Country World Archives 2001-2008

John Turner, owner/manager of Lonestar Aquafarms in Palacios. displays a box of whole, fresh redfish kept chilled in ice. Current production is 25,000 pounds of whole fresh fish every week. They sell to wholesale distributions primarily in Houston but have products that ship all over the country.
—Staff photo by Rost

Redfish farm finds success

By CAROLYN ROST, Country World Staff Writer

April 24, 2008 - When it comes to growing redfish, Lonestar Aquafarms does it all.

“We are a little bit unique as fish farms go because we do everything here - from spawning to hatching - the whole nine yards,” said owner/manager John Turner. “We spawn the fish, hatch the fish, go through all the larvae rearing, fingerling development phases and grow food fish as well.”

At Lonestar Aquafarms, located near Carancahua Bay in Palacios, redfish are grown year-round and to Turner’s knowledge, they have the only domestic redfish in the world.

At the hatchery and incubation facilities, Turner said they also select and develop brood stock. The brood stock are native Texas redfish and are free from genetic enhancement. All the eggs used at the farm come from those fish and are naturally spawned and fertilized.

“The fish will hatch 24 hours after they are fertilized,” he said. “We will harvest the eggs from the brood stock tanks and move them to the incubating facility. They will stay there for 36 hours until they’ve hatched, absorbed their yolk sac, developed mouth parts, functional eyes and are ready to eat.”

At that point, he said, redfish are about 1.1 millimeters long.

“We stock about a million of those advanced larvae - 36 hour post-hatch larvae - every week from about April 1 through Nov. 15; as long as the water is warm enough to grow the zoo plankton and the little baby animals that the redfish need to eat,” he said.

Once the baby fish are ready to eat, they are taken out to the smallest ponds located on the farm. Those ponds, he said, are one acre in size and are called phase one production ponds. In those ponds, approximately 500,000 larvae are stocked every 45 days. After 45 days, the fish - which are referred to as juveniles - will grow to two inches in length.

“A big part of what we do from this phase on,” he said, “is grade fish to keep fish of similar size together to keep them from eating one another.”

According to Turner, juveniles are voracious feeders and cannibalistic.

The juvenile fish will then be moved to a two acre pond and will stay there for about four months until they are six to eight inches long. Turner said they will then go back and grade those fish again, and will move out a group of fish similar in size and stock one of the other ponds. This careful grading and selection results in unparalleled size consistency at harvest.

In 18 to 20 months, the fish will grow from larval stage to about 20-plus inches and will average 3 to 3 1/2 pounds. At that size, they are ready for harvest. Current production is about 25,000 pounds of whole fresh fish every week.

Being able to produce a product that is available 52 weeks out of the year is what makes Lonestar Aquafarms different than other farming businesses, he said.

“Our claim to fame is to be able to produce fish consistently year in and year out, week in and week out, so that our customers can put fresh fish that are of the same size, same quality, same price on their menu and know that the product is going to be available for them. By being able to do what we do here, we take the seasonality out of seafood.”

Turner, who has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in aquaculture and fisheries from Texas A&M University, has been spawning, hatching and rearing redfish since 1985.

“My original masters work was redfish reproduction and husbandry work for Texas A&M to provide a source of fingerlings for them to do nutritional and ecophysiological work on.”

Turner said he chose to grow redfish at his business not only because of his long history with the fish, but also because he wanted to stay and work in the United States.

“I knew that redfish was something that could be marketed here in the United States. It wouldn’t be feasible to produce this fish in another country and try to ship it over here because it has to be so fresh to have any value. It’s one of those market niches that I felt that we had a better chance of staying home and making a living with it.”

According to Turner, making a living with redfish is hard work and there’s a lot to know.

“USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) ranks all kinds of ag businesses and aquaculture and fisheries is ranked as the most labor intense ag business, even above the dairy farm. So that tells you something about the kind of energy that goes into something like this. It’s a 24 hour a day, seven day a week operation. There is somebody on the clock every day all day. In the summertime we will have multiple shifts going on out here.”

Fish, he said, are very delicate and “you have to be able to manage a crop that you can’t see.”

“You have to be able to manage the health of that animal based on water quality parameters, their feed consumption and all kinds of things. You have to be able to infer the fishes’ health from other cues that you pick up along the way and that’s hard to do if you don’t understand water chemistry, water quality and the animal itself.”

Oxygen, he said, is the number one water quality parameter that they monitor. The oxygen level in the water is checked every hour.

“You have to be out here monitoring the oxygen in the pond, turning on aerators. If the pond has a lot of pounds of fish in it, we will run two aerators. If that’s not enough, we can bring in tractor mounted aerators to bring the oxygen up.”

Predators can also be a significant problem, he said.

“We pump our water from the bay and could very easily pump predators in. Starting with such small seed stock as we do, it wouldn’t take a very large predator to eat the very smallest of our seed stock.”

The most costly predators, however, are birds. The key there, he said, is just not ever letting bird rookeries establish themselves on the farm and not ever letting the birds get a free meal.

“Once you’ve done that, you can forget it, because they are going to tell their buddies.”

For more information about Lonestar Aquafarms, call 361-972-3240 or visit www.lonestaraquafarms.com.