GASCOYNE pastoralists are exploring the possibility of growing fish on the rangelands. While the Gascoyne is considered an arid region, 17,000 megalitres a year flows from the Carnarvon Artesian Basin through 40 operating bores. Through the efforts of the Carnarvon Artesian Basin Advisory Group, this water is being harnessed so that it can be used more efficiently for existing and new enterprises. Aquaculture is a natural opportunity, which Fisheries WA Midwest and Gascoyne development officer Dan Machin believes can deliver returns from a complementary enterprise. In 1996, the Gascoyne Inland Aquaculture Group was formed to explore these options. In 1997, a survival trial was undertaken on three stations to determine whether barramundi fingerlings could survive in the artesian water, funded by the Aquaculture Development Fund, the Gascoyne Development Commission and Fisheries WA. The six-week assessment found that the fish could survive and several were grown out to 1.2 kilograms. But the returns on paper were not so successful, with the tyranny of distance and the lack of accessible feed supply companies eroding profits. Earlier this year, a cost-benefit analysis of rangeland aquaculture was done through the Better Business program, which unveiled some more encouraging opportunities. It found that cultivating aquarium fish could prove a more successful alternative, because they did not require as much water, had low operating costs and were easier to look after. The international aquarium fish trade is worth $470 million a year, which, when combined with the supporting industry, is worth a staggering $5.5 billion. Mr Manchin said there was obviously great potential for pastoralists to tap into this growing market, but their entry had to be business focused and market driven. He is confident that obstacles, including water temperature and the chemical composition of the water, can be overcome. The participating pastoralists recently received a $20,000 grant from the Gascoyne Murchison Strategy to address these issues in a business and demand assessment plan. "If we can prove that we can get a 25 per cent rate of return, the next phase is to look at the water treatment issues," Mr Manchin said. "We should be able to resolve these issues to be able to produce year round (fish) growth and supply markets consistently." Mr Manchin said pilot trials should get underway by winter next year and, if successful, commercial aquarium fish production could start as soon as 18 months after that.