Commercial fish farming may appear daunting due to significant startup capital and its perception as a highly advanced and technical farming method. However, fish farming is an ancient tradition that you can start with simple farming methods and moderate startup capital.
Before getting into commercial fish farming, you must consider the following points:
- The potential for growth and profit
- The type of fish and aquatic species you should farm
- Tools and Equipment you will need
- The legal requirements and regulations of fish farming
- The business strategies you can use
We are going to discuss each of these points in greater detail below so that you have a step-by-step, holistic guide covering the challenges, growth potential, and profitability of fish farming:
Why Should You Start A Commercial Fish Farm?
There are six reasons you should consider starting a commercial fish farm:
- Fish are seen as the primary source of seafood for the next 20 years.
- Already, 30% of the fish eaten each year by people are grown on commercial farms.
- Compared to land animals, the business of raising fish is growing at three times the rate.
- Fish Farms can be established in ponds, pools, tanks, or cages/nets in offshore cultivation.
- Commercial fish farms can be profitable and environmentally friendly.
- According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, wild fish populations are at risk, and raising farm fish can supply the world’s need for food.
Although there is a perception that commercial fish farming is a modern phenomenon, fish farming is an ancient farming practice that has seen a surge in popularity, consumer buy-in, and profitability in the past 34 years in America.
This boom illustrates that the aquaculture portion of fish production has increased from less than 10% of the total output to about 50% today. While per capita fish consumption has risen rapidly from about 20 pounds per year in 1961 to over 45 pounds today, which is approximately 17% of all animal protein consumed globally.
However, the popularity of commercial fishing cannot be seen in a vacuum; instead, the World Bank estimated that arable land has barely increased over the last 60 years, with estimates suggesting minor growth from 9.7% up to 11% of total land area.
However, during that time frame, the global population has increased from about 3 billion to over 7.5 billion people. Consequently, arable land growth and crop/livestock maximization is an unrealistic method of feeding a global population that may exceed over 10 billion people in the coming years!
Fortunately, the costs to get started in aquaculture vary depending on what fish species you are trying to grow and whether it’s a low-level or more intense operation, ranging between as little as $100,000 or over $1 million.
Therefore, with a growing need for commercial fish farms and America’s relatively small share in the global aquaculture market, there are ample opportunities for beginner fish farmers to turn a profit while contributing to a more significant social, economic, and environmental cause!
What Fish Species Should You Farm?
Before starting a fish farm, it is crucial to understand the various aquatic species you can raise. Choosing the correct species cannot be understated, as each fish has different requirements and costs and requires different levels of expertise to grow them successfully.
Furthermore, depending on your target market and the basic principles of supply and demand, different species will present other challenges and profit projections. Here are seven of the most common fish/animal species farmed in commercial fish farms:
- Channel catfish
- Striped bass
- Trout and salmon
Some of the most popular variants of baitfish are golden shiners, fathead minnows, and goldfish. These fish can be produced reliably in commercial fish ponds, as these species reproduce naturally and grow well on inexpensive feeds.
Therefore, a series of flat bottomed ponds that can be easily drained, seined, and refilled regularly is necessary to harvest baitfish, which follow a business model of inexpensive fish at a high turnover rate.
Concerning baitfish competition, just be aware of large, established commercial farms in your area that may already be producing them. The reason is that large established farms likely have existing contracts with bait stores for affordable prices; this makes breaking into the baitfish market very difficult for new startups.
2. Channel Catfish
Commercially farmed catfish is one of the most popular fish species across the southern states of America. Channel catfish are preferred over other species of catfish because of their tolerance for handling, good feed conversion, and ease of spawning.
Although channel catfish are considered the best subspecies of catfish for commercial fish farming, brown, black and yellow bullhead catfish are other options. Furthermore, regardless of the subspecies chosen, all catfish are resistant to disease and parasites and are known for their rapid growth rates.
However, due to the abundance of commercial catfish farming in America, you must assess the viability and demand for catfish in your area before embarking on a catfish farming business.
Although commercial crawfish farming in America is a relatively new venture, notable successes have been seen in southern states like Louisiana and Texas.
While red swamp and green swamp crawfish are two popular subspecies of crawfish to farm, either species is viable as larger crawfish are considered luxury food items. In comparison, smaller crawfish are good bait options.
To farm crawfish, you must have relatively flat land with good water holding capacity and enough water to maintain approximately 2 feet of water depth. Also, be aware that extensive labor is needed to harvest and reset traps each day for four to seven months, as crawfish grow slower than most fish on this list.
Finally, you should be aware that while exotic crawfish such as Australian crawfish are popular food items in America, the feasibility of actually growing exotic crawfish locally is improbable. This is because they are susceptible to disease, parasites, and the notorious crawfish fungus plague, which native species are resistant to.
4. Striped Bass
As a result of declining fish stocks and wild bass population problems, consumers are turning to commercial fish farms to source bass. Fortunately, striped bass and hybrid subspecies of striped bass have proven viable in a commercial setting while having a mild taste compared to wild bass.
