BUHL — Venture off U.S. 30, and you’ll find the quieter side of Idaho’s agriculture.
From Hagerman to Twin Falls, fish farms feature the low walls of gurgling, concrete raceways. 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, and 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,” Fish Breeders of Idaho’s Leo Ray said. “Things change that fast.”
Six big changes at Magic Valley’s commercial fish farms:
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.
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 Clear Springs Foods and gave it one of the farms they purchased from Idaho Trout Co. At the time, Clear Springs’ CEO told the Times-News the company could never file another water call against those districts if they conveyed the property to Clear Springs.
The other two farms in the $30 million purchase have been leased.
Bogaard foresees more consolidation not only in his company, but industrywide.
“Most of the consolidation has occurred already,” he said.
As small-farm owners age, it’s difficult to pitch to the next generation. As Bogaard put it, it’s gotta be in your blood to do it.
Increased regulations over the past 20 years have hindered small-farm success, said Gary Fornshell, aquaculture extension educator with the University of Idaho.
But it also comes down to economy of scale, and that’s not unique to aquaculture.
“Volume is the key to be able to produce fish as cheaply as possible,” Bogaard said.
Not only have farms consolidated, but employment has dropped — falling nearly 14 percent in south-central Idaho from 2005 to 2015.
Clear Springs Foods has reduced 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.
The production jobs Clear Springs has now require more technical skills, such as knowledge of computers and data-collecting programs.
Making processing more automated makes sense, Fornshell said. “Processing done by hand is very labor intensive.”
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 March 9, 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 international 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.
These kinds of markets are becoming increasingly important to small American farms.
The U.S. imports more than 91 percent of the seafood it eats. But Magic Valley processors say that quality, American-raised fish has its own place in the market.
To get more bang for his buck on Fish Breeders of Idaho’s farms, Ray changed his customer base.
“Most of my product went through supermarkets years ago,” he said.
Now he sends most of it to Whole Foods, which desires a chemical-free, reliably available product to distribute to restaurants.
Clear Springs Foods, Magic Valley’s largest trout producer, sends boneless fillets and cuts with specialty coatings to both the retail and food service industries, MacMillan said.
“American aquaculture has a hard time competing with imports to that low-priced market,” Ray said. “To grow our business, we have to go to the higher-priced market, the specialty market, and develop the product that market wants.”
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 Ray, whose farm now can’t keep up with the demand. “When we first started selling ‘em, you couldn’t hardly sell ‘em.”
And he sees potential for more growth.
“I think sturgeon could be the cow of the aquaculture industry,” he said.
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 facility, Idaho Springs Foods, last year in Filer.
The sturgeon are using those ponds which are no longer suitable for year-round trout production, processing facility manager Linda Lemmon said.
Blind Canyon Aquaranch had been selling the fish to another Idaho processor but knew its caviar production would soon outgrow that company’s processing capabilities.
But caviar is a tricky market, because farms have to project 10 to 13 years into the future. Strictly speaking, caviar is the salt-cured eggs of the Acipenseridae family, which is comprised of more than 20 species of sturgeon.
“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.
Farms in Florida and North Carolina are using hybrid fish that produce eggs earlier than the full-blooded sturgeon, she said. But those eggs have different characteristics and taste.
Could breeders design this monstrous fish further to meet industry needs? Give it time.
“They have to be 10 years old before you get your first spawn,” Ray said. “So the genetic program takes a while.”
As government agencies began reevaluating Snake River water quality in the 1990s, fish farms were asked how much they could reduce their levels of phosphorous pouring into the river.
“They said 40 percent,” Fornshell said. “And that became the number.”
Twenty years later, the industry has managed to reduce phosphorous by that much and more.
What’s the issue with phosphorous?
“It 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.
The Idaho Department of Water Quality set a total maximum daily load for the Snake River, but the Environmental Protection Agency sets a waste-load allocation for each farm in its discharge permit.
To reduce phosphorous entering the river, Ray explained, feed companies have cut back on fish bones in fish meal. They even developed a strain of low-phosphorous barley as an ingredient for feed.
“Now we’re at the point that if we reduce it any more, the health of the fish is affected,” Ray said.
Discussions among state and federal environmental agencies may tighten the limits even more, Fornshell said.
