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State's Prospering Fish Farmers Raising Catfish for Asian Palate

February 20, 1987|BRUCE KEPPEL | Times Staff Writer

California's fish farmers, who for years raised trout to test the angler's skill, are expanding rapidly to meet the new demand for catfish by recent immigrants from Asia accustomed to buying fish live from retailers' tanks.

Aquaculture--the raising of fish, shellfish and aquatic plants--still accounts for only an estimated $30 million of California's $14 billion in wholesale farm production every year. But the state's aquaculture production is believed to have more than doubled during the past five years, while most other segments of agriculture have experienced declines, according to the California Aquaculture Assn., which today concludes its three-day annual meeting in Long Beach.

George Ray, who grows catfish at Niland near the Salton Sea, is credited with discovering the Asian market for farm-produced live catfish in the 1970s. After noticing retailers with tanks of live fish in Los Angeles' Chinatown, Ray persuaded some fish merchants to accept his home-grown catfish. Northern California producers quickly discovered outlets in San Francisco's Chinatown.

Direct to the Markets

Ray, who is secretary of the California Aquaculture Assn., designed a special tank truck--much copied since--to haul his crop of live catfish to retailers.

Nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, aquaculture production climbed to $371 million, or 535.8 million pounds, in 1985 from $148 million, or 203.2 million pounds, in 1980. But those figures are far from comprehensive and include private production of only catfish, clams, crayfish, oysters, prawns, salmon, shrimp and trout.

The figures do not count production of fish eggs, breeder stock, bait fish, minnows, striped bass and sturgeon--all of which are increasingly being raised in California, said Ken Beer, who until Thursday was the state association's president.

California aquaculture is distinguished by its wide variety of species, said Beer, who operates a fish farm in the Sacramento County town of Galt. Aquaculture elsewhere is generally distinguished by a single product--such as trout in Idaho, catfish in Mississippi and crayfish in Louisiana.

Obscuring Data

Another trait of the California industry--and a factor that makes accurate production figures impossible to obtain--is that the state's aquaculturists both market their crops individually and sell directly to retailers, thus avoiding the middlemen who typically provide data to government agencies.

The Asian market for live fish is hardly the only one developed by California's aquaculturists. In the San Joaquin Valley, producers grow "mosquito fish"--a tiny, prolific guppy that devours mosquito larvae--for mosquito abatement districts in that heavily irrigated area.

"The good thing about this fish is there's complete mortality over winter, so there's a continuing market," Beer said.

The California Department of Fish and Game, meanwhile, is buying farm-raised striped bass to replace wild bass killed as Sacramento River water is siphoned off to irrigate the San Joaquin Valley and meet Southern California's water needs.

Over the last seven years, a few California aquaculturists have tried to develop a new market for white sturgeon, an extremely slow-maturing fish that is native to California. The female of the species matures after about 15 years, but farming can cut that nearly in half, Beer said. So far, sturgeon have been sold as breeder stock or specimen fish for the aquarium trade. Soon, he predicted, the fish will be sold as food and, eventually, it will be marketed for its roe, better known as caviar.

"This is one of the few areas in agriculture where you can start small and enlarge," he said.

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