Min-kota Fisheries testing new market for inoculating fingerling fish before shipment

Vaccinating tilapia ... Workers at Min-kota Fisheries are inoculating these fingerling fish against streptococcus in preparation for shipment to a Minnesota facility which has experienced an outbreak of the deadly disease. In back are Donnie Ehlers and Devon Ehlers. Around the fish table are, from left: Julie Seager, Kit Bramblee, General Manager Pat Seager, Brandy Seager, Jay Calhoon and Jason Harry.

"It's a very tedious process, but tolerable," said Pat Seager, Min-kota Fisheries general manager, about inoculating 40,000 fish per batch before shipment to a facility that has been exposed to a deadly fish disease.

The disease, called streptococcus, can wipe out at least 40 percent of a major fish growing operation. The disease, though, does not affect humans. Any infected fish within harvestable size can be, and are, processed for human consumption.

Even the inoculation itself is species specific. It is a "killed" vaccine and does not harm people. "If we were to accidentally stick ourselves, it wouldn't hurt us," said Seager. It is also gentle on the fingerling fish. "For all intents and purposes, the death rate of fish during inoculation is zero," said Seager.

"After the fingerlings are vaccinated here, we hang on to them for 21 days before shipping them to the Minnesota facility," said Seager. Previously, the only way to eliminate the disease at a fish raising facility was to remove all the inventory, shut down the operation, disinfect and restock. Seager said that this, obviously, is an extremely expensive procedure.

The vaccine being used by Min-kota Fisheries is a new process. Seager said that it has yet to prove itself under investigation and trial by the United States Department of Agriculture. If it proves successful, then Min-kota may be shipping out a batch of 40,000 units per week.

With four workers doing the inoculating and two doing the handling, it requires an estimated 14 to 16 hours to process one batch. The Min-kota crew has finished their second batch, the first being completed about two weeks ago.

A net full of two- to four-inch tilapia are put into a tank of treated water to be anesthetized. Their metabolism slows so they flop less and can be out of water a little longer during handling. The net full of fish are then put on the processing table. Each fish receives a .1 cc of vaccine and is slid down the table to a waiting tank. A 1,000 milliliter jar of vaccine should do for about 10,000 vaccinations. Within minutes the fish are as lively as ever.

The market niche filled by Min-kota Fisheries is the raising of tilapia fish from about half an inch (a quarter of a gram in weight) up to around four to five inches (10 to 15 grams). Other facilities continue the raising process up to approximately 12 inches (1-1/2 pounds). Seager said that, generally, anything sold in America is live and that anything already processed comes from overseas, mainly China.

Seager enjoys the work. "It's like a harvest of the fruits of your labors on a monthly basis," he said.