In central Indiana, hours away from where they are commonly fished in the Great Lakes, yellow perch are being raised and sold by the hundreds of thousands. Central Indiana is  home to Bell Aquaculture, the largest yellow perch farm in the country. And it is here that IISG staffers got a first-hand look at the state’s growing aquaculture industry during a staff retreat last week. 

During our afternoon at Bell, we were treated to an up-close look at everything from egg hatching to the filleting and freezing of fully grown fish before they head to market. The tour took us through warehouses of enormous fish tanks, some holding up to 70,000 gallons of water and 250,000 yellow perch. We saw hundreds of thousands of perch at different stages of development, including ones that had reached their 150-gram market size and were being moved to the processing wing to be descaled and filleted. 

But perhaps the most interesting part of the tour was learning about all the work that went into keeping the fish healthy. They are fed nine times a day and go through more than 2,500 pounds of feed each day. Employees keep a close eye on water quality, making sure that the temperature, oxygen, and pH levels are just right. Ozone is injected into the water to bind with fish waste and pull it to the bottom of the tank to be removed. And in the newest wing of the operation, the water in the tanks is constantly circulating through biofilters that remove any contaminants. Before taking the tour, staff even had to put booties on our shoes and clean our hands to make sure that no potentially dangerous microbes came along for the tour.

To top it all off, we also had a chance to taste test the fish. At the Lil Bistro in Redkey, IN (where Bell Aquaculture is headquartered), we enjoyed breaded fish and chips and yellow perch pizza, all prepared using the fresh perch from Bell. The fish was not only good but very fresh, and cooked up perfectly in each of the dishes. 

From the lunch alone it wasn’t hard to see why yellow perch is a popular pan fish in North America. But overfishing, pollution, and a dwindling food supply have taken their toll in the Great Lakes region, and the yellow perch population is reaching critically low numbers. Fish farms like Bell Aquaculture play a big role in ensuring that consumers have long-term access to yellow perch without endangering the strength and health of Great Lakes populations.  

Thanks in part to the success of their yellow perch, Bell Aquaculture is expanding. Their goal is to produce 24 million fish per year, more than can be fished out of the Great Lakes right now. They are also making room to breed, raise, and process additional food fish species. In fact, the aquaculture industry is growing all across the state. There are roughly 50 fish producers in Indiana today, nearly three times what there was in 2006. Together, these fish farms brought more than $15 million in sales to the state economy in 2012.   

Click here to learn more about Indiana’s growing aquaculture industry. And visit Bell’s website for a list of restaurants where you can conduct your own taste test.