Fish Farmer The Buzz


Ken Holyoak knows fish. As a boy, he always loved fishing. That love grew into the business that he runs today, a hatchery and fish farm.

His company breeds baby fish called fingerlings. He sells these to other people who raise them into adult fish.

Holyoak's business is part of the huge field of aquaculture. Aquaculture is the business of breeding and raising fish, shellfish and plants. It's like agriculture, but instead of growing crops on land, people grow fish in water.

"I started in the aquaculture industry out of a need to find something more profitable than crop farming," says Holyoak. "I had a farm, but wasn't making money and decided to turn the land into ponds."

Holyoak has been in business for over 39 years. "My business has grown 100 percent every year," he says. Along with creating bigger and better breeds of fish, he gives seminars on fish farming and helps pond owners grow their fish.

He also comes up with better products to use on the fish farm. Recently, he started farming frogs. He now has the largest frog operation in North America. "There is a lot of opportunity in this business if you learn how to do it and do it right," he says.

Indeed, there is a lot of opportunity in aquaculture. "Many experts regard aquaculture as the fastest growing sector of agriculture," says an online report from the University of Guelph's aquaculture department.

Why is aquaculture growing so much? There are several reasons. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FOA) says that people around the world are eating more fish. "Global fish consumption will rise by 25 percent by 2030," says an FOA report.

But there are only so many wild fish in the ocean to catch. Aquaculture must step in to make sure there will be enough.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has similar statistics. In its Aquaculture Outlook report, it says that people will turn to aquaculture because of lower beef production. Also, people are concerned about the safety of beef, so they will eat more fish.

So should you start breeding that goldfish in your bedroom? No way. You can't just decide to grow any old kind of fish and expect someone to buy it.

"You're not in the business of growing fish. You're in the business of selling fish," says John Ewart. He is the coordinator of employment services for the World Aquaculture Society. He also specializes in aquaculture at the University of Delaware.

Ewart says that many people like the romantic idea of breeding fish. However, they don't do their research to see if someone wants to buy their fish. And they don't make a profit.

Brent Blauch says the same thing. He is the president of a small fish farm that grows a type of bass fish and sells it to restaurants in Canada and the U.S.

"I get a call a week on average from people asking how to get into the fish farming business," Blauch says. "They ask me what species to farm. They haven't thought it out."

His advice? "Grow something to meet a market need, or even better, a customer's request."

Blauch knows how hard the fish farming business can be. He got into it in a roundabout way over 12 years ago. He had a degree in civil engineering and a background in water treatment. He was working as a mining consultant when he heard of a fish farm that was up for sale. He liked fishing, and he "had the attitude that you can do anything, any time."

He bought the fish farm and intended to keep it running just as it had been to make some easy money. But it turned out that the company had been poorly run and he had to fix it. "None of us knew anything about fish farming when we came in," he says. "I had to pick stuff up OJT -- on-the-job training."

Now he runs a successful business. Still, there have been many ups and downs.

"We had an ice jam that killed all our fish," Blauch says. Because of this natural disaster, "I lost over a million dollars in product." Then, the year after he rebuilt the farm, a quarter of his fish were killed because someone forgot to give them the oxygen they needed in the water.

"No matter who you talk to, you'll hear a similar roller-coaster ride story," he says. Still, he loves what he does, especially when he delivers his fish to stock sportsmen's lakes. He loves to see the children's delight as they help add the new fish to the lake. "The good sides are pretty dog-darn good."

Ewart thinks that people interested in starting a fish farm should consider all the other jobs in aquaculture as well. "There's more to aquaculture than just growing fish," he says. There's a lot of opportunity in providing services to fish farmers. You could work in water treatment, building better cages for the fish, or designing system technology.

Fish farmers also need experts in carpentry, plumbing, electricity and construction. There's also work in marketing the fish and distributing them. "At trade conferences [for fish farmers], I see hundreds of booths with people selling netting, piping, cages...everything under the sun."

Anne McMullin also thinks that it's easier to start a business in something related to fish farming rather than starting an actual fish farm. She's president of a North American aquaculture industry alliance.

"There's an enormous cost in starting a fish farm," McMullin says. She adds that big farms also tend to buy out little farms.

"It's such a high-tech industry," she says. Running a fish farm requires a huge amount of knowledge and skills, and fish farmers need many experts to help them. If you specialize in a certain area, you can start a business as one of these experts.

"There are so many opportunities for people in the fish farming industry," she says. "Environmental management planning skills are very much needed."

McMullin also suggests getting a degree in biology or the science of environmental management. Or go to college for a two-year aquaculture training program.

Ewart advises choosing an area of aquaculture that interests you. Go to a trade school, develop practical skills, then work on a fish farm and get some hands-on experience. See where the opportunities are and how you could make things work better. "Then identify a service that's not being provided, and do it," he says. "The entrepreneurial spirit and aquaculture go hand in hand."

Links

World Aquaculture Society
An international nonprofit society