Fisheries try farm-raising bass
Researchers study potential for selling largemouths’ meat
By Mike Linn
PINE BLUFF — For every bass fisherman, there’s a bass story.
One might go something like this: “I hooked a whopper out on Lake Monticello, fought it hard and then watched it jump and spit the hook out. I slammed my rod down. Ah, the one that got away.”
Largemouth bass is the most sought-after freshwater sport fish in Arkansas and in the United States, said Colton Dennis, black-bass program supervisor with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
The white, fleshy meat of the bass is good to eat, but unlike catfish and tilapia, it’s not regularly sold in restaurants or supermarkets.
Researchers at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Aquaculture and Fisheries Department are attempting to find out why that’s the case.
They’re conducting studies to see whether it’s cost effective to farm-raise largemouth bass to sell in supermarkets as uncooked filets or to prepare and sell in seafood restaurants.
UAPB Aquaculture and Fisheries Department Chairman Carole Engle said the idea for the project was spawned after UAPB conducted focus group surveys in Little Rockon the marketability of hybrid striped bass.
During the surveys, most of the participants kept steering the conversation to largemouth bass, a fish with which they were more familiar.
“A lot of the people we talked to, regardless which group they were in, liked the idea of largemouth bass filets being available,” Engle said. “They had a very positive attitude toward largemouth bass filets and said they would be very, very receptive to purchasing filets.”
Engle said part of why they’re not widely commercially available now is that feed for largemouth bass, which survive on high-protein diets, is more expensive than feed for catfish. Because of this, largemouth bass filets would have to sell at a higher price than comparable catfish filets in grocery stores and restaurants.
Arkansas has the second largest aquaculture industry in the country, behind Mississippi.
Half of the state’s production is farm-raised catfish, which swim the same rivers and lakes as largemouth bass and are widely available in Arkansas supermarkets, restaurants and even gas stations.
“There are a lot of people who like to eat [largemouth] bass, especially in this state. But it may be that the fish are too expensive to raise compared to what people are willing to pay in the supermarket,” Engle said.
Engle, who earned her doctorate in aquaculture economics from Auburn University in Alabama, said, “We will do an economic analysis to see if it’s feasible.”
In Arkansas, largemouth bass is considered a game fish - just like crappie and trout - and cannot be sold after being caught in the wild, even if the fisherman has a commercial fishing license, said Keith Stephens, a spokesman for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
However, largemouth bass can be farm-raised in Arkansas and sold as food by those with a fish-farming license, Stephens said.
That license is available for $25 and can be renewed annually for free.
At Kentucky State University, the university’s division of aquaculture has been farm-raising largemouth bass for nearly 20 years to sell live in markets in Toronto and Chicago.
Jim Tidwell, chairman of the aquaculture department at Kentucky State, said he sells the fish for about $5 a pound live to those markets, and retail buyers purchase the fish for as much as $11 a pound.
Largemouth bass are more expensive to farm-raise than catfish, Tidwell said, noting that catfish feed costs $350 a ton, compared with $800 to $1,000 a ton for bass feed.
A bass has two filets, which together equal about 40 percent of its body weight, Tidwell said.
If a largemouth bass is filleted, it could sell wholesale for about $12 a pound, he said. After markup, the largemouth bass filets could go for $15 or more a pound in a supermarket, Tidwell estimated.
While expensive like swordfish and Chilean sea bass, largemouth bass produced on a fish farm tastes better than bass caught in the wild, Tidwell thinks.
“I don’t really care for wild-caught bass, especially when the water is warm, but these guys raised on pellets, to me, are much better-tasting,” Tidwell said. “They taste just like a great big blue gill [bream]. They’re first cousin to a blue gill, and a blue gill has a real sweet taste that’s really kind of unique.”
There are at least three fish farms in Arkansas that raise largemouth bass to be sold live in seafood markets, said Mike Freeze, a former Arkansas Game and Fish commissioner and the vice president of KeoFish Farms in Keo.
The owner of one of those farms - David Dunn of Dunn’s Fish Farm in Monroe south of Brinkley - said he gets $4.75 a pound for a live bass. His price for filets would be $9.50 a pound, and by the time it would hit the supermarket it could be as high as $16 a pound, he said.
“Right now, people in the United States would not purchase largemouth bass in supermarkets because there’s too many inexpensive alternatives,” Dunn said. “Right now, you can go out and buy steaks for everybody in the family a lot cheaper than you can feed them bass.”
Still, UAPB researchers want to find out what kind of yields they get in the 12 ponds stocked with largemouth bass, four with 7,500 fish, four with 5,000 fish and four with 2,500 fish.
Engle said UAPB will harvest the bass next month, when the fish would be about 18 months old.
“We don’t know yet how big they are,” Engle said. “Part of what we want to find out with this study is whether we’re farm-raising them long enough to get these fish to a size where we can get a filet off.”