The lay-out of Keo Fish Farm is not much different from other aquaculture operations sunk into the Delta. A small office building is trailed closely by low-slung, open-sided tank sheds — a tug pulling barges overland. Out back are rows of ponds that provide Mike Freeze and his employees their livelihood. All appears normal, everything is in its place. A requisite group of cormorants even circle the farm.
But Freeze, a trained, glib biologist, runs an operation different from others. In the place of catfish, he has genetically manipulated hybrids. In the place of food fish, he has fingerlings. In the place of concerns about the price of catfish, he worries about freight costs overseas.
“It does get wild around here sometimes,” he admits.
Back in the 1960s, when Cleo and Martha Melkovitz started this fish farm in central Arkansas' Keo, the ponds held minnows. The operation centered around very large ponds — 80 acres, 100 acres. The philosophy then was to raise the minnows for a year or two, drain the ponds and then plant rice or soybeans. This rotation usually resulted in a bumper rice crop because of rich fish manure fertilizer.
The Melkovitz's did well until 1985 when Cleo was killed in an airplane accident.
Just prior to Cleo's death, Freeze had been in contact looking to buy a farm. Having earned a graduate degree in wildlife management and then working for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission until 1983 (where one of his jobs was to survey aquaculture facilities), Freeze was early in his fish farming career.
“Martha was put in a situation where she owned the farm but hadn't been involved in the day-to-day activities. Meanwhile, I had biological knowledge but no farm. We decided to make a go of it together. It was the best thing all around. Martha had some financing available, and we became working partners. She began coming in every day and still does. We still split the business calls and all that.”
So, in 1986, Keo Fish Farm was reborn on 200 acres. Today, the operation has grown to 1,200 water acres.
The operation has two primary crops. One is hybrid striped bass — Keo Fish Farm is the largest producer of the fish in the world. Between 100 million and 120 million fry are spawned annually. Some 45 percent of Keo Fish Farm's business comes from hybrid striped bass.
“Essentially, we're a hatchery,” says Freeze. “We do spawning through hormonal manipulation (through injections) in the brood fish. Because we're combining two species, we have to strip eggs and milt and fertilize the eggs. We have a special building for that. Right now, it's empty but in the spring it's full of eggs and baby fish the size of a grain of pepper.”
Those baby fish are placed in prepared earthen ponds. There's a lot of expertise required to get the ponds ready; a proper alchemy of elements. For example, the zooplankton (microscopic animals) that fry need to eat must be a certain size. If the zooplankton are too large, the fry can't eat them. That means the fry will starve and/or the zooplankton will eat them. It's a delicate balance.
Freeze says the operation goes by a “cookbook.” You fill the pond up, add so much fertilizer and so many days later you stock the fry. Depending on the weather conditions and other things, survival rates are anywhere from zero to 80 percent.
Several decades ago, the demand for hybrid striped bass was low. That changed in 1983 when Congress passed the Striped Bass Emergency Act to protect the species along the Eastern seaboard.
A bit of trivia: the first U.S. law ever passed in regard to fish and wildlife was in the 1600s and had to do with prohibiting the use of striped bass as fertilizer. During the Pilgrim's times, that when they made runs up the river, striped bass “were so thick you could almost walk across the river on their backs,” says Freeze. The fish were incredibly plentiful and became a staple in the diet of many living along the coast. But as the years passed, the harvest of striped bass kept dropping until 1983 when Congress essentially shut commercial harvest down. What that protection did was open a window for fish farmers to raise striped bass.
This new market actually presented two new opportunities for farmers. The first was raising striped bass as a food fish. Second were those who could provide fingerlings to raise — the option chosen by Freeze. It was the correct decision: of all the large food fish growers in the country, Keo Fish Farm provides a vast majority of the hybrid striped bass fingerlings they raise.
“We send all our fish out young. That was a management decision we made early. If you want someone to buy your fingerlings, you want repeat customers. We don't need to be in competition. That's worked very well for us.”
Some hybrid striped bass producers are raising densities of 5,000 to 8,000 pounds per acre. That's very similar to catfish. But hybrid striped bass need a much higher protein feed and much higher oxygen levels. The hybrids need double the aeration equipment for a catfish pond so they're more expensive to raise. On the other hand, while catfish sell for around 70 cents per pound, hybrid bass sell for around three times that.
