Louisiana Ideal for Aquaculture

Linda Benedict, Tiersch, Terrence R., Romaire, Robert P., Bogren, Richard C.  |  5/31/2012 10:19:30 PM

Robert P. Romaire, Terrence R. Tiersch and James W. Avault Jr. 

Louisiana's abundant fresh, brackish and marine water resources, heavy soils, flat lands, temperate water and semi-tropical climate ensured that the state would be a leader in aquaculture. During the 20th century commercial aquaculture industries developed in Louisiana for finfishes including channel catfish, baitfish, tilapia and recreational sport fishes; crustaceans including freshwater crawfish and soft-shell blue crabs; and reptiles including the American alligator and red-eared turtles.

The state's enormous estuarine-based oyster industry dates from the 19th century and entered the 21st century as the dominant source of cultured oysters in the United States. Research was done in the area of saltwater shrimp culture in the 1960s and 1970s.

Aquaculture is one of Louisiana’s major animal industries. The Louisiana aquaculture industry includes more than 2,000 diverse operations throughout the state, and a potpourri of aquatic animals show promise for developing more significant private aquaculture ventures.

One of the first books on warm water aquaculture published in the United States was “Pondfish Culture” published in 1937 and authored by Percy Viosca, an aquatic biologist with the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission.

Although research in aquaculture in the United States – and specifically Louisiana – dates much later than traditional agriculture, modern scientific principles used in farm animal husbandry are applied to the field of aquaculture. Development of improved or new technologies to advance the sustainability and profitability of aquaculture enterprises in Louisiana, and nationwide, are emphasized in LSU AgCenter research and outreach programs. The LSU AgCenter has been a leader among land-grant institutions in allocating resources for research and extension programs to promulgate the commercial development of aquaculture in Louisiana. This is the story of how aquaculture research and outreach developed in the AgCenter. 

Early development of inland fisheries and aquaculture

The aquaculture program at LSU AgCenter had its origins following World War II to augment a recently formed undergraduate wildlife degree program in the School of Forestry (changed to the School of the Renewable Natural Resources in 2002). In 1949, two fisheries courses in pond and stream management were developed and added to the wildlife curriculum by wildlife professor Bryant Bateman. He started a program of sampling local recreational fish ponds near Baton Rouge and provided management recommendations to the pond owners. Ray Allison, then a professor of zoology at LSU, and Bob Webb and Russ Fielding of the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife (now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) assisted Bateman in his outfield recreational fish pond management activities.

The Louisiana Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit was established within the school in 1963. The unit is a federal research component of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Department of the Interior) and is contractually partnered with the AgCenter and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. The unit leader and assistant unit leader have adjunct faculty status at LSU, and they direct graduate student research and teach. William H. Herke assumed duties as the first acting unit leader, and R. O'Neal Smitherman became unit leader in 1964. Further development of the inland fisheries program occurred with the addition of two adjunct fisheries faculty in the unit.

James W. Avault Jr. joined the fisheries faculty in the School of Renewable Natural Resources in 1966, and he directed the development of aquaculture research and outreach in the LSU AgCenter. He taught the fisheries courses and with Smitherman began a research program that focused on crawfish, channel catfish and other coastal species with potential for aquaculture.

Late 1960s through 1980

Within a year of his hire, Avault asked J. Norman Efferson, then dean of the College of Agriculture, for access to land to build experimental ponds to support the new aquaculture research program. At that time, the Ben Hur Research Farm, several miles south of the LSU campus, had an existing 17-acre lake and a 5-acre lake but no research buildings or support structures. Avault’s proposal showed the potential of aquaculture in Louisiana, and it compared the economic value of catfish and crawfish farming with traditional crops grown in the state. Bill Bolton, an LSU economist at LSU and employed by U.S. Department of Agriculture, assisted Avault in the economic analysis. Avault’s proposal justified the need for experimental ponds, pools and ancillary physical plant buildings to support aquaculture research. Although no capital funding was immediately available, Efferson granted Avault access to land for the newly emerging aquaculture program. Avault also asked Paul Burns, then director of the School of Renewable Natural Resources, to hire an additional fisheries and aquaculture faculty member to support the program. Dudley Culley was hired in 1968 to support teaching and research in fisheries and aquaculture.

During the 1970s, with support from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, a number of earthen ponds and above-ground pools were constructed at the Ben Hur Farm. Joe Herring, then secretary of the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, provided heavy equipment and operators to build many of the station’s experimental ponds. Assisting Avault in planning, designing and implementing pond construction was agricultural laboratory technician Ubaldo Cossio. A construction and highway engineer by training, Cossio played an important role in designing, building and maintaining the growing aquaculture facility. Cossio was Avault’s “right-hand man” in developing the physical infrastructure supporting aquaculture research in the early years.

