CHEYNEY, Pa. — Pale pink-white fish, and lots of them, are swimming and splashing around in a tank at the back of a greenhouse on the Cheyney University campus.
The tank is only knee high, but the black liner gives it an appearance of unprobed depth.
Steven Hughes tosses in a scoop of food, and the tilapia go wild.
“They love it when guests come by,” says Hughes, director of the university’s Aquaculture Research and Education Laboratory.
Cheyney’s fish farming program is a rarity within the State System of Higher Education, but Hughes believes aquaculture can economically increase food production while offering students desirable careers.
U.S. fish farms produce $850 million in food fish annually, according to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture.
Hughes’ own interest in fish didn’t start out particularly goal oriented. It was simply a hobby he picked up from a friend in middle school.
By sophomore year in high school, the friend had lost interest in fish. Not Hughes.
“I had like 12 aquariums in the basement. I was breeding four different species of fish and selling them to pet shops. And by hook or by crook, it’s stayed with me all this time since then,” he says.
Hughes is fascinated with how an animal can be so similar to humans — fish can even get sunburnt — and yet, because they live in water, so different.
As a nutritionist and physiologist, Hughes studies ways to feed fish to promote health and rapid growth.
“Fish get fat too if you don’t feed them right,” he says.
A tilapia can grow from juvenile to market weight in nine to 15 months, while a mahi-mahi — a fast grower not produced much in Pennsylvania — can go from egg to 2 or 3 pounds in less than a year.
To some extent, fish nutrition is a bit like balancing a livestock ration.
The nutrient content of the feed — protein, fat, minerals — can affect the quantity and quality of the fish flesh, including the amount of healthy fatty acids like omega-3.
“If you feed them diets that are high in something, they will be high in that. If you feed them low in something, they’ll be low in that,” Hughes says.
Soybean meal and fish meal are two of the most common feed ingredients. The latter is made by grinding up what’s left of fish after the fillets are removed.
But fish are 100 to 1,000 times more sensitive to tastes and smells than humans are, and fish farmers have to cater to those needs.
Trout, for example, don’t like the taste of rotten fish, though catfish don’t mind it. And fish generally dislike brewer’s yeast.
The nutritional needs of common aquaculture fish such as catfish and tilapia are well understood, but that basic research continues for fish farm newcomers like cobia, Hughes says.
One thing that rarely makes its way into Cheyney’s tanks is an antibiotic.
Few antimicrobials are approved for fish in the United States, and they can only be used under very particular conditions.
“If you are going out and you’re buying a U.S. farm-raised product, I am very comfortable in saying you are buying a very healthy product,” Hughes says.
Teaching Urban Farming
Hughes was working with fish at the University of Maryland in the early 2000s when he helped organizers get grant funding to start Cheyney’s program.
“Then I ended up being the one running the program. It was not my plan, but it worked out well enough,” Hughes says.
One of his most important curriculum changes came in 2015, when Cheyney added an aquaculture concentration to its biology major.
Hughes gets these students involved in all facets of fish production, and when possible, the students conduct research projects they design themselves.
“This is a hands-on major,” Hughes says.
Around the time the Cheyney program started, urban farming was catching on as a way to bring food production closer to city-dwelling consumers, especially underserved minorities.
These goals made aquaculture a good fit for Cheyney. The nation’s oldest historically black university draws many of its students from the greater Philadelphia region.
And aquaculture is perhaps the most suitable type of animal production for urban areas.
Unlike outdoor fish farms, tank-based systems can be placed in existing buildings, even on brownfields, because the food never touches the soil.
Cheyney’s own aquaculture laboratory occupies rooms in an academic building once used to train future shop teachers.
Still, Hughes says, urban space can be expensive, and buildings offer less production area than the acres of open space found out in the country.
Because fish are so sensitive, even municipal water often needs to be filtered or treated to make it amenable to them.
As a result, Hughes mainly works with recirculating systems, which cut down on treatment costs.
As with any type of animal agriculture, fish producers need to figure out how to dispose of the waste.
The solid waste can be packaged as a consumer fertilizer, fed into a digester to produce electricity, or applied to fields.
At Cheyney, the amount of waste is fairly small.
“We can just spread it on the lawn and it’s fine — and (we can) make the guys who run the mowers wonder, ‘Why does that area grow so much faster than every place else?’ ” Hughes says.
The best strategy for the liquid waste, he says, is to feed it to plants grown on hydroponic float trays — a setup called aquaponics.
Since 2006, Cheyney has collaborated with Herban Farms on just such a project.
The university provides the fish, and the family farm uses the fish nutrients to grow basil in a 10,000-square-foot greenhouse it built on the Cheyney campus.
It’s this greenhouse where Hughes was feeding the tilapia earlier.
The fish occupy a relatively small tank in one corner of the structure. Most of the floor space is covered in shallow tanks that the trays of basil float down as they mature.
Herban Farms sells its plants to local grocery stores.
“It has become a very good demonstration project for what can be done with aquaponics here in Pennsylvania,” Hughes says.
As for Cheyney, it produces market-weight fish in relatively small quantities — 30 pounds is a big week — so its sales options are fairly limited.
Some of the fish have been used in the on-campus restaurant operated by the hotel, restaurant and tourism management majors. Sometimes the fish are sold to staff and students.
Naturally, managing the fish has also helped the biology and aquaculture students find jobs.
Some graduates have moved directly into careers with aquaculture companies, while others have gone on to graduate school or medical fields.
Experience with fish can pay off in unexpected places, Hughes says. Research hospitals, for example, often maintain fish populations.
One recent graduate is trying to start his own aquaculture operation in Philadelphia, though that’s often a difficult path for Cheyney grads.
“Most of our students come in financially challenged, and so they’re not really in a position to go out and start businesses that require a lot of capital,” Hughes says.
He wants his graduates to at least be equipped to join established firms and advance into management.
Certainly, any fish production Cheyney graduates can do will reduce the United States’ huge trade deficit in seafood and shift some of the burden off the world’s fisheries, where catches of many species are flat, declining or restricted.
“The ocean has given us what it’s going to give us,” Hughes says.
But Hughes’ interest in teaching about aquaculture doesn’t stop with his students.
Though he’s not part of a land-grant university, Hughes sees his job partly as agricultural extension, serving the farmers themselves.
He helps people develop fish facilities, refers producers to parts vendors and disease specialists, troubleshoots problems with systems, and reviews business plans.
It’s all to help a young agricultural sector grow and mature.
“We’re here to help, and we’re willing to help,” he says.