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Aquaculture holds promise for tribal economies

SACATON, Ariz. - In keeping with the desire of many tribes to diversify their economic ventures, fish farming, or aquaculture, is a growing business in Indian country.

"Aquaculture businesses are the wave of the future for tribes across the country," said Dr. George B. Brooks, Jr., Environmental Coordinator for the Gila River Indian Community's Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project, in Sacaton, Ariz. Brooks, an expert on indigenous aquaculture, spoke on the subject at last month's tribal economic summit in Phoenix. He also chaired the session "Aquaculture on Indigenous Lands" at the 2002 World Aquaculture Society Conference in San Diego.

"Tribes have land and water in abundance, while non-native communities are using up their acreage with giant agri-businesses or urban sprawl," Brooks said. "In many cases, tribal communities have the only suitable open land near major markets."

Indeed, The New York Times recently reported that prime U.S. farmland is being lost to development at the rate of two acres per minute. It is "the fastest decline in the country's history," according to a study by the non-profit American Farmland Trust.

"Fish farms can be particularly easy on land and water resources," added Brooks, "because fish don't drink the water. They just live in it."

Many operations on reservations are tribally owned. For some tribes, such as the Mohegans, aquaculture represents both economic diversity, a way to invest casino profits, and a return to cultural roots. In September, the Mohegan Tribe received a permit to expand its shellfish operation, the largest of its kind in Connecticut.

Other businesses may be non-native entities that have leased tribal land. According to John Oliva, an owner-operator of Tempe, Ariz.-based Pisces Aquasystems, the Gila River community was able to give his company a "reasonable" deal on the acreage it needed, as well as ready access to water.

"There's been lots of support for aquaculture in the community, particularly now that they're about to receive a large water settlement," Oliva said. His operation uses 32 ponds to grow tilapia, catfish, bass, and other edible fish, freshwater prawns, Japanese koi and grass carp, a fish used for weed control. Harvests take place year round, with more than 400,000 pounds of edible fish shipped to markets around the West.

Some operations, like Jamestown Seafood, in Sequim, Wash., sell worldwide. The 12-year-old firm described shipping hundreds of thousands of pounds of shellfish - geoducks and Dungeness crabs harvested by divers - to markets from New York to Beijing and other Pacific Rim cities.

Tribal fish farms range in size from a single-pond experimental facility on the Gila River reservation to the mother of all fish farms, the 165,000-square-foot St. Croix Waters Fishery. Recently constructed at a cost of $17 million by the St. Croix Chippewas in Wisconsin, the fishery has 332 tanks ranging in size from 500 to 8,000 gallons, according to operations manager Dave LaBomascus.

The St. Croix Chippewas hope for an annual harvest of two million pounds of fish by 2003. At that point, their operation will have 45 employees, about two-thirds of them tribal members. It will be one of the largest aquaculture businesses in North America, according to Dick Hartmann, acting general manager.

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"They're the newest, largest and most technologically advanced," said Dr. Peter Perschbacher, of the Aquaculture/Fisheries Center of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

In contrast, small, user-friendly O'odham Oidak Demonstration Fish and Prawn Farm "was a chance to start from scratch and grow fish at as low a cost as possible," said Brooks. He described the project as the "brainchild" of Edward Mendoza, permaculture teacher and farm manager of the Gila River Juvenile Detention and Rehabilitation Center, where the pond is sited. Together, the two figured out ways to make the operation inexpensive to build, operate and maintain. "Except for a few specialized products, like the liner for the pond and the air pumps to aerate the water, the components to construct it are off-the-shelf," said Mendoza.

The tilapia are confined in mesh pens within a 200-foot by 36-foot pond. "As a result, you get stouter, fatter fish," said Mendoza. "The pens also make for easier care and harvesting. One person can handle the operation alone. A community could also set up a pond, where a number of individuals or families could each grow their own fish."

"The design is modular," added Brooks. "So a tribe could put in one pond or several, depending on how many people were interested and how much land and water were available."

Another O'odham Oidak innovation is its second, low-cost crop. Freshwater prawns, a high-end product, are released into the ponds outside the fish pens. The prawns eat food that the fish have missed and also consume baby tilapia, which are the offspring of fish that escape the pens to breed on the pond floor. Using traps or nets, Mendoza also catches the free-running tilapia, throwing the small ones back to the shrimp, and tossing the larger ones into the mesh pens.

Periodically, O'odham Oidak's water, which is enriched with fish wastes, is used to irrigate an adjoining agricultural field. Other operations also strive to use their water in environmentally sound ways. Pisces Aquasystems sends its used water to citrus orchards at Gila River Farms, a tribally owned agricultural business; St. Croix Waters Fishery cleans and recycles its water a few times before cleaning it one last time and releasing it into a nearby stream.

Mendoza and Brooks use O'odham Oidak to do demonstrations for schoolchildren and other community members. They teach aquaculture-related job skills and encourage the idea of adding fish back into their diets to combat diabetes.

"Though local people don't commonly eat fish now, their ancestors captured and consumed the pike minnow and razorback sucker swimming through their irrigation canals," said Brooks. The tilapia and prawns not used by tribal members are sold to local markets at a higher profit per pound than most commercial facilities.

Antone Minthorn, Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, in Pendleton, Ore., told the Who Owns America Conference, in Madison, Wisc., "In the Umatilla Basin, a father can now teach his son or daughter to fish for salmon in their back yard, non-Indian sports fishermen can land 20-pound Spring Chinook, and tribal members are using traditional gaffing and dip-netting to catch salmon the way their ancestors did."

In many cases, Gila River's Brooks said, tribal fish farms have grown from hatcheries maintained by communities desiring to stock lakes and streams for sport and/or subsistence fishing.

"The key for each tribe," he said, "is figuring out how to use its resources in a culturally and environmentally sensitive way."

For information on the Feb. 18-21, 2003 World Aquaculture Society Conference in Louisville, Ky., which will feature a session on indigenous aquaculture, go to, and click on the "Aquaculture America 2003" icon.