SUNY Cobleskill crossbreeds Arctic char and brook trout
After a quarter-century of hatching and raising a strain of high-value fish, Cobleskill researchers are zeroing in on a hybrid breed that captures key characteristics from its parents – Arctic char, an attractive and light variety that struggles to breed in the region, and the brook trout, a freshwater fish native to the state.
The pairing responds to high demand for Arctic char, which is often shipped from hatcheries in Iceland, Canada and Norway. There, cooler temperatures in the fall ease breeding for the fish, whose flavor, fish experts say, is a mix of salmon and trout.
Developing a hybrid strain that can grow well in the region would fill market need in an economically sustainable way, said John Foster, professor and chair of SUNY Cobleskill’s fisheries, wildlife and environmental science department.
In April, tiny fry of the ninth-generation hybrids swam in large tubs of water at SUNY Cobleskill’s Center for Agriculture and Natural Resources. Their parents were the hundreds of hybrids that grew quickly, like brook trout, but held the sleek appearance of Arctic char, with pink-orange bellies, Foster said.
Researchers and students at the university oversee fish that produce between 500,000 to a million eggs each year, Foster said, adding that about 10 percent of the eggs are from the hybrid fish.
Progress has been slow because the research center is relatively small, Foster said. But each generation of hybrids gets progressively more Arctic char-like, he said, while retaining growth characteristics from the brook trout.
“The cross is deep bodied and has a lot of meat on it,” he said. “That’s a good thing.”
The resulting fish grow for about two years to reach about 4 pounds before they are bred with other hybrids.
After another year or two, Foster said, “they would be off to somebody’s dinner table.” SUNY Cobleskill’s Center for Agriculture and Natural Resources sells fillets of the hybrid fish, often to campus diners, at about $7 per pound, hatchery manager Brent Lehman said.
While conventional wisdom characterizes Arctic char as the more beautiful fish, Foster said he believes that brook trout “are pretty attractive as well.”
“But when you’re getting it as a fillet,” he said, “you can’t tell what it looked like.”
To be sure, the Cobleskill fishery has a broader purpose than raising fish for food. Student researchers examine growth patterns of different aquatic species and try to restore other breeds back from endangered status. Down the hall from the Arctic char-brook trout hybrids, four-inch brown and orange Malaysian giant prawns swim in blue rectangular tubs. Bright yellow and blue cichlid fish, originally from Lake Malawi in East Africa, shimmer in tanks in a separate room.
But the brook trout-Arctic char hybrid fish have brought attention and income to Cobleskill, which enrolls about 2,500 undergraduates.
The Bees Knees Café, the restaurant of the Heather Ridge Farm in Preston Hollow, Schoharie County, bought the hybrid from Cobleskill several times in 2011 to prepare and sell to customers. At that time, researchers needed to move to a separate facility and sold large quantities of the stock.
The café cooks with local ingredients, and owner Carol Clement, recalled feeling lucky that Cobleskill researchers were selling so many of the fish.
“It was like a light, sweet salmon, which made it very versatile,” Clement recalled.
Recently, Guilderland fishmonger Fin president Peter Kenyon heard of the Cobleskill researchers’ hatchery. Kenyon’s shop sells Arctic char fillets imported from Iceland and Canada for $14.50 a pound. He describes char’s taste as a mix between the strong flavor of salmon and the delicate, sweet taste of trout, adding he was interested in possibly selling the hybrid.
Today, a 2,000 gallon gray tank set atop the hatchery’s gravel floor holds 200 char-like hybrids. But 25 years ago, a green plastic tank contained 100 fish, just over an inch long. Then-animal sciences professor John Grossbeck told the Times Union at the time that he hoped the university would develop “the next superfish.” Of the tiny Arctic char, he said, “it might be known someday as the Cobleskill strain.”
Foster describes his first attempts to breed char in 1990 as “a shotgun approach.” He put chillers on the tanks to cool the water, and he attempted using outdoor tanks. He altered the fish’s light exposure so that they believed November, with cool outdoor water temperatures, was the beginning of the fall, when Arctic char breed.
Foster said that this process “worked to a degree,” but that crossbreeding was more successful. Manipulating the length of the day for pure Arctic char resulted in a 30 percent fertility rate, but fertilizing brook trout eggs with Arctic char sperm, he said, resulted in a 90 percent success rate.
“They got big, they had the deep bodies, they were just the perfect fish,” Foster said, nicknaming the hybrid “Charzilla.”
Source : http://www.timesunion.com/tuplus-business/article/Hybrid-fish-hooks-hatchery-7385623.php