News Mobile Catfish Lab Ready for Road Work

Mobile Catfish Lab Ready for Road Work

Mobile Catfish Lab Ready for Road Work
February 6, 2006 |

It was around midnight, a thunderstorm was raging on the pond banks and Bill Hemstreet, a fish health specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, was soaked to the gills.Working from the tailgate of a pickup truck as he looked for the cause of an apparent toxic fish kill in a Hale County catfish pond, Hemstreet’s nightmare worsened when he dragged his casting net through a muddy fire ant mound.”That was really when the light came on,” said Hemstreet. “I said, ‘I’ve got to have something better to work with!'”Today, Hemstreet has that “something” — a 2005 mini-Winnebago motor home that serves as a mobile laboratory for catfish farmers in a seven-county area throughout Alabama’s Black Belt region.Anchored at the Alabama Fish Farming Center in Greensboro, the 24-foot motorhome, built on a Ford chassis and purchased new for the bargain price of $43,500 from a Florida dealership, is slowly being converted into a miniature lab on wheels.The motorhome was purchased through Auburn University with checkoff funds from Alabama Catfish Producers, funding by the West Alabama Catfish Producers and an ADECA grant. Since August, Hemstreet and others have worked to transform the motorhome from a football fan’s dream into something more befitting a fish scientist.Already they’ve added a stationary microscope for bacterial work, a work station and a small, portable spectrophotometer for conducting water analyses, a small centrifuge for doing blood work, and refrigeration for preserving tissue samples. More alterations may come as the need arises.”We’ll be able to do pretty much what we do in the big lab (at the Fish Farming Center), except we won’t be able to do any histology,” said Hemstreet. “We can freeze some things, but we can’t do the actual cutting and observing. That has to be done at the Farm Center lab. And we can’t do any virus work in there, either. But those tissue samples can be brought back here to be worked up.”Mitt Walker, director of the Catfish Division of the Alabama Farmers Federation, said the purchase shows just what the checkoff program can do for producers. “The purchase and outfitting of the mobile lab are examples of the checkoff program allowing producers to fund a need in their industry,” said Walker. “The capability of the lab to conduct on-site diagnostic work and research will be a great asset for producers for years to come.”The mobile catfish lab, as it is commonly called, is yet another sign that Alabama’s catfish industry has outgrown its own small pond. With 25,000 acres of catfish ponds in Alabama (almost half of that in Hale County alone), Hemstreet said many of the smaller operators have faded away. In their place, he said, are larger farms run by operators whose higher-density ponds create a demand for more intensive research and less routine services like water quality analysis and parasite identification.”A lot of these guys have been in business long enough that they know their diseases — they don’t need me to tell them that their fish has columnaris or ESC, which is another bacteria,” said Hemstreet. “Those have very obvious symptoms, and they don’t need me to come out and tell them that. They know that, and they know what they need to do to solve the problem.”As a result, Hemstreet saw demand for routine services plummet over the past several years, dropping from 1,500 cases a year in the 1990s to 400 cases in 2001. “That was a dramatic drop, and that told me that the industry was changing,” said Hemstreet. “We were having greater stocking rates, higher densities of fish which were bringing on some really complicated problems that we did not understand. I realized at that point that if we were going to stay relevant to the industry, we had to get out there and get on the pond bank. There’s only so much you can do sitting in a lab and looking at water quality and fish. You’ve got to get out there where these things are happening.”For example, Hemstreet said the mobile lab’s main mission would be to study diseases, the causes of off flavors and anemic pond conditions, and more importantly, those yet-unexplained toxic releases that have resulted in numerous fish kills over the past few years.”These ponds will get very heavy algae blooms in the summertime due to the heavy feeding, and sometimes, these algae blooms will turn toxic. At least, we think it’s the algae,” said Hemstreet. “It’s something we do not understand, but the water quality conditions can become very toxic from the heavy organic loads that we create in these ponds. These things happen very quickly. They can kill a pond of fish in a very short period of time.”But you’ve got to realize what’s going on in order to stop it. So, these toxic conditions are one reason this lab has been set up. We’ve got to figure out what’s causing these things to turn toxic. Whatever it is, it’s very nasty, and it turns very ugly in a hurry.”
Hemstreet said progress on the problem has been slow, largely due to the delay in getting samples to researchers at Auburn University. “We’ve got to get out in the field and on the pond banks collecting samples rather than them sitting in the back of a pickup truck for two or three hours while the (farmer) drives over here,” he said. “Right now, we’re just not getting quality information back to the research people.”Butch Wilson, chairman of the Federation’s State Catfish Committee, agrees. “It’s 30 miles from my farm to the Fish Center, and by the time I take a lab sample 30 miles all kinds of things could happen to it,” said Wilson who has 430 acres of ponds. “But I think the time is not so critical as is the fact that the samples are handled right, and the lab is getting the samples it needs. We’re not scientists, and so a lot of times, we don’t know what they need in the way of tests.”In the past, Hemstreet often found himself working from the bed of a pickup truck in inclement weather and trying to determine the cause of fish kills or other problems.”In order to keep our laboratory relevant to the future needs of the industry, we really needed to do what this lab is going to allow us to do,” Hemstreet said. “And it’s not just me — if researchers from Auburn come over and want to go out and spend some time on these ponds, then I’ve got a good platform for them to go out and work.”Hemstreet admits, however, that the new mobile lab has its drawbacks. He wonders aloud whether he will be able to maneuver it along the pond banks of some farms, especially after heavy rains have created a bed of mud. Just in case, he’s got a four-wheeler that he can tow behind the motorhome.As an added precaution, catfish farmer Bill Kyser has already welded a tow bar to the front of the motorhome.
That gave Hemstreet some comfort. Yet, he still has some reservations about driving the land yacht.”Wherever you go,” he said, “you’ve got to make sure that you don’t want to have to back that thing up.”

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