JEFFERSON CITY — Shoppers may soon see bluegill alongside snapper and salmon on a bed of crushed ice at the supermarket.
For years, bluegill has been a favorite catch for anglers. The native sunfish swims in hundreds of Missouri lakes and ponds, and can be pulled out of the water with a stick, string and a hook.
These scientists have developed techniques to speed up the bluegill's growth while simultaneously making it heavier, both economic incentives for a fish farming venture in the state.
Raising bluegill on fish farms could offer a cheaper alternative to fish like tilapia, as well as provide additional income opportunities for those in the aquaculture industry, said Bob Pierce, fisheries and wildlife specialist at MU Extension.
"They say in the year 2050, 50 percent of the protein that’s going to be available in the world is going to be fish products. There won’t be enough land left for terrestrial animals," said Chuck Hicks, principal investigator for aquaculture research at Lincoln University.
Those in the aquaculture business will need to start accounting for the problems fishermen are now facing in the oceans, where the fish population is beginning to decline, Hicks said.
"If we’re going to eat all of these things, we’ve got to be able to produce them," he said. "We need to work on alternate species."
Hicks first began seeking an alternative food fish species in 2004, coming out of retirement to start a program to commercialize bluegill.
He and his team at the Carver Farm were able to significantly cut the fish’s growth time from a full three years to 18 months.
Decreasing the bluegill’s maturation period, while increasing its size to nearly a full pound would make it suitable for the food market, Hicks said.
Russell Gerlach, lab technician at the Carver Farm, said raising a fish that takes any longer than two years to reach full size is not economically feasible.
The bluegill was the ideal choice to the investigators as a new species for food markets because of its local availability. It is already a well-known fish in the north-central region of the United States and elsewhere.
"It isn’t a fish that you have to introduce to people and educate them on," Hicks said. "If we can get a large one that’s acceptable at an economical cost, then we think it’ll be a really good fish."
A member of Hicks' investigating team, MU graduate research assistant Leslie Hearne, said she favors the mild taste of the bluegill to tilapia, its African counterpart. Bluegill can be baked, fried or grilled.
"Most of the time when you eat tilapia, there's lots of seasoning put on it," Hearne said. "With bluegill, you don't have to do that."
Hearne, who is conducting her research in conjunction with Lincoln University, said the fact that bluegill can be produced locally allows for better monitoring of contamination.
One of the more significant innovations the investigators developed was a durable, inexpensive cage that would allow farmers to expand into aquaculture without a steep investment.
In addition to raising the commercial bluegill, investigators also found benefits in breeding a hybrid bluegill for the food markets.
To breed the hybrid commercialized bluegill, Hearne said a male was crossed with another sunfish species, the female redear, which tended to outperform the standard bluegill. The hybrid bluegill was not only larger in size but had a higher filet yield with a thicker composition, she said.
Currently, Hicks and his team of investigators at Lincoln have developed an extension project to test the effectiveness of these cages for raising commercial bluegill, both the standard and hybrid species.
Farmers with no experience in aquaculture are given the cages and other equipment needed in order to better verify the team’s techniques in raising the fish.
The investigators placed 16 cages with farmers around the area this past summer, and they intend to continue to expand that number, Hicks said.
Depending upon survival, Gerlach said farmers can expect to harvest in the range of 30,000–40,000 commercial bluegill per acre.
According to Pierce, once farmers have adopted the methods for raising the commercial bluegill, they will be able carry the fish to food markets.
"We have to get some people actually introducing them to urban markets like St. Louis and Kansas City, and there are live markets in Chicago, Toronto and areas like that where they also have to be introduced," Hicks said.
These commercialized bluegill could not only supplement a farmer's income, but Missouri could potentially see an economic boost, Gerlach said.