“Probably 80 percent of our brood fish come out of our own production. Hybrid bass are becoming more and more domesticated. To get a striped bass trained on commercial feed is like getting a catfish trained. It isn't hard.”
Another 45 percent of the farm's business comes from another genetically engineered fish: the triploid grass carp. This fish, which is used to clear waters of excess vegetation, goes back to 1983 with several operations around Lonoke County.
“When we came to Keo and had the acreage to do it, we began working with the grass carp. Now, the three largest producers of triploid grass carp are all located in Lonoke County. Ninety percent of the country's grass carp come from this county.”
To produce a triploid grass carp, an egg must retain its first polar body, which is normally shed. A variety of methods — including electrical shock — are employed in this process. Everyone reading this is a diploid — half our chromosomes from our mother, half from our father. But by retaining the first polar body, the fish egg will retain two sets of the mother's chromosomes and one from the father, thus making it a triploid. The only reason that's worth noting is that triploids can't reproduce.
“That's very important to game and fish agencies across the country. No one wants grass carp in the wild reproducing in our river systems. If large numbers of them are in waterways, they could consume native vegetation and that, in turn, would be extremely detrimental.”
Most of the farm's overseas market is hybrid striped bass fry. Israel, Korea, China, Taiwan, Italy, the United Kingdom and others have imported this fish from the United States. Since the fish is a cross of two species, it can't breed. Until Israelis secured brood stock, meant foreign countries had to come back to Freeze for more fingerlings.
“When we first began exporting fish in the late 1980s, some Israelis came to us interested in hybrid striped bass (editor's note: hybrid bass are scaly — unlike catfish — and therefore comply with Jewish dietary laws). They wanted to raise them for food. We had almost no experience shipping fish long distances.”
At first, Freeze wasn't interested.
“We were selling all the fish we could here. But they wouldn't take no for an answer. The Israelis basically drug us kicking and screaming into the international market. They agreed to pay for fish in advance and sent employees over to help develop techniques for shipping overseas. For around five years they were our best overseas customer. At one time, we were sending around half our fingerlings to them.”
Taiwan became Freeze's next large customer. There was about five years when the operation was shipping even more fish to Taiwan than it did to Israel. Many of the fish the Taiwanese raised were carried to China.
“It started out that we sent 1-inch fish to Israel and Taiwan. The learning curve is such that it's easier for someone to take a small fish and grow it than to begin with fry and grow them up. Now, they've learned and all we ship to Taiwan are fry. We ship them several million fry every year. Freight is much cheaper putting 50,000 fry in a box versus 700 small fingerlings.”
It usually takes 32 to 36 hours to get fish overseas. Depending on who has the best transit time and shipping prices, Freeze normally uses Federal Express or UPS.
The Oriental culture values new cuisine. When hybrid striped bass first got there, it was widely sought after and a premium was paid for it. But as it became more common, interest diminished somewhat.
“Asian producers are always inquiring after new species to grow. We've had people come through here with picture books of fresh-water fish and point at different pictures, ‘What about this fish? Can you get us this fish?’ Many times, the answer is no because it just isn't feasible to culture the fish.”
“Our overseas markets were very important to us for years,” says Freeze. “Now, we've grown much larger domestically. Where overseas markets once constituted 50 percent of our sales, they now make up just 5 percent.”
A typical day on the farm starts before daylight. “We don't work a night crew because our pond densities aren't nearly those of catfish ponds. We have 200 or 300 pounds per acre of hybrid striped bass. Because of that we don't have nearly the oxygen troubles. But first thing, we'll have employees out checking aerators and other things. The harvest and shed crews come in and do their business.”
Before shipping out, fish are seined from ponds and put in a holding tank. The fish must purge themselves before being sent cross country. Normally, what kills fish during a long transit isn't a lack of oxygen, but ammonia build-up from waste levels.
“We dump salt in the holding tanks. It not only helps control parasites, but works like Ex-Lax.”
The operation has a very good retention rate. Many fish farms use migrant labor — Freeze won't.
“One philosophy we have is that once an employee is trained, he's a valuable asset. We have health plans, profit-sharing, bonuses and other things. We want our employees happy and so try to work normal hours.
“A migrant worker typically wants to come here and work 16 hours a day, seven days a week. He wants a lot of money quick so he can go home. That's understandable and fine. But we try and not work more than seven to nine hours a day five days a week. That keeps employees' families happy and, in turn, makes for a better work atmosphere.”