Wisconsin’s fish-fry favorites are doing well, not in the lake, but in Port Washington’s aquaponics operation, where their job is to energize vegetable growth
The days when fishermen lined the Port Washington breakwater to catch buckets of yellow perch are long gone.
But Port still produces perch — home-grown you might say — thanks to Pat
Wilborn and his PortFish aquaponics operation.PortFish is a non-profit organization formed to raise awareness of issues and concerns regarding current and future food supply.
Wilborn raises between 700 and 1,000 perch annually at his facility behind the former feed mill in the Town of Port Washington.
That’s a far cry from the tens of thousands of pounds of fish needed to satisfy the Lenten appetite for fried perch, but Wilborn is happy to be contributing in his own small way to what he
likes to think of as the sustainable fish fry.
“A connoisseur of yellow perch might be able to tell the difference between our perch and the perch you find out in the lake, but I can tell you that there are no chemicals in the fish we
raise,” he said. “Yellow perch were born to fry, and how good a fryer you have will dictate its taste.
“Does it taste better than what you find in the lake? I would say enthusiastically yes.”
Wilborn has his perch processed at Ewig Bros. in Port Washington, then sells them at the winter farmer’s market. He said he sold about a dozen one-pound bags of perch last week.
Not bad considering growing perch isn’t Wiborn’s main goal. The perch’s job is to fertilize the numerous varieties of vegetables grown without soil in an aquaponics facility.
“Aquaponics is not about the perch,” Wilborn said. “If we wanted to raise yellow perch, we would go into fish farming. This can’t quite compete with a half-million fish, so it’s an easy
Wilborn doesn’t grow cabbage to make the coleslaw for his sustainable fish fry, but he does produce lettuce, watercress, sage, thyme and other plants that he sells to restaurants like Twisted Willow in Port Washington and stores like Slow Pokes in Grafton.
His wife Amy Otis Wilborn is the president of the PortFish board.
“We’re looking for ways to enhance our marketing,” Wilborn said. “We would love to find people who could identify a cash crop for us and are willing to pay a little bit more if we grew it for
“Right now, we’re competing with existing food systems and we’re not even making the cost of growing plants at what we’re selling it for. That’s the way it is.”
Wilborn’s aquaponics process starts with the perch he gets from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences. In return, Wilborn provides the school with data on the fish as they grow.
The fish eat constantly and grow fairly quickly. They are usually harvested nine months after the spawning season in early spring.
The 4,000-square-foot facility Wilborn leases has four bays to house the plants and a 1,500 square-foot greenhouse on the south side of the building.
Wilborn said the temperature in the greenhouse is set at 53 degrees, but it can get up to 85 degrees when the sun shines on the south side of the building.
The fish are kept at 70 degrees and fed by Wilborn until they are ready to be harvested.
“Is it glamorous? No, but we enjoy it.” Wilborn said. “We’re working on enhancing it further.”
For more information on Wilborn’s aquaponics operation, visit www.portfish.org.
Pat Wilborn scooped a net full of big, healthy yellow perch from a tank at the PortFish aquaponics facility.
Photo by Sam Arendt