Cage Culture of Fish With a Twist

| 3/24/2014 9:03:00 AM

I always enjoy the innovation that I see with the Mother Earth Fair community and I wanted to approach this second part of the cage culture discussion from the standpoint of innovation. I think that there is room to incorporate sustainability through innovation in rearing fish in cages.

cage hanging

Coosa Catfish Cages was a small business in Coosa County, Alabama, that Shep Phillips operated. He was my friend and great asset to his community. We worked on projects and trade shows together during my beginning adventures in pond management in 1994. Shep was involved with the local water district, as well as Auburn University extension system, and wanted to develop a way for landowners to profit by growing fish in their small ponds. With its rolling hills and plenty of rainfall most years, central Alabama has a lot of ponds in dammed-up ravines. While these ponds supply water for wildlife, irrigation, and livestock, Shep had something more entrepreneurial in mind.

He developed an ideal cage to raise a crop of fish in these ponds, taking materials, mesh size, predator protection, and ease of handling into consideration. He kept a rectangle of 3-inch PVC pipe frame suspended from pine trees in the front yard, where he assembled cages. When his young grandson got too rowdy, he found himself placed inside the suspended finished fish cage as a giant “playpen” 4 feet deep, 4 feet wide, and 8 feet long. The nylon mesh was a sturdy black 1-inch diamond, and capable of holding a good crop of fish (or a grandson). After the unit was assembled, he removed the PVC and was able to ship or deliver the collapsed cage; it could be reassembled with locally purchased PVC for the frames.

To increase production, farmers needed aeration, since the high density of fish would limit the system’s oxygen. The main culture species was channel catfish, which become stressed if you drop an airstone, gushing air bubbles, right in the middle of the cage. An airlift uses air injected into a vertical pipe, aerating the water and creating flow at the same time. After digging through the plastic file box in the back seat of my truck, I found a scientific article I had recently read on airlifts. We looked it over and I left it with Shep. By my next visit, he had adapted the concept to attach to the side of his cages; the design would push fresh aerated water across the cage lengthwise without stressing the fish. This may not sound significant to you, but to his farming community, it effectively aerated the cages, which meant the ability to culture 20 percent more fish with the same effort.


Now, innovation is a funny thing. It includes success, failure, and lackluster results. I hope that you will take a standard, even conservative, approach initially to create success for you and your fish culture project. Some sustainable techniques for cage culture are old ideas and some are new. Cage culture is an old activity and has been used around the world and in developing countries. Some of these systems are more innovative than modern approaches, and are a source of knowledge for integrated, sustainable techniques.

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