In the meantime, fish farms try to reduce or maintain phosphorous levels. 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 the waste from the water to use it in land applications. And settling ponds help filter sediments from the water.
Not everyone agrees with current regulations. While the maximum load set for the river accounts for “non-point” applications — things like crop-irrigation runoff — discharge permits and their limits apply only to point sources, like fish farms.
“It’s really not fair, but that’s the way the system is developed,” Lemmon said.
Irrigators are encouraged to use best management practices to cap their phosphorous discharge.
Evaqua Farms has big plans for saving water.
In January, the Colorado-based company took over five farms formerly belonging to SeaPac. The farms stretch from Twin Falls to Hagerman and produce rainbow trout and golden trout.
Evaqua started as a cattle ranch in Colorado but purchased a steelhead trout and coho salmon farm in Washington three years ago before setting its sights on Idaho.
For now, the plan is to continue where SeaPac took off, General Manager Jim Henderhan said. But as water flows have steadily declined, Evaqua is also planning for the future.
“It’s very evident that it’s going to continue to drop,” Henderhan said.
Within three years, Evaqua hopes to have parts of its farms switched over to recirculating tanks — which reuse 80 percent of the water, up to six times, before it is separated off and used for irrigation.
“It’s definitely more environmentally friendly,” Henderhan said.
The hope is to increase production and hire more people for the farms.
Idaho’s trout production has dropped in the past 10 years, and as water flows decline, south-central Idaho fish farms have pretty much capped out on production, Fornshell said.
That’s why Hagerman National Fish Hatchery started testing recirculating tanks in 2015. The tanks allow production of more fish with less water, Project Leader Craig Eaton said.
It’s too early to say for sure how effective these tanks are for raising fish on a commercial scale, but Eaton said those he’s raised so far have been able to convert feed more efficiently. He’s hoping further research could help Idaho’s commercial facilities adapt the tanks to their own practices, as farms in other states have done.
But the switch, farm owners worry, may be pricey. Eaton said the federal hatchery spent $1.2 million for a system of three tanks.
“I know they can do it more cheaply than we can,” Eaton said.
The systems at Hagerman National Fish Hatchery use a quarter of the water that normal raceways do. And in time, Eaton believes recirculating tanks will become a necessity for companies that have limited water rights but want to increase production.
“It’s something they definitely need to look at,” he said.
Hernandez, however, isn’t sure he would recommend farms like First Ascent put all their fish in one basket.
“A lot of stuff could happen bad, real easy,” he said.
And some farm owners worry about how many people would be needed to keep recirculating systems running.
Eaton agreed that backups such as diesel generators are needed to ensure fish survival in case of a power outage.
One farm in Challis, Garden Creek Ponds, has used recirculating tanks to produce tilapia, Eaton said. Other than that, the tanks haven’t been used much in Idaho.
Clear Springs Foods has been researching a way to prevent bacterial coldwater disease in fish for three decades, MacMillan said.
Now the company 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.
It could happen this year. Clear Springs would then be able to use the vaccine for its own trout, but it does not wish to get a special license to sell the vaccine to other producers. Instead, MacMillan said, the company has begun early discussions to collaborate with other researchers and enlist another company to make the vaccine.
When it comes to fighting coldwater disease, Clear Springs isn’t alone; 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 trade magazine Aquaculture North America, Cain said the university was looking for a company to partner with so the vaccine could be optimized, licensed and made commercially available. The pair’s research also determined that probiotics could treat the effects of coldwater disease.
MacMillan, however, said the probiotic isn’t practical because it must be coated on feed.
Bacterial coldwater disease is the most common fish disease here and can be caused by poor water quality, Fornshell said. Southern Idaho saw an increase in losses from the disease in 2015 and 2016.
Blind Canyon Aquaranch has purchased some eggs from a strain of bacterial-resistant trout developed to resist coldwater disease, Lemmon said. But in general, Fornshell said, fish selected for disease resistance may not grow as fast as other fish and may even be more susceptible to other pathogens.
A third route producers can take is antibiotics, but antibiotics can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
“There’s a growing interest in decreasing the number of antibiotics used in agriculture,” MacMillan said.
A vaccine, on the other hand, relies on the animal’s immune system to prevent disease rather than treat it.
In the meantime, with improved technology, Clear Springs Foods uses molecular biology tools to detect pathogens in its fish.