Fish farming is big biz in Arkansas, says Dr. Carole Engle, director of the Aquaculture Fisheries Center at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. The state is second only to Mississippi in terms of tonnage of fish produced, but Engle said the farming here is more varied.
"Our industry in Arkansas is more interesting in a lot of respects because it's not just catfish," Engle said. "It includes all goldfish production, baitfish production, hybrid striped bass and all the other types of fish we raise in Arkansas."
Engle said that a scheduled government census of the state's aquaculture industry was postponed last year due to federal budget cuts, but 10 years ago — the most recent numbers available — fish farming in Arkansas was bringing in more than $170 million a year. Catfish production has faded since then (fish production in the state used to be split 50/50 between non-edible breeds and catfish, Engle said, but catfish have since slipped to around 25 percent of total output), but Engle said her feeling is that sales of baitfish and goldfish have remained steady or gained a little ground. Though competition between artificial lures and live bait will largely determine where the minnow and goldfish market will go in the future, for now farmers in the state are doing more with less. "We have fewer acres [being used for ponds]," Engle said, "but what's happened is that farms have become more efficient with new technologies and so they're raising, I believe, more fish on fewer acres."
Engle agrees with Danny Pool that Lonoke County is pretty much perfect for aquaculture in terms of the quality of the soil, climate and water. In addition, Engle notes, I-40 runs right through the center of the county, allowing fish to be shipped easily. As a bonus, that area in particular has over the years spawned and attracted plenty of fish farmers willing to take risks and break the mold.
"For some reason, Arkansas seems to have produced more than its share of leaders — insightful, resourceful, imaginative entrepreneurs in the industry," she said.