In the 1970s, Avault had an active research program and supervised numerous graduate students working on advanced degrees in fisheries with specialization in aquaculture. Research projects focused on needs of an expanding crawfish and catfish farming industries in Louisiana. Avault also directed research activities on assessing the commercial potential for farming marine shrimp and several marine finfishes, including pompano and croaker. Avault and his graduate students worked cooperatively with Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologist Guthrie Perry through the 1970s and 1980s on experimental mariculture projects using experimental brackish water ponds at the Rockefeller Refuge Center in Cameron Parish. Following their graduation, many of Avault’s students had significant roles in aquaculture development at the state, national and international levels.

In 1969, Avault helped found the World Mariculture Society (now the World Aquaculture Society), which held its first meeting at Grande Terre. Avault was the society’s second president and served as editor of the World Aquaculture Society’s scientific proceedings and journal through 1986. The society today has more than 4,000 members representing 86 countries. Avault was elected as the second president of International Association of Astacology, an international crawfish or crayfish organization, in 1972. The LSU AgCenter hosted the second symposium of this newly developed organization in 1974. Avault has been bestowed honorary life memberships in the World Aquaculture Society and the International Association of Astacology, and he is a member of an elite group of individuals comprising the Fish Culture Hall of Fame of the American Fisheries Society.

Truly the “father” of the aquaculture research program in the AgCenter, Avault retired from the LSU AgCenter in 1996 after 31 years of service.

Culley developed a research program in bullfrog aquaculture in the early 1970s, not to produce frogs for human consumption but rather to develop a better biomedical research animal. Many live bullfrogs captured in the United States are used in biomedical research. Culley was for many years the foremost authority on bullfrog culture in the country. Later in his career Culley initiated a research program with soft-shell crawfish aquaculture, and his research was instrumental in developing a soft-shell crawfish industry in Louisiana. Culley retired from the AgCenter in 1995.

In 1980, Robert Romaire joined the aquaculture faculty as a researcher to help with the demands of an expanding crawfish farming industry. Leaders in the Louisiana Crawfish Farmers Association (John Thibaut and Jerry Woods), Avault and AgCenter vice chancellor H. Rouse Caffey were instrumental in acquiring the funds to create the position. Romaire's early efforts focused on improving harvesting efficiency, population and reproductive ecology, water quality management and pesticide toxicology.

Also in 1980, the AgCenter’s Department of Veterinary Sciences, with the School of Veterinary Medicine, hired Ron Thune to work on disease-related issues affecting the state’s catfish farming industry. 

Louisiana aquaculture plan 

In 1976, Congress passed a bill declaring the potential for aquaculture in the United States. Congressman (later U.S. Senator) John Breaux, of Crowley, was a co-author of the bill. Of importance in the bill was a call to develop a National Aquaculture Plan, and the bill recommended that states develop their own individual aquaculture plans to coordinate state and federal efforts in aquaculture development.

After consultation with the Louisiana commissioner of agriculture, LSU AgCenter administration and a select group of aquaculture producers in Louisiana, Avault testified at a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., in support of the National Aquaculture Plan. He recommended that the USDA be lead agency for aquaculture in United States. This met with some consternation among some members of Congress because the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Marine Fisheries Service also was being considered as the lead agency.

The final draft of the national plan was promulgated by Congress in 1983. Today, USDA is the lead agency for aquaculture at the federal level, but the Department of Commerce, through its Sea Grant program, also is a major player in aquaculture research and extension, particularly with brackish water and saltwater species such as oysters. Coordination of aquaculture activities among various federal agencies occurs through the Joint Subcommittee on Aquaculture.

In 1980, Avault developed a state aquaculture plan for Louisiana, which was a roadmap for expanded development of aquacultural research and extension programing. The plan identified the need for a large aquaculture research and office building, ancillary support facilities (ponds, tanks, pools) and additional faculty positions and support staff. Identified faculty positions included genetics and nutrition in the School of Renewable Natural Resources, water management and mechanical engineering in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, aquatic animal diseases in the Department of Veterinary Science, production economics and marketing in the Department of Agricultural Economics and AgriBusiness and crawfish research at the Rice Research Station. It also identified the need for a second aquaculture extension specialist and several parish aquaculture extension agents.

In 2000, an 18-member Louisiana Aquaculture Task Force, under the oversight Louisiana agriculture commissioner Bob Odom and LSU AgCenter chancellor emeritus H. Rouse Caffey, published the Louisiana Aquaculture Plan. Contributors to the plan included LSU Sea Grant, Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, Louisiana Department of Economic Development and state aquaculture commodity organizations, including the Louisiana Aquaculture Association, Louisiana Crawfish Farmers Association, the Louisiana Catfish Farmers Association, the Louisiana Alligator and Ranchers Association and Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation.

