Cammie the crayfish lives in a water filled aquarium inside a lab at Kepley BioSystems. Cammie likes to attack a white block of cake whenever it is dumped into her tank. The white, chalky block isn’t your standard piece of cake. And that’s the whole point of this story.

“What you’re watching, that cake, is a solution for the hard working folks in the crustacean, crab and lobster industry,” explains Anthony Dellinger, one of the founders of Kepley BioSystems.

The company is a small start-up life sciences firm, affiliated with the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering in the Gateway University Research Park in Greensboro. The school is a partnership between the University of North Carolina Greensboro and North Carolina A & T State University.

“Currently the way the industry works is to use forage fish to lure crustaceans into a trap, ” said Dellinger.

Forage Fish Are At Risk

“These fish are exponentially important to the ocean …”

Forage fish are also known as small schooling fish. Forage fish are the oily fish we know of as sardines, mackerel, herring and menhaden. You can recognize forage fish from the video of huge schools of fish swimming in the ocean. 

Forage fish are important to all sorts of industries. In fact, 40% of the fish that are captured around the world are forage fish. That works out to about 35-million tons per year. 

Forage fish are used to make feed for aquaculture. Forage fish are also a feed source in barnyards. They are also used in pet food and for human consumption, including vitamins and fish oils.

Lastly, forage fish are used as bait fish. Almost half of the forage fish caught are used as bait fish for crustaceans. But meeting all of those demands threatens the fishery; overfishing is a problem. And that poses a threat to the entire ocean because forage fish forms the base of the ocean food chain. 

“These fish are exponentially important to the ocean,” says Dellinger. “Forage fish transfer energy to all of the fish in the ocean because all of the larger fish rely on these fish. All of the sea birds rely on these fish as well.”

Replacing Forage Fish With Synthetic Bait

That strain on the supply of forage fish is especially tough on the crustacean and crabbing industry, because the cost and availability of baitfish isn’t reliable. A synthetic bait would ease the strain. That’s where Cammie comes in. 

“The cake that Cammie loves to eat is actually a bait that is strategically designed not from a researcher point, but from the fisherman’s point, explains Dellinger, as he bends over to watch Cammie happily breaking off a piece of the cake (actually it’s difficult to know if a crayfish is happy, but Cammie holding the cake between her claws is probably what it would look like).

What Fishermen Need

“… we will be making a huge difference in helping the ecosystem, …”

Fishermen told Kepley BioSystem researchers they wanted a bait that wouldn’t spoil and could be stored on their boats for a long period of time. They also wanted a bait that was tailored to individual needs. For example, fishermen in Florida put out crabs traps that sit in the water for more than one week at a time. Their counterparts in Nova Scotia tend their traps daily. 

Any kind of artificial bait would need to be timed to release the molecules that attract crustaceans over a specific period of time and not all at once. Kepley BioSystem scientists discovered the molecules that attract crustaceans and put those molecules in the cake. No wonder Cammie is happy. 

“We took all of those molecules, examined them and then teased out which were necessary for attraction,” said Dellinger. “ We then encapsulated them into a calcium based matrix that we can tune to specific release rates that can be deployed. That means the cake is releasing the attractants in a synthetic form and not use a forage fish.” 

The company says its field tests show the synthetic bait works well. The challenge now is to scale up production so more fisherman can use what the firm calls Organo-Bait. The company believes it can product Organ-Bait at a price that is competitive with forage fish.

“We solve all of those problems.”

“If we can make a dent in amount of forage fish that is being taken out of the ocean just to bait traps, we will be making a huge difference in helping the ecosystem,” said Christopher Kepley, another of the company’s founders. “But in addition to the savings for the ecosystem and the financial savings for the fishermen, you’ve got the ease of storage and the convenience. That means no more rotten fish in a bucket. We solve all of those problems.”


Originally published on UNC-TV. Funding for North Carolina Now provided by Glaxo Smith Kline.