Developing a Self Funded Aquaculture Program for High Schools

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2016: $20,315.00
Projected End Date: 01/30/2018
Grant Recipient: Blue Iris Fish Farm, LLC
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
William West
Blue Iris Fish Farm

Annual Reports


  • Animals: fish


  • Animal Production: general animal production
  • Education and Training: participatory research, youth education



    Project was initiated upon award of grant in March 2016.  The representative fish farms (Blue Iris Fish Farm, Wilderness Springs, and Pepco Aquaculture) prepared fish stocks which would be used in three local high schools (Green Bay South West, Shawano, and Pulaski).  None of the high schools have the same capabilities; facilities ranged from small aquaria to full sized recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS),  aquaponics systems and greenhouse applications.  In addition, we also encountered systems suitable for wide ranges in temperature tolerance including cold (rainbow trout), cool water (perch, bluegill), and warm water (tilapia and fathead minnows).

    Each of the schools is quite a bit different.  We would have liked to put in the same amount of fish at each school but their systems dictate otherwise.  However, we were able to get between 300 and 800 in each school and these are multiple species.  We targeted 500 perch per school, 200 bluegill, 200 trout, and 100 fathead minnows.  We also had one school receive tilapia.  All schools also received the fish fertilizer (hydrolysate).  The classes are all different but the students are in charge of tank cleaning, feeding, weighing and measuring, calculating feed rates, and determining harvest dates. 

    By September of each year, all of these fish were moved from the fish farms to schools.  Fish stocking capacities at each school were based on available resources and the ability of the in-school growing systems to accommodate stocking densities.  Stocking densities were kept low as the first year was intended to be a year of testing out system capabilities.  Stocking densities were increased the second year and one school (Pulaski) installed outside pond-side tanks so as to be able to use the onsite pond for summer culture.

    In each of the schools we experienced some losses.  Some of the losses were due to too many hands on board (one hand opens a valve the other shuts it off – opportunities for operator error).  Some of the losses were due to equipment failure while for the most part, we have insufficient backup for situations where power failure occurred and either backup equipment was not available, or backup equipment was not working as intended.  However, even with the losses, all three schools have good grow-out being achieved through the first semester.  At the middle of the first year, GBSW installed a second backup system.  This system involved use of an oxygen supply tank, solenoid, and diffusers in each tank.  The solenoid is power activated and is designed to automatically open to provide oxygen in the event of a power outage.  Since the installation of the oxygen supply, no losses have occurred and subsequently, each of the other two schools have solenoid driven oxygen supply available. SolenoidSetup

    Toward the end of the first semester of 2016 Dr. Robert Smith, a fish veterinarian, visited with each school and presented a lecture on fish health followed by a necropsy of some of the fish that each school was raising.  Fish health assessment can identify problems in fish disease, water quality, feeds, and overall system conditions. The vet visit was repeated in the fall of 2017. 

    Dr. Bob Smith conducting a necropsy



    The highlight is that one school began harvesting its first crop of perch by the end of December 2016.  These fish were stocked in the school in September at an average of four inches. About 25 percent were between 8 and 9 inches at harvest.  Another 50% were on the table by the end of January just in time for lent. 

    We believe that there is some overfeeding occurring in each school.  This results in deterioration in water quality which is easily correctable.  It is also believed that there may be, for the most part, too much aeration.  This is due to the tendency to provide lots of air to make sure there is enough.  The result is wasted air (difficult to throttle the blower) but more importantly, over aeration tends to beat up the fish waste and it is more difficult to remove dissolved waste versus solid waste in the filtration system. 

    In addition to too much air, we have witnessed occasional power outages and have lost some fish because of power outages at each school.  A simple backup system which is independent of power was installed as noted above.  Fish losses were significantly reduced in the second year.  The grant proposal predicted that there might be higher losses in the first year and that is why stocking densities were lower in the first year i.e., it takes time to get comfortable with processes and work out bugs that are inherent in the various systems.

    One of the results that we had hoped for was that we could generate a keen interest from the students in learning more about aquaculture, open our farms to summer help to those who might be career oriented, and increase an appreciation for these biological and water related sciences.  We were pleasantly surprised to have students ask us how to set up small home systems.

