News Eagle Aquaculture Takes Catfish To New Heights

Eagle Aquaculture Takes Catfish To New Heights

Eagle Aquaculture Takes Catfish To New Heights
July 13, 2005 |

A premium hybrid catfish that Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station fisheries researchers at Auburn University worked nearly three decades to develop and make commercially viable should be available to Alabama catfish producers this fall. It is expected to provide a significant boost to the state’s $500 million catfish industry.The fish that AU’s Rex Dunham and others developed will be marketed as the Auburn University Hybrid Catfish by Eagle Aquaculture Inc., a new Auburn-based company whose sole product will be AU Hybrid fingerlings.The AU Hybrid Catfish, a cross between a female channel catfish and a male blue catfish, grows faster, converts feed more efficiently, is more disease-resistant, is hardier, is easier to harvest and has a higher processed yield than the channel catfish state producers grow now. The hybrid, Dunham said, tastes the same as other farm-raised catfish and has superior performance compared to both parent species.”Very seldom can you make a single cross and improve so many traits,” Dunham said. The catch is that channel and blue catfish don’t mate naturally, so a major hurdle in the research has been to develop and refine artificial fertilization techniques that will hatch enough fish for production on a commercial scale.Dunham has accomplished that, and at a leased hatchery in Montgomery, Eagle Aquaculture began production this summer. After the eggs hatch, Eagle ships the tiny fry to catfish producers Bill Kyser of Greensboro and Rafe Taylor of Eutaw–who grow them into six-inch-long fingerlings. By fall, Dunham expects to be ready to fill growers’ orders.Sam Lawrence, chief executive officer of Eagle, said the company will pace itself for growth. “We will start relatively small to establish ourselves,” Lawrence said. “Within five years, we want to be producing around 10 percent of the fingerling market.”Currently, that market for the U.S. farm-raised catfish industry is 700 million fingerlings annually.Lawrence is not expecting a “mass conversion of the industry” to the AU Hybrid. For one thing, farming hybrids will require some significant changes in the way producers operate.While in traditional catfish production, farmers have multi-cropped and had ponds filled with fish of different maturities, hybrids should be raised “one batch at a time,” Lawrence said.
“You want pure hybrids in a pond, so before producers can stock ponds with hybrids, they have to completely clean them out,” Lawrence said. “Many growers already are thinking hard about whether they want to do that, because it can get expensive. It will initially be a challenge.”Eagle is predicting a slow and gradual switch.”Initially, we expect most producers likely will convert some, but not all, of their ponds to the hybrid,” Lawrence said. “Over time, they can increase their hybrid production.”Channel catfish fingerlings typically sell for about 1.25 cents per inch, or 7.5 cents for a six-inch fingerling. Lawrence said the AU Hybrid Catfish fingerlings, which should be available to producers in October, will cost more.”It takes 18 to 24 months for channel catfish to reach food fish size, but the AU Hybrid reaches that point in approximately 12 months,” Lawrence said. “There will be a premium on these fish, because they are worth more to the producer.”Dunham said the hybrid fingerlings not only grow faster and more efficiently, but their survivability is almost twice that of channel catfish. The hybrid fish also are easier to harvest because they swim nearer the middle of the water, rather than hovering on the bottom.Lawrence, a former aerospace engineer, did extensive market research before deciding to launch Eagle. Focus groups with west Alabama producers and with leadership of the Alabama Catfish Producers–a group that has been a key supporter of Dunham’s research through the years–indicated growers were extremely interested in and ready for the AU Hybrid. Eagle has committed to giving the state’s producers first dibs on the hybrids.”Alabama farmers will get the first shot at these fingerlings, absolutely, because the Alabama Catfish Producers (a division of Alabama Farmers Federation) has been such a strong supporter of Rex’s research,” Lawrence said. Federation Commodity Director Jimmy Carlisle, who serves as director of Alabama Catfish Producers, said more of Alabama’s catfish checkoff dollars have been spent on genetic research at Auburn than on any other research initiative. “We recognized that developing the genetics for a better performing catfish was a long-term commitment, and we are excited to see the results of that research now becoming available to producers,” Carlisle said.Dunham called Alabama Catfish Producers’ support “crucial.””We tried a number of ways to get this done, and Alabama Catfish Producers stuck with us as the process evolved,” Dunham said.The process–which involves introducing harvested sperm from the blue catfish to the eggs of the channel catfish in a pan–is not patented. But Dunham said there are a lot of nuances involved in fertilization that were developed through trial and error over the last 30 years.Dunham is working with Eagle on a consultant basis as chief scientific officer and technical director. Directing the hatchery operations is Nagaraj Chatakondi, who worked on the AU Hybrid Catfish project as a graduate student under Dunham and has been working in the commercial catfish industry for eight years.”Growing hybrids is not difficult (for the producer),” said Chatakondi. “It’s just like growing any other catfish. Fertilization and hatching is the hard part.”Lawrence said Eagle is fortunate to have both Dunham and Chatakondi on its team.”Rex and Nagaraj are the two leading experts on the AU Hybrid Catfish, and we’re extremely proud that they’re both working with Eagle,” Lawrence said.For Dunham, the commercial availability of the AU Hybrid will be extremely rewarding and exciting. “Seeing the AU Hybrid in fish ponds around the state and region will be the ultimate accomplishment in my career,” said Dunham, whose research to improve performance of the fish will continue. “If this is the only thing I accomplish in my career, I will consider it a success.”Eagle Aquaculture, a private company specifically formed to commercialize the AU Hybrid Catfish technology, is a subsidiary of Aetos Technologies, a technology development company Auburn University and a group of private investors co-founded in 2003 to bridge the gap between university-based research and the commercial market. Eagle has sole commercial rights to the hybrid technology.In addition to serving as CEO of Eagle Aquaculture, Lawrence is chief operating officer of Aetos.

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