LYNXVILLE – Order Atlantic salmon from a restaurant menu or pick out a fillet from a Madison grocery display case and it’s likely the fish was farm-raised in Chile, Scotland or, perhaps, Maine.
And soon, likely Wisconsin.
An artesian spring bubbling from the rock and sand just a mile east of the Mississippi River in Crawford County could help add Wisconsin to the list of salmon sources and help grow the state’s relatively small aquaculture industry that is dominated by trout farms.
Kent Nelson, who owns a Prairie du Chien sawmill with his two brothers, is using the 400 gallons of gin-clear, 52-degree water that flows from his spring each minute year-round to raise an estimated 30,000 Atlantic salmon. His first crop of 2-pound to 2½-pound, 2-year-old fish will be harvested this summer while a new batch of 35,000 eggs will be hatched this spring in Nelson’s small basement hatchery.
Nelson’s Fish Farm is believed to be the only business in the Midwest raising Atlantic salmon, a fish native to the North Atlantic and a far different species from the catfish, bullhead and carp that are normally targeted by commercial fishermen along the Great River Road.
“I think he’s got an excellent operation. He’s got what I would call a small, niche market facility,” said Ron Johnson, one of two state UW-Extension aquaculture outreach specialists. “Kent is trying something different. Because of the buy local, buy fresh initiatives, the general public is looking for quality food products that are grown locally. And the Nelsons are tying into that.”
There are 211 privately owned commercial fish farms in the state. Most raise trout but some raise yellow perch, panfish and, in recent years, talapia, a warm-water fish that in Wisconsin needs to be grown in tanks indoors. In addition, researchers at UW-Stevens Point, using the Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility in Bayfield County, have developed a methodology to raise in indoor tanks a walleye and sauger hybrid that can reach market size in less than a year, Johnson said.
Aquaculture is a $7 million-a-year business in the state, has a $1 billion economic impact in the U.S. and is a $70 billion a year industry worldwide, according to Johnson.
“We rank way down the list,” Johnson said of the state’s private fish farm industry. “We’re less than 1 percent of the U.S. market.”
Commercial netting of Atlantic salmon is not allowed in U.S. waters after the fish were eliminated from most of their native range along the northeast coast of the U.S. and Canada.
In Maine, where wild Atlantic salmon are listed as an endangered species, farm-raised Atlantic salmon are the state’s second-most-valuable fishery product after lobster, according to Maine Sea Grant.
Filling a niche
The fish begin their journey in a hatchery before they are placed in cages or net pens in bays along the Maine coast. The fish are harvested once they grow to at least 10 pounds, a process that takes two to three years.
However, more than 90 percent of the Atlantic salmon consumed in the U.S. is imported primarily from farms in Chile, Norway, Scotland and Canada.
That means there is plenty of room for growth for entrepreneurs like Nelson and his wife, Kristen.
Susan Shebilske, manager of the Seafood Center, 712 S. Whitney Way, Madison, believes locally raised salmon would sell well, particularly at their outlets in the Willy Street Co-ops in Madison and Middleton.
“For the customers that go in there, (local) is more important than cost,” Shebilske said. “We would love to have more local stuff in our centers.”
The Nelsons’ 70 acres of land in a valley surrounded by steep wooded hills was strictly a dairy farm until the 1940s when the owners began using the spring and spring house for more than chilling cans of milk.
Ponds were created and for about 30 years, the property was also home to a trout farm.
When the Nelsons purchased the property in 1990, the ponds were barely visible, surrounded by towering brush and weeds.
In 1992, the Nelsons restocked the ponds and races with rainbow trout, some of which more recently have been sold to Gray’s Tied House in Verona and the upscale L’Etoile on the Capitol Square. In 2010, knowing their trout were in a crowded market, the Nelsons began searching for salmon eggs.
“As a cold-water state, pretty much everybody’s raising trout,” said Nelson. “We’re hoping (Atlantic salmon) will be a better seller.”
So, in early 2012, the Nelson’s spent $4,500 for 35,000 salmon eggs from Cook Aquaculture, based in New Brunswick, Canada. The batch arrived in a white foam cooler and were quickly transferred to screens in a trough of 38 degree water.
The temperature is raised to 52 degrees before the BB-sized eggs hatch in a week to a month.
After they hatch, the fish lay on the bottom of the 12-foot-long, 12-inch-wide, and eight-inch-deep troughs before they begin to swim to the surface, which takes about a month. They are then transferred to one of three 400-gallon bulk tanks, which are constantly fed water from the nearby spring.
Once they reach 3 inches, which takes three to four months, they are transferred to one of the narrow outdoor raceways.
“The trout, you basically try and get an inch a month. Salmon are a little slower,” Nelson said. “They’re not as aggressive, at least here, anyway. This is only my first bunch so maybe the next bunch will go better. They’re supposed to be raised in saltwater, so it’s a challenge all the way around.”
Nelson’s second batch of salmon eggs he received in 2013, all died when the fish refused to eat his feed.
He also has had problems with bald eagles and great blue herons poaching his ponds and raceways of fish.
A few weeks ago, ducks pulled up watercress near the spring house.
The remains clogged a pipe that feeds the raceways and ponds and reduced the flow of water which left his salmon gasping for air.
“I was lucky I was home,” Nelson said. “They’re a lot more finicky and fragile.”
Unlike trout however, which need constant cool water temperatures, Atlantic salmon can better tolerate warmer water, Nelson said.
Nelson, a Blair native who has been in the lumber business since 1982, is selling some of the salmon at Valley Fish and Cheese in Prairie du Chien but would ideally like to sell his 17- to 18-inch salmon live to a distributor who would process and sell the fish to restaurants, grocery stores and seafood outlets.
They would likely cost more per pound than fish from Chile but have the advantage of being locally grown, something that is highly sought among foodies, whether it be grass-fed beef, artisan cheese or craft beer.
“It’s a beautiful fish,” Nelson said. “I hope we can sell them.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the location of Kent Nelson's salmon farm.