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Engineering R&D: A Real Fish Tale

October 5, 2008
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Years of research and industry involvement preceded the March launch of Michael Miller’s fish-farming venture.

Michael Miller, president and COO, Bell Aquaculture, Albany, IN. Source: Bell Aquaculture.


The day when all fish for human consumption makes its way to a plate through a fish farm may arrive sooner rather than later. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates 43% of world fishery production now comes from aquaculture, the fastest growing animal food-production sector.

As a business executive with Turner Broadcasting System Inc., Michael Miller saw it coming. Miller’s responsibilities included overseeing some programming, and when some show producers previewed a 1994 segment on aquaculture for him, Miller was hooked. He began accumulating information on the science and business of aquaculture. Yellow perch, a pan-fish staple of Friday night fish fries throughout the Great Lakes region, became his species of choice.

A high-quality, natural product was the goal, though Miller discovered a reliable, steady supply was even more important to many prospective clients. Plans to sell through retail were scrapped to focus on food service accounts. By coordinating the fishes’ nine-month grow-out with order commitments, his Bell Aquaculture expects to provide year-round supplies, with initial fillet production of 100,000 lbs. ramping up to more than 9 million.

Miller is an aquaculturist by avocation and a graduate of the University of Denver, with bachelor degrees in business administration, accounting technology and management. He serves on the board of the Indiana Aquaculture Association Inc. (IAAI) and is a member of USDA’s North Central Regional Aquaculture Center.

Operations Manager Norman McCowan checks the general health of yellow perch in a Bell Aquaculture indoor grow-out tank in Albany, IN. Processing will be done at Bell’s headquarters facility under construction in another community near Muncie, IN. Source: Bell Aquaculture.

FE: How did your career in aquaculture begin?

Miller: Shortly before I left Turner Broadcasting, we were reviewing a rough cut of a National Audubon Society program, and the word “aquaculture” came up. A CNN database system was available to me, and a search produced two to three pages of information. I acquired more information at a university library and joined the IAAI the following year. I kept acquiring information and learning as much as I could about the topic. Eventually I filled 17 file cabinets with information.

Once you’ve chosen a species to raise, you move from a shotgun to a rifle approach. Everything follows from that: what growing system would be most appropriate, where to locate the processing center and so on. Yellow perch is native to Lake Michigan and Lake Erie, and supplies of wild-caught perch have all but collapsed. Commercially landed perch from those two lakes was about 37 million lbs. in 1984, a Purdue University study found. Last year, it was less than 2 million lbs., and this year, the Ohio DNR has instituted a zero quota on Lake Erie westward from Cleveland. Commercial quotas also are severely curtailed in Indiana. Restaurants are largely reliant on perch imported from Canada.


FE: IAAI lists seven yellow perch farms. Are the science and technology for this type of operation well understood?

Miller: Most of those are either producing fingerlings or are ponds stocked so the grandchildren will have a place to fish. They’re not interested in raising fish as food.

Our methodology is known as an Intensive Recycling Aquaculture System, with fresh water replenishment daily from deep wells. Everything is done indoors, which protects the fish from herbicides and pesticides from nearby farms and fecal contamination from wild birds.

This is the largest yellow perch facility in the Midwest, and we’ve bumped our heads a few times to see what works and what doesn’t. We’ve benefited from participation in the North Central Regional Aquaculture Center, a 12-state consortium funded by USDA. We also work closely with experts at Purdue, Ohio State and the University of Wisconsin. We’re gaining the benefit of their genetics research. There are tremendous resources available for reticulation and filtration systems, and we’ve licensed technology and intellectual property for the production of juvenile fish.


FE: Why are you building a processing facility?

Miller: Some companies are selling live fish into ethnic communities or sufficiently fresh fish on ice so the buyers can see the clarity of the eyes. We decided to produce frozen fillets, breaded or unbreaded, depending on whether the chef wants to work his magic and deliver a unique presentation to diners. Our 27,000-sq.-ft. processing facility and headquarters building in Redkey, IN will begin operations by December. We intend to work directly with restaurants, rather than through a distributor. 


FE: What standards and regulations does the facility have to meet?

Miller: Terrestrial operations like ours deal directly with the EPA and must follow the Confined Aquatic Animal Production guidelines. The FDA requires the plant to have a HACCP plan, and the facility was designed to meet those requirements.

We partnered with Wight & Company, a construction firm based in Darien, IL. We’re now in our third year with them, and we’ve both learned as we went along. A Detroit design firm and HACCP consultants have provided a lot of input, as well. We’ve extended the HACCP plan to the fish farm so we can head off issues before they manifest themselves in the plant.

We’re also working with the Aquaculture Certification Council (ACC), a new group that is promoting best practices globally. ACC is focusing on shrimp now, and we want to be the first certified for yellow perch. We would be our own worst enemy if we didn’t do everything right.


FE: High grain prices and pressure from imports have forced the closing of many US fish farms this year, particularly catfish operations in the Southeast. Is this a bad time to be entering aquaculture?

Miller: Grain prices are pummeling a lot of growers, but the impact depends on how they’re managing the business. Our feeding costs aren’t affected as severely by swings in commodity prices as other livestock. For every 1.2 lbs. of feed, our fish gain 1 lb. in weight. For cows and pigs, a 1 lb. gain requires 27 lbs. or more of feed.

The problems of catfish farmers underscore the need for Country of Origin Labeling, which became a requirement September 1. Other species were being illegally substituted for catfish by some importers a few years ago, and the bottom fell out for a lot of domestic producers who couldn’t match those lower prices. Red snapper and other species have suffered from similar problems.

FE: Has it been difficult to attract investors to a pioneering aquaculture venture?

Miller: It’s still a family business at this point, with the fish farm on land once farmed by my great-grandfather. This is a green investment. People are looking for nontraditional investment opportunities, and we’re raising food using agricultural techniques in a modern business way.

A lot of our engineering work has been done by Brian Baldwin, our CEO and a serial entrepreneur. Brian started several very successful companies in the medical device field. My family and I were visiting with Brian, and one night I outlined what was to be a very small-scale operation. He worked on the plan, and by the next morning, the single building I was planning had grown to 14.


FE: Placing wild flora or fauna in an artificial environment triggers all types of evolutionary changes. How confident are you that the stock can be protected?

Miller: That’s the responsibility of our biologist, Bill Manci, who formed his own consultancy in fisheries technology 26 years ago. Bill’s a native of Milwaukee and considers yellow perch to be his signature species. He manages our stock without any antibiotics. The only compound we’re using that’s considered a drug is salt, which is used if the fish get stressed. We’re very protective of our fish, measuring them and monitoring how they feed on a daily basis. We have automatic feeders, but we’re hand feeding them. We were concerned the color of the tanks would have an impact, but the fish are very calm and don’t move away from humans.

We’ve also created a closed loop system, with plants cleaning discharged water before it enters streams and rivers. And the temperature-controlled environment and genetic management allow disease-free production of fish that are one generation removed from the wild.

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