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Aquaculture Lures Farmers

August 15, 1996

LOVETTSVILLE, Va. (AP) _ When John Lender heads into his poultry barn to feed his 70,000 animals, he needs only a bag of soybean pellets and a net.

That’s because he raises fish.

He is one of about 650 fish farmers in Virginia and Maryland, many of whom have abandoned traditional crops and livestock in favor of aquaculture.

Their products are mostly shellfish, freshwater and ornamental fish raised in tanks, trays and man-made ponds, and they have proved profitable, grossing nearly $40 million in sales last year. Nationally, aquaculture receipts totaled more than $1 billion.

Although most of the fish-farming operations are small, averaging about 5,000 pounds of fish each year, they have attracted the attention of consumers across the region who want pollutant-free, locally grown products in their restaurants and supermarkets.

``People who pay $20 for a fish dinner feel good about seeing `grown in Lovettsville, Va.′ on the menu,″ said Lender’s partner, Suzanne Wilcox. ``It gives them a comfortable feeling.″

While fishermen must cope with occasional schools of sick or undersize fish, farmers can breed and monitor their fish as they grow, feed them a healthy diet and deliver them live or fresh to merchants.

And if a restaurant wants to sell a half-pound fish fillet that can be cooked in a nine-inch saute pan, the farmer can grow fish to that size.

``We’re coming fairly close to producing the perfect fish,″ said Dr. Brian Nerrie, an aquaculture specialist at Virginia State University. ``From a consumer’s point of view, it is the perfect fish.″

J.P. Bowling’s family raised tobacco for 90 years in Charles County, Md., before falling profits prompted them to switch to catfish farming.

``We didn’t know anything about raising fish. But I like to catch ‘em and cook ‘em and clean ’em, so it just seemed natural,″ Bowling said.

Now Bowling and his brother Woodrow, co-owners of Allen’s Fresh Fish Farm, raise about 10,000 pounds of catfish a year in a 10-acre pond.

A freak mechanical failure killed John Lender’s 55,000 chickens and put him out of the poultry business 15 years ago. Seven years later, he began stocking a half-acre pond in his back yard with striped bass. From there he began to experiment with different filtering systems and breeds of fish.

Now he wants to expand and produce about 500,000 pounds of fish annually.

``Anyone can grow pigs and cows and chickens,″ Lender said with wry smile. ``It takes a real man to grow a fish.″

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