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How to Start a Fish Farm in Illinois

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Although Chicago borders Lake Michigan, the rest of Illinois is fairly landlocked, so choosing Illinois for a fish farm business startup might, at first blush, appear to be a stretch. Actually, the state has a thriving fish farm industry supported by the University of Southern Illinois’ aquaculture center that was established more than 60 years ago. You won’t find a more hospitable state for your startup, so if you have the money and the interest, jump right in.

Invest big bucks in your fish farm startup. Illinois aqua farmer Ron Dietrich of St. Clair County invested $50,000 in his yellow perch fish farm launch. Capital costs you may encounter include real estate, a building, ponds, sophisticated plumbing, tanks, aerators, meters and diagnostic technology. You want to make that money back, so survey other Illinois fish farms to learn how they price their products.

Obtain a degree in aquaculture from an accredited Illinois university. Make it Southern Illinois University Carbondale if you have a choice. Its biology, chemistry and fish science classes are the best and you’ll learn from practicing fish farmers in the classroom, laboratory and on location. Choose business school electives; in addition to breeding, purchasing eggs and maintaining the health of your crop, you’ll be responsible for generating sales, keeping records and marketing.

Obtain Illinois business licenses and permits from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in Springfield. Ask for purchasing assistance and advice from the Illinois Fish and Game Commission and the federal fish and wildlife bureau before you shop. Buy eggs and fingerlings from Illinois aqua farms. Shipping fragile biological materials can be risky, which is why you also need business insurance to cover buildings, equipment and land that will be exposed to Illinois’ common blizzard and tornado activity.

Start raising fish. These easy-to-rear creatures can be cultured in a relatively small amounts of water, so while your enterprise launch set you back a lot of cash, you may use less water than you imagined. Keep your stock well fed and healthy. Pesticides will be your call; many Illinois fish farmers take a pass on toxic chemicals and use organics to protect fish from disease.

Establish a market. Identify Illinois towns, cities and villages in a 100-mile radius of your fish farm, but don’t leave Chicago out. Visit restaurants, grocers and supermarkets. Ask for the staffer responsible for purchasing fish at each location. For chains like IGA, Jewel, Schnuck’s and big box stores like Walmart and Kmart, you may be asked to call corporate headquarters. Your best bet is to stick with Illinois-only businesses – they will appreciate the fact that you can provide fresh fish that’s closer to home.

Maintain a high standard of cleanliness and hygiene. Ask Illinois or county water inspectors to test your water on a regular basis to catch bacterial or chemical intrusion immediately. Call on folks at Southern Illinois University’s Fisheries and Illinois Agriculture Center for help. SIU’s fish farming division has been around since 1950 for the express purpose of supporting and encouraging aquaculture startups like yours.


Based in Chicago, Gail Cohen has been a professional writer for more than 30 years. She has authored and co-authored 14 books and penned hundreds of articles in consumer and trade publications, including the Illinois-based "Daily Herald" newspaper. Her newest book, "The Christmas Quilt," was published in December 2011.