a Friday night fish fry and with the stock depleting in the Great Lakes we felt like it was a good choice to raise yellow perch.” Yellow perch is also very high in protein, Omega 3 fatty acids and naturally very low in saturated fat.
Sustainable Aquaculture: Priority Number One for Bell Aquaculture
What makes Bell Aquaculture stand out, aside from the fact that it is the nation’s largest producer of yellow perch, is the company’s dedication to sustainability throughout every link in its operation. Even before Bell built its innovative aquaculture facility and harvested its first fish, sustainability was priority one.
To insure efficient and sustainable water usage in its aquaculture operation, Bell uses an indoor state of the art Recirculating Aquaculture System (RAS), which was developed at the Freshwater Institute in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. On a flow basis Bell’s RAS reuses 99.8% of the water in the system. Additionally, the water that the fish are farmed in is purified on-site and held to almost the same standards as the municipal water supply. “We want to make sure that we are good stewards of everything we do including the water that we use,” said McCowan. Having an indoor system also insures against danger from outside environmental contamination of any kind.
To further increase the sustainability of its operation, Bell is taking great pains to research and develop sustainable feed for the yellow perch that it farms. “There is no diet developed at this point specifically profiled for yellow perch,” said McCowan. “We have partnered with the Indiana Soybean Alliance and Dr. Paul Brown out of Purdue University in hopes of developing that feed.”
Bell’s commitment to sustainability even extends to the leftover fish waste generated by its processing operation. The company converts the waste into organic liquid plant fertilizer (2-3-2), which it markets under the brand name, Fish Rich™.
The Market Opportunity
Today in the US we consume approximately $8.5 billion of seafood per year, but only raise $1.5 billion domestically so there is ample opportunity for the aquaculture industry to grow here. Currently demand for yellow perch, particularly in the Midwest, is high as McCowan can attest. “My freezer’s bare,” he said. “I am cutting fish this week and everything is sold as quick as I can cut it.” Bell currently raises nearly 2 million yellow perch per year.
In reference to the future market opportunity for yellow perch in the US, McCowan said: “Our hope within the next five years is to grow 11 million yellow perch for the food market, and we do not believe at that point that we’re even close to meeting the market demands.”
Bell Aquaculture is a vertically integrated company. From fish egg to table, Bell maintains its own broodstock (fish used for breeding purposes), produces its own fry and value added products such as frozen breaded fillets and Cajun nuggets, and manages its own grow building and processing plant.
Bell markets and sells its yellow perch primarily to distributors and restaurants in the Midwest. Bell perch is on numerous restaurant menus throughout the Midwest and has even been served at the prestigious James Beard house in New York.
Challenges to Scaling
According to McCowan, the greatest challenge to scaling the aquaculture industry in the US, and in turn Bell Aquaculture, is source of funding. “You look at the hog industry, at the chicken industry and the cattle industry and that source of funding has been set up for many years,” he said. “Aquaculture is very new to the banks and they see it as very risky.”
Within the next five to ten years Bell hopes to become the world’s largest producer of yellow perch and be recognized for producing a premium and locally grown sustainable product using sustainable feed with sustainable technology.
Bell also wants to play a role in growing the aquaculture industry in the US through the establishment of educational programs. The company recently partnered with the Indiana Soybean Alliance to set up a demonstration facility to offer workshops and train people in aquaculture.
Bell Aquaculture’s steadfast commitment to sustainability and overall industry growth bodes well for the future of sustainable aquaculture in the US.