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Stuttgart fish lab faces elimination in Trump budget

by Stephen Steed | June 10, 2017 at 2:09 a.m.

The federal aquaculture research center in Stuttgart would be closed under President Donald Trump's proposed budget for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Trump administration's proposed budget, which hasn't been acted on in Congress, would close the Harry K. Dupree Stuttgart National Aquaculture Research Center just shy of its 60th anniversary. The lab has 27 employees, including nine scientists working on projects involving hybrid, largemouth and white bass, and hybrid catfish.

Carl Webster, the director's center, declined comment Friday, referring a reporter to the USDA's Agriculture Research Service, which manages the facility.

Christopher Bentley, an Agriculture Research Service spokesman, also declined comment but offered a prepared statement: "We cannot know what form the final budget will take, and so it is premature to comment on the specific impacts it may have on any USDA program."

[THE BUDGET: Interactive shows proposed changes to major agencies and how they compare to previous plans]

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue "has communicated to all USDA staff that there is no sense in sugar coating the budget, but he will be as transparent as possible throughout the budget process," the statement said.

The Trump budget proposal calls for an overall cut of $4.7 billion to the USDA's discretionary budget, or about 21 percent. The USDA's Agricultural Research Service would see a budget cut of $360 million, much of it aimed at research conducted at USDA labs across the nation.

The Stuttgart research center has a budget of $3.6 million.

Mike Freeze, co-owner of Keo Fish Farm, one of the largest hybrid striped bass hatcheries in the world, praised the center's work.

A fisheries biologist and former member of the state Game and Fish Commission, Freeze said the center "is one of the very few government-funded warm-water research centers" in the nation.

"At a time of record seafood trade deficits for the United States, it just does not make sense to close one of the most respected aquaculture research centers that we have," Freeze said.

East of Stuttgart on Arkansas 130 -- known as "research row" in the town of about 10,000 -- the center has such neighbors as the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center, also operated by the USDA's Agriculture Research Service, and the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture's Rice Research and Extension Center.

The aquaculture center opened in 1958 as part of a research program by the federal Department of Interior into the production and harvesting of warm-water fish -- especially in using fish as a rotation "crop" in flooded rice fields. The center was then known as the Fish Farming Experimental Laboratory.

Its establishment helped move Arkansas to the forefront of the nation's aquaculture industry. By 1988, Arkansas catfish farmers operated 38,000 acres of ponds. As feed prices rose and import fish increased over the last decade, that number is down to about 5,000 acres, still high enough for Arkansas to be the second-largest catfish producer in the nation.

The facility was transferred to the USDA in 1996 and renamed the Stuttgart National Aquaculture Research Center. Another name change came with the retirement in 1999 of its long-time director, Harry Dupree.

The center sits on 85 acres and consists of an 18,000-square-foot lab and office building and another 10,000 square feet of "wet labs," where fish are hatched, raised and tested in a series of tanks and troughs.

Bo Collins of Mena, executive director of the Catfish Farmers of Arkansas, said the loss of the Stuttgart center would be a blow to an industry still struggling against imported fish.

"That lab has contributed greatly to the United States aquaculture industry," Collins said. "The lab goes back to the 1950s but, of course, it has changed a lot since then. It did a lot of the early research into nutrition, diseases and a host of other issues."

Collins worked at the center from 1985 until his retirement in 2003, with his last job being director of technical assistance.

Of the Trump administration's proposed budget, Collins said, "It's hard to say what, in fact, is actually going to happen. But if things continue to go the way they seem to now, that center will be gone."

Collins said he didn't blame Trump himself. The president, Collins said, ordered federal agencies to find at least 15 percent in budget cuts. "It was the higher-ups in the [Agriculture Research Service] who put the center on the chopping block," he said.

Business on 06/10/2017

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