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"He has a rare combination of solid technical expertise and good common sense."


























































College Profile: Aquaculture agent Skip Thompson brings the right package of skills to his trout-farming clientele. --- By Dee Shore
photo of aquaculture agent Skip Tompson (Photo by Sheri D. Thomas)


ornate letter Abacterial disease that had troubled North
Carolina’s $14 million-a-year rainbow trout industry for nearly three decades has been reeled in, thanks in large part to a three-pronged partnership that has changed the way many growers vaccinate their fish.

At the center of that partnership among the industry and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ research and extension programs was Skip Thompson, an area specialized aquaculture agent known for his science-focused, common-sense approach to problems like enteric redmouth disease.

Based in North Carolina Cooperative Extension’s Haywood County Center, Thompson provides technical assistance and training to nearly 50 trout farmers in 11 mountain counties and on the Cherokee Indian Reservation.

A former fish culturist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, Thompson works closely with Dr. Jeff Hinshaw, a zoologist based at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Fletcher.

Together, they have helped North Carolina maintain its ranking as the No. 2 trout-producing state, behind only Idaho.

Holding that ground hasn’t been easy for the state’s growers: In addition to disease threats, they have also faced rising real-estate prices, a four-year drought and the everyday headaches that come from running a risky business.

As Tom Ort, the manager of a Tellico Trout Farms, put it, “One-third of my customers, I don’t think they’d be in business without the support network that Skip, Jeff Hinshaw and others provide.”

“Skip’s pretty incredible,” Ort added. “He has a rare combination of solid technical expertise and good common sense.”

Add to that Internet and presentation skills and you have what Haywood County Extension Director Bill Skelton called “as good a package of skills as any agent I know of.”

“Skip Thompson has the technical competency in his discipline and the skills he needs to take research-based information and help his clientele put it in place in their trout production systems,” Skelton said.

Agent Skip Thompson works with Matt Rhea (right), farm manager at the Sorrells Creek Trout farm in Canton. (Photo by Sheri D. Thomas)

Thompson’s reputation for helping fish farmers gain and maintain steady and reliable sources of income has led to voluntary short-term assignments in Macedonia, the Republic of Georgia, Guatemala and, most recently, Bolivia.

Meanwhile, thousands of people throughout the world have visited his trout-production Web site to get information on such topics as health, nutrition, facility design, harvesting and transportation. The site, at, registered 346,000 hits last year.

Included among the Web site materials is a fact sheet on enteric redmouth disease, or ERM. In 1996, enteric redmouth was considered the North Carolina trout industry’s No. 1 disease, causing losses of 14 to 20 percent.

ERM’s symptoms are similar to many other fish diseases: The fish stop eating and stay at the top of the water or isolate themselves from the other fish. They become darker, their fins become inflamed, and their eyes swell.

“It’s called enteric redmouth because, in 10 to 20 percent of affected fish, if you look down their mouths, you can see reddish inflammation,” Thompson explained.

The traditional recommendation for protecting trout from ERM was to immerse fingerlings in a solution of a killed bacteria. However, scientists had found that injecting salmon with vaccine provided better protection than immersion, and so Jeff Hinshaw began experimenting with injection vaccination of North Carolina trout.

The results were remarkable.

“Jeff’s research showed that immersion provided only six months of protection for 80 percent of the fish. And the 20 percent that were not affected are the ones most vulnerable to the disease. Injection, on the other hand, protected for the life of the fish, and it protected nearly 100 percent of the fish,” Thompson said.

Just as remarkable as the research results were the demonstration efforts that led the industry to adopt injection vaccination. As Hinshaw put it, “Convincing the industry to give shots to 5 million small fish each year was no easy task.”

The injection process is laborious, and it costs more than the immersion vaccine — but far less than the after-the-fact antibiotics that growers had relied upon to treat the fish that immersion didn’t protect.

Thompson started his demonstration efforts with those growers he considered influential, and Tellico Trout Farms, which operates a large hatchery, proved to be a perfect candidate.

“We are interested in good science,” said manager Tom Ort. “We run a pretty tight ship, keep good records and are interested in learning and doing better, so we are a natural partner for on-farm research.”

At Tellico and other farms that participated in the demonstration project, growers had the chance to see injected fish side-by-side with uninjected fish.

“It became very clear to them that injection works,” Thompson said.

From there, word-of-mouth took over, and, by 2002, about 50 percent of the trout raised in North Carolina were injection vaccinated. Losses to ERM dropped to less than 1 percent, and growers cut their use of antibiotics by 84 percent.

The demonstration program’s impact, said Ort, “has been huge.”

“Enteric redmouth disease has gone from being viewed as something that would wipe out the industry in North Carolina to being viewed as something that’s manageable,” he said.

Helping others achieve such success through sound science is precisely what drew Thompson to the College and its Cooperative Extension Service some 12 years ago.

“To me, it’s enjoyable to be able to help people,” he said. “It sounds very corny, but it’s true.”


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