BUHL – Venture off U.S. 30, and you’ll find the quieter side of Idaho agriculture. From Hagerman to Twin Falls, fish farms feature the low walls of gurgling, concrete raceways. Many an entrepreneur has diverted ground water from the Eastern Snake River Plain aquifer to raise plump rainbow trout for commercial consumption.
This is aquaculture in Idaho’s “Trout Capital of the World.” But it’s not the aquaculture of a decade ago.
You won’t find as many fish farms now. Employment and trout production have dropped. And as the industry faces challenges in disease, regulation and water supply, some farmers are prepared to make even more changes.
“Almost anything you do, if you’re doing what you were 10 years ago, you’re going broke,” said Leo Ray, owner of Fish Breeders of Idaho in Hagerman. “Things change that fast.”
Big changes have affected commercial fish farming in Idaho:
1. CONSOLIDATION AND DECLINING EMPLOYMENT
Consolidation has resulted from water-rights problems, aging farmers, increased regulations and economies of scale.
A fight over water rights between fish farms and groundwater users led to the sale of Idaho Trout Co.’s three largest farms in 2011 to groundwater districts. Since then, the company has cut its staff and production by at least 75 percent, Manager Dirk Bogaard estimates.
“It was not ideal, but it was the best solution for everybody in the state,” Bogaard said.
Four groundwater districts owed water to another fish-farming business, Clear Springs Foods, so they gave the company one of the farms they bought from Idaho Trout Co.
Increased regulations over the past 20 years have hindered small-farm success, said Gary Fornshell, aquaculture extension educator with the University of Idaho.
Bogaard said small fish farms cost more to operate for each fish. “Volume is the key to be able to produce fish as cheaply as possible,” he said.
With consolidaiton, employment on fish farms has dropped, falling nearly 14 percent in south-central Idaho from 2005 to 2015.
Clear Springs Foods, the Magic Valley’s largest trout producer, has curbed employment at its processing plant over the years by switching to more mechanization and robotics, said Randy MacMillan, vice president of research, technical services and quality assurance. “Through normal attrition, we’ve been able to not have to recruit more people,” MacMillan said.
And the production jobs Clear Springs has now require more technical skills, such as knowledge of computers and data-collecting programs, than in the past.
“Processing done by hand is very labor intensive,” Fornshell said.
2. FINDING NICHES
A moving, underwater tapestry features shades of red, cream, brown, gray and black at First Ascent Fish Farm in Buhl.
Standing in front of the raceways full of fish, owner Don Campbell talked about how he got into the farm-raised tilapia business.
Campbell’s farm had been sending live catfish to markets in Seattle. But about 15 years ago, First Ascent could no longer compete with imported products like Vietnamese catfish. “They could produce it, ship it and sell it in Seattle for less than our production cost,” Campbell said.
Fortunately, there was another growing market for live fish: tilapia, a tropical freshwater fish that became a replacement for ocean fish in popular dishes.
“The demand of tilapia is so high,” Production Manager Eric Hernandez said.
Today, Campell’s business ships live tilapia – and sturgeon from other producers – twice weekly to Seattle, where the fish are dispersed to 14 stores. Asian and European restaurants and customers there value the live product, creating a niche market that’s safe from international competition.
The U.S. imports more than 91 percent of the seafood it eats. But Magic Valley processors say quality, American-raised fish has its own place in the market.
Clear Springs Foods sends boneless fillets and cuts with specialty coatings to retailers and food-service companies, MacMillan said.
Said Fish Breeders of Idaho’s Leo Ray: “American aquaculture has a hard time competing with imports to that low-priced market. To grow our business, we have to go to the higher-priced market, the specialty market, and develop the product that market wants.”
3. A GROWING MARKET FOR STURGEON
North America’s largest freshwater fish is making a big splash in Idaho aquaculture.
White sturgeon farming has slowly expanded in Idaho since the late 1980s. The program got started as a public and private partnership to repopulate the species in the wild.
“What we now have is probably the healthiest wild sturgeon population in the U.S.,” Ray said.
But commercial farms have also reaped the benefits, serving a growing market for live and processed sturgeon and for caviar.
“We’re turning customers down all the time,” said Fish Breeders of Idaho’s Ray. “When we first started selling ‘em, you couldn’t hardly sell ‘em.”