Late 1980s through 1998

From 1980 to the early 1990s, the LSU AgCenter administration began implementation of many of the recommendations identified by Avault in the 1980 State Aquaculture Plan. Doyle Chambers, director of the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station, and Denver Loupe, director of the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service, added research and extension faculty positions each year for a number of years as funds were available. The School of Renewable Natural Resources hired Bill Wolters, an aquaculture geneticist, in 1982, and Robert C. Reigh, a nutritionist, in 1986. Thomas Lawson, an aquacultural water management engineer, was hired in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering in 1982. In 1984, Marty Brunson, a crawfish research biologist, was hired at the Rice Research Station, and in 1985, Lynn Dellenbarger, an aquaculture economist, was added by the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness. In 1985, a second full-time aquaculture extension specialist, Gary Jensen, was hired by the Cooperative Extension Service to work with channel catfish farmers, other finfish producers and recreational pond owners. Several area fisheries and aquaculture extension agent positions were created to provide aquaculture, fisheries and coastal wetlands assistance to a number of coastal parishes.

In 1984, A.C. Harper, who was chancellor of the LSU AgCenter in between Efferson, its first chancellor, and H. Rouse Caffey, its third chancellor, provided funding for construction of ancillary research laboratories at the Ben Hur Research Farm, including a fish hatchery and a biological research laboratory. In 1987, the aquaculture faculty received a grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents Equipment Enhancement Program to purchase 100, 12-foot-diameter fiberglass tanks, aerators and electrical service to the station’s 145 experimental aquaculture ponds. In 1992, construction of a 22,000-square-foot aquaculture research and office building was completed at the Ben Hur Research Farm. In 1988, the AgCenter acquired an annually renewable special aquaculture grant from USDA that supported many aquaculture research projects for 22 years.

In 1998, to bolster the effectiveness and efficiency of aquaculture research to meet the needs and challenges of Louisiana’s aquaculture industries, the AgCenter established the Aquaculture Research Station. The station was established by segregating the research program in aquaculture from the School of Renewable Natural Resources. Romaire became the station’s first resident director and held that position until 2007, when Robert C. Reigh assumed the position.

Present-day aquaculture

Two AgCenter research stations and seven campus units have active involvement in aquaculture research, extension and teaching. These include the Aquaculture Research Station, Rice Research Station, School of Animal Sciences, Department of Food Science, Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness, the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, the School of Renewable Natural Resources, the School of Veterinary Medicine, and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. The Office of Sea Grant Development supports aquaculture, fisheries and wetlands outreach in all of Louisiana’s coastal parishes.

The Aquaculture Research Station has 146 experimental ponds, ranging in size from 0.02 to 19.0 acres and totaling 50 surface water acres; more than 200 outdoor above-ground fiberglass tanks; a fish hatchery, fish holding facility, and a greenhouse for overwintering tropical aquatic species; nearly 12,000 square feet of wet laboratories. These facilities are used for research in nutrition, fish genetics and breeding, water quality and toxicology, and production systems, with a wide variety of tanks, aquaria, and recirculating systems to accommodate research with a wide variety of both freshwater and marine finfishes, crustaceans, and mollusks.

The crawfish aquaculture research facility at the Rice Research Station in Crowley is in the heartland of Louisiana’s crawfish aquaculture industry and has 24, 1-acre experimental crawfish ponds and in excess of 1,600 square feet of wet laboratory space dedicated to various facets of crawfish aquaculture research. The School of Veterinary Medicine has several laboratories assigned to aquatic animal disease research and houses the Aquatic Diagnostic Laboratory, whose staff provides disease diagnosis and control measure recommendations to Louisiana’s commercial aquaculture industries and state agencies. Wet labs to support engineering research in aquaculture process control and re-circulating systems are located in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering.

Since completion of the first Master of Science thesis in fisheries in 1962, more than 250 M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in fisheries and aquaculture have been awarded. Before 1989, the fisheries and aquaculture program was available only to graduate students (M.S. and Ph.D.). In 1992, a Bachelor of Science degree in renewable natural resources with an area of concentration in fisheries and aquaculture was established for undergraduate students in the School of Renewable Natural Resources.

Aquaculture research in the AgCenter has a history of strong partnerships with state and federal agencies, as well as state aquaculture commodity groups and private aquaculture commodity organizations. Particularly noteworthy is the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Robert P. Romaire and Terrence R. Tiersch, both Professor, and James W. Avault Jr., retired Professor, LSU AgCenter Aquaculture Research Station, Baton Rouge, La. 

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