In a small, motorized boat, Neil Bowen patrols the perimeter of a net that's seining catfish out of a pond in eastern North Carolina. He stops the boat to let an employee pull the net tight closer to the bank. Later, he's out in the water with employees of Plantation Fishery, the company he and two partners own, pulling the nets taut and harvesting fish that will later be transported to a local farmer's pond.

Catfish production isn't a new venture to North Carolina. But the improved catfish strain being loaded into transport tanks today could put a new shine on catfish for farmers looking to diversify. Everyone here at the ponds seems to be aware of the potential of NWAC 103, including the farmer who's buying the fingerlings for his operation. The arrival of the strain comes at a good time for North Carolina.

This strain represents a leap forward in genetics for the catfish industry. The catfish grow off faster than regular catfish. Allowed as much time in the water as other strains, NWAC 103 will put on more weight than its cousins.

Plantation Fishery was one of 35 nationwide to raise the fish. NWAC 103 was selected from naturally occurring populations of catfish. Bowen points out that his is the smallest fishery in the nation to grow the NWAC 103 strain. The strain generated so much interest that a lottery had to be held to determine who would grow the new strain.

For Bowen, it's part of his company's mission to provide the North Carolina catfish industry with a way increase net profits for farmers and processors. For Myron Fountain, director of the North Carolina Crop Improvement Association, the call is to promote use of certified NWAC 103 catfish. The North Carolina Crop Improvement office provides a certificate that accompanies each sale of fingerlings from Plantation Fishery.

For Clayton Mitchell of Cove City, N.C., it's a chance to continue to diversify in his crop mix as well as his cash flow. He runs a 64-acre catfish operation and jumped at the chance to be one of the first farmers to grow these fish.

Bowen, Fountain and Mitchell also hope to see an expansion in North Carolina's catfish industry.

Ten years in the making, the NWAC 103 is a breakthrough in catfish strains, Fountain said. That may sound like a press release, but Fountain said the genetics of the catfish that allow it to grow out faster than other strains and the disease resistance, put it at the forefront of an expansion of the aquaculture industry in North Carolina.

Scientists at the USDA's National Aquaculture Center in Mississippi developed the strain. NWAC 103 was developed using conventional breeding techniques and was selected for fast growth. Compared with other catfish strains, NWAC 103 averages 20 percent faster growth, Fountain said.

In order to grow the new strain, Bowen had to purge his ponds of other fish. After doing that, USDA required the state crop improvement association to collect a sample of the fish and send them to Mississippi for DNA testing. Fountain said Plantation Fishery did a good job of maintaining the purity of the strain.

Based on what he's heard, Clayton Mitchell jumped at the chance to grow the new strain.

“This hybrid fish is a much faster-growing fish,” said the Cove City, N.C., farmer.

Tobacco still figures heavily in Mitchell's operation, even though he's cut back from 200 acres to 100 acres over the last three years or so.

“Tobacco is still an important crop for me,” Mitchell said. But he sees an opportunity to make the diversification into catfish to contribute even more than it already has to his operation.

“I went into catfish to make up for some of the losses I was facing in tobacco,” Mitchell said. “Because this catfish grows out faster, I hope there will be a much faster turnaround in the ponds.”

As he takes a personal hand in guiding the fingerlings into the tank for transport to Mitchell's farm, Bowen sees this strain benefiting the state's farmers.

“It's Plantation Fishery's goal to provide the catfish farmers the very best fingerlings they can get,” Bowen said, as workers prepare to lift the nets to the waiting state-of-the-art transport tanks operated by Martie Bouw of Holland Seafood in Arapahoe, N.C. Bowen and partners Scott Harris and David Spruill have owned Plantation Fishery for the past eight years.

As the nets are lifted to the tanks, Harris stands nearby, jotting down the weight of the fish in the nets.

This first fruit of the venture with the new strain has been extremely successful, Bowen said.

The goal is to raise 20 million fingerlings a year in North Carolina, Bowen said.

An effective organizer and marketer with experience as an international grain broker, Bowen had little trouble convincing a group of North Carolina catfish farmers he invited to a meeting last May about the advantages of raising the new strain.

He told the farmers about the faster weight gain of the NWAC 103 catfish and the potential of added income. The fact that there are now two fish processors operating in the state increases the incentive for banks to loan money to current and prospective catfish farmers. Bowen also mentioned the fact that farmers can watch the catfish load.

Fountain said NWAC 103 figures heavily into one of the objectives of the state's crop improvement association: To increase the net income of the current 47 catfish farmers in the state by 35 percent. “The increase in income is due to transportation cost savings, reduced death due to shorter transportation distances, increased disease resistance and faster growth rate,” he said.

Bowen anticipates being able to sell all the strain he can produce.

North Carolina is ripe for expansion in aquaculture. With two processors operating in the state, the industry has room to grow. Those two processors have the capacity to handle 18 million pounds of catfish per year.

Currently, North Carolina catfish farmers are producing 3.4 million pounds per year. To meet the capacity of the processing plants, the state's catfish producers could increase production to about 14.6 million pounds a year, Bowen said.

Getting to that production number would mean about 3,300 water surface acres in the state. That would require another 100 catfish farmers in North Carolina.

He cites the area's proximity to major metro areas, the superb regulatory environment in the state, as well as support at the university and state department of agriculture level as being reasons that North Carolina is “ripe for expansion in aquaculture.”