However, although striped bass appears to thrive in pond and tank environments, fingerlings require special care to cultivate. Therefore, you must keep large and small fish separate while focusing on giving them quality nutrition, delicate handling, adequate lighting, and optimal water temperatures at approximately 80 degrees.
Although the value of paddlefish as a food source is minimal, save for some smoking operations, paddlefish eggs can fetch upward of $30 a pound. Consequently, commercial paddlefish farming has become a legitimate alternative to exotic products like Iranian and Russian caviar.
However, farming paddlefish is a long-term investment, as it takes approximately ten years before a female paddlefish can produce eggs!
Furthermore, there are a host of challenges with the experimental culture of paddlefish:
- Paddlefish feed on small wildlife, which they filter in the water
- Paddlefish fingerling production is unreliable, with fingerlings known to be very susceptible to birds due to their habit of swimming near the surface
In conclusion, paddlefish farming should be a small investment. You can introduce paddlefish into other commercial farming operations for a few years before placing them in a separate pond (such as in catfish ponds).
Alternatively, substantial investments into paddlefish farming should be well thought out and ideally should only be taken up and experienced and established commercial fish farmers.
Tilapia is known for its excellent quality of flesh and resilience. They are tolerant of poor water quality conditions, low oxygen level resistance, high ammonia tolerance, and resistance to various parasites and diseases while growing well on low protein feeds. Despite not being native to America, various tilapia species have made them an ideal fish for commercial farming globally.
However, a technical challenge when farming tilapia is that they die when temperatures drop below 50°F. Because of this, broodstock or fingerlings must spend the winter in heated indoor tanks or small ponds fed by a naturally warm well or spring water.
Another serious problem is frequent reproduction; this leads to overpopulated ponds and stunted growth if left uncontrolled. Coupled with the fact that tilapia grow rapidly, it becomes more crucial that population control and pond size are carefully monitored.
In conclusion, and despite these challenges, tilapia is a good beginner fish to farm, with Java, Blue, and Nile tilapia being the best subspecies for beginners.
7. Trout And Salmon
Finally, trout and salmon are two prevalent commercial fish globally, although trout farming in America is substantially more advanced and developed than salmon farming.
These cold-water fish generally grow best at water temperatures between 55°F and 65°F and die when temperatures reach 70°F. Furthermore, the oxygen level of water needs to be carefully monitored and maintained.
These flavorful fish can be stocked together and grow quickly, providing harvestable fish in one season. Consequently, it provides a suitable source of diverse harvest and learning experiences for beginner fish farmers.
What Tools And Equipment Are Needed In Fish Farming?
Regardless of the fish you decide to farm, the method of farming you choose, or the size, there is specific fish farming equipment that you need to develop, operate, and maintain your fish farm.
The following list includes the equipment and tools that are extensively utilized in commercial fish farms:
Various digging tools are needed for outdoor ponds to construct, expand, and maintain ponds. Whether you opt for expensive automated machinery or simple hand-operated tools such as shovels, digging equipment must be versatile and well-maintained.
Although most digging equipment may simply require oil or grease to prevent rusting, more advanced equipment may need professional maintenance and an extended warranty to ensure its longevity and effectiveness.
Leveling tools include tools that level the ground around a pond for construction and maintain the bottom of a pond once constructed. Leveling the bottom of a pond is essential for the natural vegetation growth for fish, establishing spawning spots, installing equipment, and removing predators.
Basic leveling equipment includes mud rakes and leveling boards, specifically designed for pond maintenance of commercial farms.
Silt often builds up in stagnant spaces such as commercial fishing ponds and tanks; therefore, it is vital to invest in desilting equipment. Although desilting equipment may include a simple metallic shovel, larger commercial fish farms are advised to invest in silt pumps and sludge pumps.
While different farms require more extensive and advanced pumps, various silt and sludge pumps in the market can quickly and effectively remove silt while being portable enough to service numerous tanks and ponds.
Nets and Traps
Nets and traps are necessary for removing and moving fish from pond to pond. Alternatively, traps can be used to catch and remove hostile predators and invasive fish from a commercial pond or tank.
It is crucial to invest in nets and traps suited for your fish farming operations, meaning that they must be large enough to move fish safely and securely.
Equipment for Maintaining Water Quality
The first fish farming equipment you should invest in for maintaining water quality is an aeration system.
Aeration systems come in two variants:
- Manual Aeration by pulsed air: suitable for small commercial fish farms, manual aeration uses a blower to generate air at low pressure through pipes.
- Aeration by mechanical agitation: suitable for larger commercial fish farms, mechanical agitation is further broken down into three sub-variants:
- Fountain aerators recycle water from the bottom of ponds and push the water to the surface like a fountain. The movement of water is achieved via a simple motor-driven propeller. Although fountain aerators are good at recycling low in oxygen water, this water movement creates waves that may damage ponds. Furthermore, fountain aerators are prone to silt build-up, which means regular maintenance is vital.