White sturgeon, however, take longer to produce commercially than traditional farm-raised fish – or farm-raised cattle, for that matter.
“It’s not that they’re slow-growing,” Ray said. “They’re just a huge fish.”
Ray separates the males and females when they are 4 years old and processes the 20- to 25-pound males. About 40 percent of the fish goes to waste, but he can sell the fillets for about $15 a pound.
Females are kept for at least 10 years – longer for some – until their first spawn, when eggs can be harvested for caviar. If the fish is allowed to live another two years, a second spawn may produce even larger eggs.
A female sturgeon can carry up to a half-million eggs, weighing up to 17 pounds. After egg harvest, the rest of the usable fish is processed for meat.
Besides fetching a good price, sturgeon can thrive in waters where other fish, such as trout, can’t. The hardy sturgeon has an efficient immune system, doesn’t have a highly specialized diet and can live in a wider range of water temperatures, Ray said.
It’s partly because of these benefits that Blind Canyon Aquaranch has been able to expand.
The company now owns 11 farms in Hagerman, Bliss, Buhl, Wendell and Filer, and all of them produce some sturgeon. It also opened a sturgeon processing plant, Idaho Springs Foods, last year in Filer.
The sturgeon are using ponds that are no longer suitable for year-round trout production, plant manager Linda Lemmon said.
But caviar is a tricky market, because farms have to project 10 to 13 years into the future.
“We didn’t keep as many fish in the beginning as we should have,” said Lemmon, lamenting the missed opportunities when today’s demand for the delicacy is so high.
4. PHOSPHOROUS LIMITS
As government agencies began re-evaluating Snake River water quality in the 1990s, fish farms were asked how much they could reduce their levels of phosphorous pouring into the river.
Phosphorous causes excessive plant growth, and the weeds interfere with activities and become a nuisance aesthetically, Fornshell said. It also uses up oxygen in the water.
The aquaculture industry contributes phosphorous when its used water enters the river. Most of its phosphorous comes from fish feed and feces.
To reduce phosphorous, feed companies have cut back on fish bones in fish meal. They developed a strain of low-phosphorous barley as an ingredient for feed.
Idaho Trout Co. keeps its raceways as clean as possible, Bogaard said, drying the waste to create fertilizer.
First Ascent and Blind Canyon Aquaranch also remove waste from the water to use in land applications. Settling ponds help filter sediments from the water.
5. RECIRCULATING TANKS
Idaho’s trout production has dropped in the past 10 years, and as water flows decline, the fish farms have pretty much capped out on production, said Gary Fornshell, the aquaculture extension educator with the University of Idaho.
Evaqua Farms has big plans for saving water. In January, the Colorado company took over five farms formerly belonging to SeaPac that stretch from Twin Falls to Hagerman and produce rainbow trout and golden trout.
But the farms’ water flows have steadily declined. “It’s very evident that it’s going to continue to drop,” General Manager Jim Henderhan said.
Within three years, Evaqua hopes to have parts of its farms switched over to recirculating tanks, which reuse 80 percent of their water, up to six times, before it is separated off and used for irrigation.
“It’s definitely more environmentally friendly,” Henderhan said.
But the switch, farm owners worry, may be pricey.
One farm in Challis, Garden Creek Ponds, has used recirculating tanks to produce tilapia, said. Craig Eaton, leader of a recirculating-tank testing effort at the Hagerman National Fish Hatchery. Other than that, the tanks haven’t been used much in Idaho.
6. FIGHTING DISEASE
Clear Springs Foods has been researching a way to prevent bacterial coldwater disease in fish for three decades, said Randy MacMillan, the vice president of research, technical services and quality assurance.
Now the company believes it almost has it right. Coldwater disease and columnaris (also called cotton-mouth or cotton-wool) can be devastating, but the company is about to reap the benefits of years of research.
“Very soon we’ll have a vaccine for both of those,” MacMillan said.
Researchers Ken Cain and Doug Call at the University of Idaho’s Aquaculture Research Institute have also developed a vaccine and probiotics. In an August 2016 article in “Aquaculture North America” magazine, Cain said the university was looking for a company to partner with so the vaccine could be optimized, licensed and made commercially available.
Bacterial coldwater disease is the most common fish disease in the Magic Valley and can be caused by poor water quality, Fornshell said. Southern Idaho saw an increase in losses from the disease in 2015 and 2016.