Using Stories to Grow an Industry that Grows Our Favorite Fish


Using Stories to Grow an Industry that Grows Our Favorite Fish

eeBLUE: Harvest Stories

This post was written by Nicole Wright, Aquaculture Extension Educator and LEARN Coordinator at Ohio Sea Grant, The Ohio State University.

Project partners include the Ohio Aquaculture Association, Lake Erie Nature and Science Center, Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife.

Did you know commercial fishing harvests more pounds of yellow perch from Ohio’s Lake Erie fishery than any other species? Or that yellow perch are the number one sport fish targeted by anglers in Lake Erie? While Lake Erie is our state’s primary fishery, the story of yellow perch is much bigger thanks to aquaculture in Ohio!

Illustrative image showing above and below the surface of a pond being stocked with yellow perch.

This year, Ohio Sea Grant worked with the Ohio Aquaculture Association, the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center, and the Aquatic Visitor’s Center at OSU’s Stone Laboratory to tell the story of Ohio’s wild and farmed fisheries with physical displays and digital tools using yellow perch as an example. Ohio Sea Grant is one of 34 Sea Grant programs in the United States. The Sea Grant program is modeled after the Land-Grant system using research, extension, and education to find solutions for coastal and aquatic environments, including sustainable fisheries and aquaculture.

Aquaculture propagates yellow perch throughout the state of Ohio, however aquaculture is not allowed or practiced in our Great Lake. While one state-run fish hatchery and about fifty fish farms grow this species in Ohio, only a handful of these farms and the state hatchery spawn their own fish to grow out. The fish hatchery stocks public tributaries, inland lakes, and reservoirs, while fish farms stock private ponds. Almost 100% of these fish are pond cultured in outdoor spaces, but there is growing interest and practice in recirculating indoor aquaculture systems, including aquaponics.

Farmers sell smaller amounts of yellow perch directly for food. The demand for yellow perch in the Midwest, wild-caught or farmed, far outpaces the supply throughout the region. Can the business of aquaculture sustainably increase the number of these fish and other species to end up on a fishing line or meal plate? What if our communities knew our local fish harvesters and farmers, and what if local fish was as easy to access as fruits, vegetables, chicken, pork, and beef in our local and regional food systems throughout the Great Lakes?

Illustrative image showing types of aquatic organisms raised in aquaculture along with aquaculture systems used to produce them, including ponds, recirculating systems, raceways, and aquaponics.

We can get there! But first, people need to know what our local fish resources are and what small businesses are harvesting and farming in their communities. At a recent conference, the Ohio Aquaculture Association (OAA) identified the need to better tell the story of aquaculture in Ohio. What businesses grow seafood or other aquatic products? Who are the people running them? How and why are they farming in water?

In partnership with the OAA and others, Ohio Sea Grant has begun working to increase the visibility and understanding of this frequently overlooked agricultural sector. Let’s begin to tell these stories! Our first steps, with support from the eeBLUE program, include:

We have installed displays in two locations. At the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center, visitors connect with the natural world as they interact with indoor and outdoor exhibits and information, particularly wildlife from native aquatic and forest ecosystems. At the Aquatic Visitor’s Center, a former state-run fish hatchery turned educational center on South Bass Island (owned by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife, and adjacent to Ohio State University's Stone Lab, both operated by Ohio Sea Grant) visitors catch yellow perch off the fishing pier, observe live yellow perch in aquaria and former raceways, and learn about Lake Erie issues. At both, visitors can now learn about Ohio’s farmed fisheries to complement these existing materials on natural resources.

Photograph of the interior of the Aquatic Visitor’s Center at OSU’s Stone Laboratory that includes wall mounted displays and live fish in aquaria and raceways.

Can a better understanding of this industry improve the ability of businesses to expand, diversify, and succeed in aquaculture? Certainly, the future of aquaculture is complicated, but stories can contribute to understanding. At a late summer visit with a tabletop display at the Ohio Fish and Shrimp Festival, an annual event put on by Freshwater Farm of Ohio, comments included, “I didn’t know yellow perch were farmed in Ohio.” and “Yellow perch eat mosquitos? That’s cool!”

Moving forward, we will focus on ways to make our materials more interactive and refine language as we get feedback from viewers and industry members. Videos that show the steps of yellow perch production in Ohio are in the works, along with introductions to producers and hatchery workers. Aquaculture in Ohio is also more than yellow perch. Future work will incorporate other species, contexts, and perspectives to expand the way we communicate about aquaculture in Ohio and the Great Lakes region.

Through the NOAA-NAAEE Collaborative Aquaculture Literacy mini-grants program, NAAEE supports partnerships sharing the mutual aquaculture literacy goals of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of Education, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and National Sea Grant Office. These mini-grants provide informal learning institutions (e.g., aquariums), aquaculture industry (e.g., shellfish, finfish, seaweed farmers), and NOAA partners with support for the co-development of innovative educational experiences that explore aquaculture topics and support the engagement and advancement of public aquaculture literacy.