PINE BLUFF, Ark. — Steeve Pomerleau knows snow all too well, and he doesn’t care for it. That’s why, in the summertime, while fording catfish ponds as Delta sun beats on his skull and yanks sweat out of his pores, he’s happy. No complaints.

“This is what I want,” he says while sloshing around at a pond edge. “Staying out of the snow is fine with me. I love the climate here.”

Originally from Quebec — where he earned a degree in biology from Laval University — Pomerleau arrived at the University of Arkansas--Pine Bluff four years ago to work on a graduate degree in stocker catfish production. His move to the Delta came on the heels of a year spent working on sea urchin culture for the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The Canadian enjoyed his UAPB studies. After finishing his graduate classes, Arkansas Extension hired him to take care of the catfish verification program coming to a pond near you.

As with row-crop verification programs, the catfish version’s main objective is to verify research-based Extension recommendations on a commercial scale. “UAPB has done a lot of experiments on catfish cultures — the best and most profitable way to grow the fish — but they’re mostly done on small, quarter-acre experiment ponds,” says Pomerleau. “We want to take what we’ve found in the those small experimental ponds to a real-life catfish operation. Are our recommendations based on small ponds the same when applied large-scale (most catfish ponds are about 10 acres)?”

On the farm, Pomerleau will closely watch “all production parameters. We monitor all stocking and harvesting, water quality, fish health checks, everything. We pay much closer attention to the ponds than is the norm. Usually an operation will monitor the pounds of fish that go in and the pounds that are harvested. We’ll give them vastly more information than that. Our focus is on fish grow-out in multiple batch ponds.

“In the end, everyone will be helped. The researchers will know if our recommendations are correct and the producers will have a much greater knowledge about what’s actually happening in their ponds.”

In the past, verification programs began by using a clean pond stocked with new fish. That pond would be followed for three years — including the number and pounds of fish harvested. Then, the pond was drained and the fish that had escaped earlier harvest would be counted and weighed.

That method was incredibly labor-intensive and time-consuming. Plus, it didn’t mimic real life: most commercial farms don’t drain ponds so often, maybe once every 10 or 15 years. Normally, ponds are in continuous production, something the program will now take into account.

The verification program has been tweaked, says Pomerleau. “It’s very difficult to estimate the inventory in a pond. This year, we want to estimate the initial inventory and see what we come up with in two years. The way we’ll do that is to pull a fingerling seine through the pond twice and then weigh our catch. That will allow us a very good assessment of the bio-mass at the outset.”

The program will go for two years because getting a “crop” of catfish normally takes about 18 months to reach market size. The ponds set up this spring probably won’t be ready for harvest until late summer of 2005.”

For the next two years Pomerleau willing be working five catfish ponds on three farms — two farms in Ashley County, Ark., and one in Woodruff County, Ark. He’ll visit the ponds every week or two.

“On of the main things we’ll be looking at is the use of in-pond graders. This will minimize the number of catfish sent to the plant that are less than 1.25 pounds. Most processing plants want 1.25 pound-fish or larger. Smaller fish reduce a plant’s productivity. Also, a farmer won’t see as much profit from sending such small fish to the plant.

“We’ve begun using in-pond fish graders at UAPB. This allows us to separate the fish out by size. It should really help productivity. All harvests done during the verification program will involve the grader.”

Verification program literature describes the process like this: “All fish will be graded with an in-pond floating grader to separate food-size fish from sub-marketable fish. The food-size fish will slide across the grader and be collected in a 1.75-inch or 2-inch square mesh sock. The sub-marketable size fish will swim down through the bars and will be collected in a 3/8-inch square mesh sock. All fish from each size category will be weighed and sampled. The food-size fish will be sold or moved to another pond if the quantity is not sufficient for a sale. The food-size fish will be weighed as they are loaded into the hauling truck with an hydraulic boom.”

In the future, Pomerleau wants to set up another catfish program to focus on stocker catfish production. There’s currently a dearth of information on stocker catfish production “even though there are an increasing number of producers interested in a stocker strategy. To fill the void, hopefully we’ll have a verification program set up next year.”

Pomerleau is also running a new verification program on baitfish.

“We’re focusing on golden shiner production at the nursery phase. We’ll be working with fry production at the hatchery. They’re taken to a nursery pond until they’ve grown to a size of one pound per 1,000 fish. From the nursery pond, the shiners are taken to other ponds to grow for market.”

Since baitfish farmers have niche markets, it’s very difficult to have recommendations that will fit all for all operations in the final phase of production.

“That’s why we’re focusing on the fry phase to “peewee” (or juvenile) size. We’re going to be working 5 ponds for the baitfish also — three ponds in Lonoke County and two ponds in Greene County.”

Editor’s note: for more information on the verification programs visit www.uaex.edu/aquaculture.

e-mail:dbennett@primediabusiness.com