    WORK PLAN FOR 2017

    As noted above, fish were starting to be harvested  by all schools by January 2017. Some fish were retained until May 2017.  Fish once harvested were processed and sold and schools could calculate the value of the product.  Depending on how successful each school is in accomplishing the grow-out phase of aquaculture will determine how much money can be reinvested into the program.

    First Harvest at Pulaski HS
    First Harvest at Green Bay SW

    When comparing individual schools, we see differences in growth rates.  The rates of growth were based on water temperature, oxygen concentrations, amount of feed, and efficiency of waste treatment equipment.  These are some of the variables that need to be controlled to optimize production.  Even so, in 2016, we were able to harvest several hundred perch.  A typical return is between 15 - 17 pounds of fillets per 100 fish.  Current market of perch is a minimum of $13 per pound.  That money is available for the school to sink back into the aquaculture program.  In 2017, the number of perch delivered to the schools was around 1500 perch and several hundred trout.  With no mortalities, we anticipate a substantial increase in marketable fish.  The perch alone have a gate value of about $2900 less processing fees. 

    First harvest at Shawano HS




    An open house event occurred at Blue Iris Fish Farm.  Over 60 visitors came to observe the fish operations.  Blue Iris provided a tour of the facilities and pointed out the methods of culture and actual species that would be used in the school program.

    Visitors at open house in first of two tours



    When the vet provided the presentation, there were six different classes that were available for instruction within the three schools.  It is estimated that approximately 120 students attended these presentations.

    We intend to also showcase our project with open houses at each school in 2017.

    Bill West of Blue Iris also gave a presentation discussing the project at the annual Wisconsin Aquaculture Association Conference in March 2017.


    Project objectives:

    Problem  Local school districts and in particular aquaculture (agriculture) are under- funded.  Aquaculture and related sciences  are relatively new curriculum choices.  Only the newest of facilities have somewhat adequate resources while older schools’ ag resources have been converted to house aquaculture. Many of these have a wide assortment of tanks, plumbing and equipment that have been for the most part patched together to carry out instruction.  These systems generally suffice to accommodate only the most stress tolerant fish.  It is difficult to teach biology, chemistry, and water science in these situations but even more difficult to actually have a three to six month project that works.  The problem we hope to solve here is to use the resources of the three farms to support the schools with fish, feed, technology, and guest lecturing.  The SARE grant will get each school up to a level of operation which will be supported by the fish farms.  Value provided by the schools will be re-invested to carry on the curriculum in subsequent years.

    The second problem we have which is common to most states of the North Central SARE Region is that fish farmers have a very short growing season.   The farms need additional growing season which can be provided to some extent by the schools.  The idea here is to develop and infuse into the schools goals for projects and production which then become the learning tools of the class.  Professional support provided by the farmers is designed to result in successful aquaculture programs which mimic real world enterprises.  Working in cooperation with school systems could allow fish farms to start the season a little earlier and end a little later i.e. extend the growing season by as much as one to two months.


    Blue Iris Fish Farm and Pepco Aquaculture have been conducting research on perch and bluegill for a number of years. Some funded research (SARE FNC08-731, SARE FNC14-955, Wisconsin ADD 21014 and ADD 24023, NCRAC least cost diet for bluegill) and unfunded research on fish meal and non-fish meal based diet studies with Milwaukee Fresh Water Institute suggests that there are numerous projects that can be conducted by small farms for the benefit of the industry.  These small efforts are well suited to be conducted in a school setting where we have resources and a controlled environment.  The issue is to ensure that the schools have the needed resources to conduct mini research projects in a controlled environment.

    What this project proposes is to have three long-term farm experts assist in setting up learning situations and provide continuous support to the partner schools. Second, we will identify each facility’s resources so that needed equipment/technology is provided to each school and, the curriculum matches the resources.  Because we have three species of fish (trout, perch and bluegill) plus several other species to choose from (catfish, tilapia, walleye [saugeye]), we essentially have multiple opportunities. 

    By incorporating on-farm projects into the school with farmer technology support we will encourage successful aquaculture projects. Successful school projects will result in more value-added outcomes e.g. more saleable fish, more aquaponics production, better results for facilities that use fish hydrolysate for plant sales.  These are all opportunities to have a positive interface with the public and increase the possibility for developing a self-funding program.

    These endeavors help the farmers with the execution of mini projects that need to be done in a controlled system that extends longer than three months, can extend the growing season in the fall or can actually initiate the growing season in the spring.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.