Minnesota baitfish farms could grow with help of golden shiner project
Minnesota experienced a winter fish kill not seen in decades, according to fish farmer Barry Thoele. It's going to have a large impact on the ability to buy bait fish this year.
STAPLES, Minn. — It’s quite possible that many anglers will be skunked before they even hit the water for this weekend's Minnesota fishing opener as live bait supplies are limited, according to bait producer and harvester, Barry Thoele, of Staples, Minnesota.
Thoele blames record breaking winter kill as a major factor hurting bait supplies this spring.
But the demise of the bait industry has been coming for years as minnow populations continue to shrink in the wild and in conventional farming practices that require overwintering in outdoor ponds, he added.
Recent projections by bait dealers estimate a deficit of approximately 10,000 gallons of golden shiners annually in Minnesota. The golden shiner is a go-to bait for many walleye anglers, even as prices hang out at around $1 per minnow. Thoele said it’s up to Minnesota aquaculture to fill the needs to save the state’s fishing tourism, where wild harvest is coming short. As someone who’s been harvesting and selling bait for over 35 years, he’s opposed to talk of importing the minnows from other states, a common practice among most other states but illegal in Minnesota. Arkansas is the top producer of farmed baitfish and supplies bait for much of the country.
“There is pressure from anglers, bait dealers and legislators to import golden shiner from other states, though this is currently prohibited by law in Minnesota,” said Don Schreiner , Minnesota Sea Grant fisheries specialist and golden shiner project member. “The primary concerns are that importation can introduce aquatic invasive species, disease and parasites that may harm native fish communities.”
Farming the fish right here in Minnesota is the answer, according to Thoele. But for dealers, the need is present now and can’t wait for local industry to meet the demand. Gas stations and bait shops risk losing a great deal of business as fishing season approaches.
“Reality is, this is Minnesota, 'Land of 10,000 Lakes,'” Thoele said. “You’re telling me we can’t grow the baitfish we need in this state? I think we need to start looking at the science.”
That’s why Thoele was on board with a golden shiner project, where he will grow golden shiners right alongside his hydroponics system that grows lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and hot peppers, in central Minnesota.
“I’m not doing this for the money,” Thoele said — though there’s money to be made, with shiners fetching around $100 a gallon for producers. The 2018 United States Department of Agriculture Aquaculture Census reported that golden shiners were the most valuable baitfish produced in the U.S. with $16.4 million in total sales and more than 3.9 million pounds sold. “I’m doing this cuz we need to fix this problem, and importing potentially more invasives doesn’t work.”
Schreiner said this baitfish farming has an opportunity to do more than rescue the fishing industry — it could be a big boost to rural Minnesota for those that want to learn how to successfully produce the fish to sell to bait dealers.
“These golden shiners would be very lucrative for them,” Schreiner said. He said it wouldn’t be unheard of to get $20 a pound for the shiners without any processing involved.
“We are getting a lot of calls from people, even though we’ve only been at this for a year,” Schreiner said of the project interest.
As someone who has spent his life working to protect the state’s fisheries, he appreciates that this project seeks to avoid introducing outside invasives.
“The last thing I want to see is us import bait for short term gain and then introduce invasive species or some sort of disease,” he said.
Rearing the bait on the farm may be more expensive for the angler, but it could be a boost to the aquaculture industry and provide more stability in bait availability. The costs of these indoor rearing strategies are not yet fully realized. Schreiner said it’s estimated that Minnesota’s aquaculture industry is currently worth about $5 million, yet the value of recreational fishing in the state is worth $2.3 billion.
Thoele is one partner working with project leaders Schreiner and Amy Schrank , fisheries and aquaculture Extension educator, Minnesota Sea Grant, University of Minnesota and University of Minnesota Duluth. They are working on several grow-out strategies to see what will work best and can be easily replicated.
The project is supported by a three-year $188,000 grant from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources . They started in 2021 and hope to have a shareable plan in hand showing its success following the end of the grant period in June 2024.
