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REGIONALREPORT Eastern

From fry to fillets ready for the fry pan

Once touted as a growth industry, the number of Tar Heel fish farms has sunk by a fourth in five years, from 200 to 150, due largely to soaring prices of corn and soybeans, the primary ingredients of fish feed. But vertical integration — controlling every aspect of production — has allowed Carolina Classics Catfish Inc. to keep revenue and profit stable.

Started in 1985 and based in Ayden, it has more than 2,000 acres of ponds, employs 125 and has a network of contract farmers. It’s the biggest player in North Carolina’s $25 million-a-year aquaculture industry, with about $15 million in sales forecast this year to restaurants, processors and retailers such as Matthews-based Harris Teeter Inc. and Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market Inc.

Founder Rob Mayo began building ponds, about 10 acres each, in 1986, added a processing plant in 1987, a hatchery in 1989 and a feed factory 10 years later. The gradual expansion, financed with loans and private revenue bonds, allows fish to be raised, harvested and processed into fillets and nuggets onsite, then shipped from Raleigh-Durham International Airport. What’s swimming one day can be bought in a Whole Foods in California the next.

Mayo grew up near Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, then earned a bachelor’s in civil engineering from Virginia Tech in 1982 and an MBA from the University of Texas in 1984. While working for an energy consultant in Houston, he noticed farm-fresh fish on restaurant menus and started researching catfish aquaculture, which was popular in the Mississippi Delta. Wanting to get closer to home, he found that North Carolina was about as far north as commercial catfish farming is feasible and that the east had an abundance of cheap, flat land. Raising money from his father and family friends, he bought a parcel and opened Carolina Classics.

Briefs

WILMINGTON— Marvel Studios will open offices here in January as it prepares to make the third Iron Man movie at EUE Screen Gems Studios. The $200 million production, the largest ever in North Carolina, will create 550 crew jobs. Filming is expected to begin in late May.

KINSTONMasterBrand Cabinets laid off 156 of its more than 500 local employees. The Jasper, Ind.-based company is moving some of its production to its plant in Ferdinand, Ind.

FAYETTEVILLE — Louisville, Ky.-based DS Golf Centers will close Baywood Golf Club in January unless it finds a buyer. It’s asking $1.5 million for the 160-acre, 18-hole course, which was on track to lose more than the approximately $100,000 it lost in 2010.

CASTLE HAYNE — The Nuclear Regulatory Commission fined GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy $45,000 for security violations involving an outside contractor’s employee at its campus here. The company is using classified technology to test whether lasers can enrich uranium.

GREENVILLECooke Communications North Carolina, which owns The Daily Reflector and Rocky Mount Telegram among other newspapers, acquired The Wallace Enterprise, The Warsaw-Faison News, The Richlands-Beulaville Advertiser News and The Pender Chronicle, four weekly publications with a combined paid circulation of about 6,000. Terms weren’t disclosed.