UAPB fish diagnostic labs ensure safety standards, export opportunities for Arkansas baitfish producers

Will Hehemann School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences

_MG_0143In sport fishing, catching the prize fish largely depends on using the right bait, says Dr. Anita Kelly, associate director, Aquaculture/Fisheries Center of Excellence and Extension fish health specialist at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. As the popularity of recreational and sport fishing increased nationwide in the late 20th century, this basic principle of recreational fishing led an increasing number of Arkansas fish producers to pursue new opportunities in the industry.

“Thanks to the contributions of our state’s insightful producers, Arkansas is currently the biggest national producer of baitfish – smaller species of fish that are used by anglers to catch larger predatory game fish,” Dr. Kelly said. “Arkansas farms produce over 80 percent of U.S. baitfish, helping ensure sport fishing opportunities nationwide.”

Dr. Kelly said the Harry Saul Minnow Farm, founded over 50 years ago, was one of the early contributors to the state’s baitfish economy. Located in DeValls Bluff, Arkansas, the farm ships minnow species including golden shiners, black tuffies and rosy reds to 17 states across the U.S.

“Our farm was started in 1951 on 10 acres of ground after my father-in-law, the late Harry Saul, realized he could not get a steady supply of minnows by seining them out of the rivers,” Margie Saul, office manager at Harry Saul Minnow Farm said. “Acreage was added over time, so the farm currently consists of approximately 1,100 acres under water. It has always been and continues to be a family farm.”

Saul said staying competitive in the baitfish industry means complying with the strict regulations that govern the export of aquaculture species across state borders. Twice a year, the farm has its fish species tested at the UAPB Fish Health Inspection Laboratory in Lonoke, Arkansas. The laboratory is one of 11 facilities nationwide approved by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to conduct diagnostic testing that allows producers to obtain health certification for the export of aquaculture species.

“Most of our bait is delivered to customers outside of Arkansas, and some of these states have gotten very particular about transported fish crossing their borders,” Saul said. “We could not make a living if we only sold bait within the state, so our inspection and certification is very important to us.”

Saul said the local availability of UAPB’s fish inspection services is helpful, as taking the baitfish to be inspected out of state would greatly increase time constraints as well as the cost of testing. Not having to ship fish for testing out of state also helps avoid setbacks that can arise from a more complicated chain of custody between the farm and a non-local laboratory.

Dr. Kelly said the lab at Lonoke conducts the necessary test for the Arkansas Baitfish Certification Program, which is overseen by the Arkansas State Plant Board. The lab provides prompt service, as specialists test each fish species a producer sells for viruses identified by the World Organization for Animal Health.

“Instances of cross-contamination in exported fish can cause huge financial losses and even closure for fish farms,” she said. “Access to the regular health certifications and onsite inspections provided by the UAPB laboratory means that local producers can prove the quality of their fish and avoid financial losses.”

Besides having the fish tested for certification twice a year, Saul said her farm occasionally uses UAPB’s regular fish diagnostic services in case of any problems with its fish populations. The laboratory in Lonoke – in addition to other UAPB fish diagnostic laboratories in Pine Bluff, Lake Village and Jonesboro – diagnose fish diseases and water quality issues, as well as conduct aquatic plant identification and management.

“Producers will bring us samples when their fish stop eating or when they notice a few dying in the pond,” Dr. Kelly said. “At any one of our labs, we can then analyze the water quality and examine the fish for signs of parasites and bacterial or viral infections. We will also obtain samples of aquatic weeds to identify and recommend treatments.”

The UAPB laboratories in Pine Bluff and Lonoke have the additional capability of conducting genetic tests for confirmation of disease, she said. At the Pine Bluff location, lab technicians are able to produce histology slides – thin slices of tissue that are stained for microscopic analysis, which can be used to see changes in cells in response to different diets, toxins and pollutants.

UAPB’s fish diagnostic laboratories are located throughout the state in the regions where aquaculture production is concentrated, Dr. Kelly said. In southeast Arkansas, UAPB conducts disease testing primarily on warm water fish, which make up the bulk of production in the region.

Dr. Kelly said outreach to local fish producers is part of UAPB’s historical mission as a land-grant university to enrich Arkansas’ agricultural industries and resources. The university’s participation in bettering the baitfish industry helps ensure Arkansas producers are not hindered by common constraints and roadblocks that could have a major effect on their ability to earn and expand operations.

“The services provided by the UAPB fish diagnostic labs help our farmers ship over nearly $61 million worth of fish across the U.S. and over $700,000 worth of fish to different countries,” she said. “On a broader scale, our labs provide support and assistance to public and private pond owners and state agencies such as the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission to protect and conserve our state’s aquatic resources.”

The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.

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