How it works
The minnow cycle begins with Mark Tye, owner of Tye Fish Solutions, who is spawning the shiners at his indoor location in Le Seuer, Minnesota. The larval minnows are delivered by Tye to Thoele, who is going to grow the minnows to maturity in tanks and ponds.
Tye looks at fish farming much like a cattle or hog operation, where an animal is raised to a certain size and moved to another facility for grow-out.
Tye spawns the minnows then feed trains them so that they can survive life being fed man-made food as opposed to spending their life foraging for zooplankton. Getting them trained with feed is key in survival and efficient growth for those who want fish to reach maturity in one grow season.
“So in nature they eat zooplankton, and you can't really culture that on a large scale, and it's not economically efficient to feed them zooplankton in a tank. So to train them onto the feed is somewhat complex, and no one has been able to do that except for me,” Tye said. “So that's kind of my role to feed train, and so it’ll take me about a month to feed train them.”
In nature, in Minnesota, the fish can only spawn during a short window in June or July when water temperatures are between 68-70 degrees Fahrenheit. Tye can maintain that temperature year round indoors, meaning anytime someone wants fry, he can make it happen if he has capacity. Thoele will have his unique indoor grow out and Tye will also grow some indoors. Minnows have also gone to Central Lakes College in Brainerd where they are being used with the college aquaponics class.
Thoele has been growing minnows for wholesale since 1992 for his business Lincoln Bait LLC. He’s now grown to have a locally grown hydroponic greenhouse where he grows 400 heads of romaine lettuce per week. He has 13 ponds on the property and will soon have his raceway running for spawning red-tailed chubs and common shiners.
He showed off two new tanks in late April that he planned to have enclosed inside a greenhouse with minnows added on April 29. He believes the setup will allow him to start growing shiners in March in water heated by the sun with market size fish of about 3.5 inches by late summer or fall. Tye was able to reach marketable size over an eight-month period in his setup.
“The industry needs help and we need to be able to transition into the 21st century,” Thoele said.
He hopes the project will come up with a farm technique that will not be expensive to get into and will be profitable for producers. Tye believes this project will offer proof that indoor aquaculture can be done and can help solve bait industry woes.
“Nobody’s really done this before; it’s really a pilot project,” Schreiner said.
Schreiner said the project is showing some successes with two more growing seasons to go before the window closes on the grant. He’s pleased to see they’ve had survival in all four of the specific growing strategies they’ve tried, and they’ve seen the baitfish grow to a marketable size in about seven months. In an external system, the baitfish take two years to reach maturity.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Schreiner said of the success of the project. ”I’d love to see this work.”
Results so far
The golden shiner project is using four strategies to grow baitfish. Here's a look at where the progress stands:
- Strategy 1 is rearing golden shiner in a recirculating aquaculture system (RAS). This strategy is being demonstrated at Tye Fish Solutions. The first group of golden shiner reared in the RAS was harvested in early February 2023, seven months after they were hatched. Survival and growth were both good with approximately 82% of the fish exceeding 64 mm in and 33% exceeding 76 mm.
- Strategy 2, aquaponics, was initiated on Feb. 7, 2023 when about 4,500 feed trained fry were transferred from Tye Fish Solutions to the aquaponics facility at Central Lakes College in Brainerd, Minnesota. Fry transitioned to a dry diet and are growing well, with minimal mortality. Plants have been added to the system and water is being routed from the fish tanks into the plant racks. The aquaponics system will be monitored (both fish and plant production) with an expected fish harvest date in early October 2023.
- Strategies 3 and 4, stocking and grow-out in constructed ponds with sac fry (strategy 3) and feed trained fry (strategy 4) was completed in late October - early November 2022. Survival was good, and initial growth results were encouraging with the percentage of fish greater than 64 mm ranging from 11% to 50% and the percentage of fish greater than 76mm ranging from 3% to 32%.