- Paddlewheel aerators create water movement and oxygen circulation on the surface of ponds with motor-driven paddles that sit on flotation devices. Although paddlewheel aerators are not as efficient as fountain aerators, they pose less risk of damage to the pond via erosion and are easier to maintain.
- The Venturi system is used in the construction of differing aeration systems, whereby pipes are molded into cone-shaped tubes. The Venturi system improves the speed and flow of water and induces good gaseous exchange. However, they can create holes in the bottom of ponds if the flow is poorly oriented or the ponds are not deep enough.
Further to the above, aeration systems must be chosen according to the type of pond or tank being built, species of fish, etc. Therefore, you should consult with a professional or a farming expert before installing any aeration systems on your fish farm.
For water quality and the movement of oxygen in a fish pond, you must invest in a quality water pump, paddle wheels, oxygen generator, and a water and soil analysis kit to help you accurately monitor the environment of your ponds and tanks.
While it is possible to hand feed fish manually, this is not a practical method of feeding fish in large-scale commercial fish farms. Furthermore, the need for regular, automatic feeding during inconvenient times and dates is vital when you are away or unavailable.
Consequently, you should invest in small-scale mechanical fish feeders (such as a clockwork-driven belt feeder) or larger electronic equipment that sources fish food from nearby silos. The method chosen should align with your budget, the size of your fish farm, and the species of fish you are farming.
Whether you decide to farm fish in outside ponds or indoor fish tanks, you will need to purchase and invest in some commercial fish tanks. When choosing fish tanks, you must make sure you have the necessary equipment to equip and maintain these tanks and that they have enough space for the species of fish you intend to farm.
Generally speaking, quality commercial fish tanks will include the following features:
- A round design to improve the circular flow of water
- A central drain
- A sloped floor
- Smooth out edges and proper finishing
- An adequately designed inlet system
Whether you have a large-scale operation or a small commercial fish farm, various tools and equipment will most likely require electricity to keep your fish farming operation running.
Alternatively, even if your entire operation is manual, having security systems such as cameras and alarm systems is vital for general safety and secure farm operation.
Consequently, you must invest in an electrical generator capable of running most or all of the equipment and systems you have installed to keep your fish farm operational during a power outage.
Fish Grading Equipment
Fish graders are used for grading and separating fish according to their size. Grading fish is essential as it allows fish farmers to make sure smaller fish are not competing with larger fish in the same enclosure. In addition, it helps farmers determine if their fish tanks and ponds promote healthy growth and aid farmers in assessing the quality of their fish stock.
Fish grading equipment usually comes in two variants:
1. Manual Fish Graders
These graders are made with boxes fitted with different screen sizes, which correlate to different fish sizes. Manual fish graders are a basic system that allows smaller fish to move through the screen while larger fish stay in the box. Although this simple system doesn’t require any electricity, it requires physical labor and may prove stressful for some fish species!
2. Mechanical Fish Graders
These automatic graders consist of two rollers between two bands with progressively larger gaps along the rollers. The different sized gaps mean fish of varying sizes can be moved along the rollers, whereby they fall through the intervals depending on the size of the fish. Although efficient, automatic, and not stressful for fish, mechanical fish graders are expensive and recommended for more significant farming operations.
Recommended Commercial Fish Farm Accessories
While not an extensive list, the following optional accessories are recommended for commercial fish farms:
What Are The Legal Requirements For Operating A Fish Farm?
There are various laws and regulations you need to comply with if you want to operate a fish farm:
- Tax Registration
- Federal business licensing
- State and local business licensing
- Certificate of occupancy
You must secure an EIN on the IRS website to register for state and federal taxes to register for tax.
Federal Business Licensing
Any fish stock you intend to sell as food or bait must comply with The Food and Drug Administration regulations.
State And Local Business Licensing
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service governs business licenses and permits for fish farms. These licenses and permits must also correlate with local by-laws.
Certificate Of Occupancy
Whether you are renting a property or purchasing a property for fish farming, you must have a recognized Certificate of Occupancy.
What Business Strategies Must You Use For Your Fish Farm?
Like any business, running a commercial fish farm requires that you have clear profit margins, marketing campaigns, and a target market in mind. Some recommended business strategies and plans for commercial fish farms are:
- Defining your brand with a recognizable name, logo, and mission statement
- Involve yourself in direct marketing to local restaurants, bait shops, fishmongers, pet stores, etc., depending on your target market
- Establish a reputable website and online campaign for indirect marketing and contact details
- Engage with customers, suppliers, and experts in the field through trade shows and exhibitions
In conclusion, while commercial fish farming is a potentially profitable business, new fish farmers are advised to start with small operations and slowly grow, reduce, or alter their business according to broader market and profit margins.
This is not an Investment Advice
The Ideas and Strategies presented on this website and the information are based on our research and experience. These strategies are not intended to be a source of financial or business advice concerning the material presented. The information and documents contained on this website do not constitute investment advice. Any business idea or investment plan with financial risk should never be used without first assessing your own personal and financial situation or consulting a financial professional.