Several Alabama catfish producers attended the recent ribbon cutting ceremony for Auburn University’s new Center for Aquatic Resource Management, a $9 million addition to the Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquaculture’s E.W. Shell Fisheries Research Center.

“This center is going to bring some of the technology to the fish farm here at Auburn that has been lacking,” said Dallas County catfish producer Butch Wilson, who also serves as president of Catfish Farmers of America.

The center, which consists of a 17,000 square-foot laboratory and a 20,000-square-foot administrative building, will offer cutting-edge aquatic research facilities, enhanced classroom environments and improved community education opportunities.

The laboratory building houses fish tanks and state-of-the art labs, including several climate-controlled wet labs that allow for year-round research.

The administrative building includes office space, a teaching lab, a hatchery, a meeting room that will be available to campus and civic groups, classrooms, a 6,354-square-foot fish holding area and a market for sales to the public.

“The catfish industry right now is where the chickens were in the 1950s and 1960s," Wilson said. "We need to accelerate the improvement process, and I think this will help."

Auburn Fisheries and Allied Aquaculture Extension Specialist Jesse Chappell said the department plans to do just that.

Emulating poultry industry

“We’re trying to emulate some of the pathways the poultry industry forged in the 1950s and 1960s,” Chappell said. “We want to develop breeds of fish that do well in more confined, controlled production systems. Basically, we’re looking to breed and develop a white leghorn chicken, except this one will have fins and a tail.”

Chappell said the U.S. catfish industry is facing growing international competition, and the research that will come out of the new laboratories will give domestic catfish producers the edge they need to succeed in the global market.

“Unlike 30 years ago when the industry began, our growers are now faced with very skilled international competitors," Chappell said. "Before, we were ill-equipped to compete internationally. Now, with the development of this facility we will be able to meet that competition head on — and win.”

Improved farming practices and the development of more resistant breeds of fish, vaccines and probiotics will allow U.S. producers to be drastically more competitive and likely more profitable, Chappell said.

Alabama Farmers Federation’s Catfish Division Director Mitt Walker was also present at the ceremony and said catfish producers across the state are anticipating the research and development the new facilities will bring to the industry.

“The new facility will put researchers at Auburn University in a much better position to tackle industry challenges and transfer this information to the growers,” Walker said.

“Alabama catfish farmers will definitely benefit from the advances in research made possible by capabilities of this new building.”

But U.S. catfish producers aren’t the only ones who will benefit from Auburn’s research.

With the new facilities, the department will be able to develop more consistent, reliable catfish that will yield tastier products for consumers, Chappell said.

“What we’re starting to embark on nowadays is an approach we call pond-to-plate,” Chappell said.

“It’s driven by the consumer rather than from anywhere else. We have to produce what the consumer wants. This building and the scientists here — their efforts will be to craft these animals to meet the demands and standards of the consumers.”

For more information about the E.W. Shell Fisheries Research Center, contact Jesse Chappell at 334-844-9209.