The age of aquaculture 

Seventy percent of the nation’s farm-raised trout come from just south of Missoula. Do these fish solve a sustainability problem, or create one?

Stroll by a supermarket fresh fish counter and you’ll see varying shades of pink and gray flesh—salmon, trout, catfish, raw shrimp—piled on mounds of crushed ice. But look closer through the smudged display case and you’ll find a United Nations assembly of marine ambassadors, name tags proclaiming: “Arrowtooth Flounder, U.S.A., wild” or “Fresh farmed salmon steak, color added, Canada, farm-raised” or “Raw shrimp, Thailand, farm-raised.” Though the debate over food miles—the amount of carbon used transporting food from its source to your plate—has been widely discussed of late, there’s another issue playing out in this seafood case that’s less prominent but equally important: aquaculture.

Aquaculture, or the commercial cultivation of ocean and fresh-water fish and shellfish, is a slippery issue. On one side, it can be seen as a sustainable solution to curtail destruction caused by commercial fishing. On the other, concerns have been raised about water pollution, wild-caught fish used to feed farm-raised fish, and health risks posed by use of antibiotics and chemical dyes.

Though approximately 90 percent of the world’s farm-raised fish are produced in China and the rest of Asia and the Pacific region, the United States does have its own sizeable aquaculture industry. In fact, just six hours south of Missoula, in Magic Valley, Idaho, millions of trout splash about in human-made concrete raceways. Idaho is the nation’s No. 1 producer of farm-raised rainbow trout—about 70 percent of the country’s total. And though aquaculture is the state’s third-largest food-animal industry—reeling in $37.5 million in 2005—you probably won’t see Idaho offering farm-raised trout novelty license plates any time soon.


Break it down
According to the U.N.-led World Summit on Sustainable Development, around 75 percent of major marine fish stocks are either depleted, overexploited or being fished at their biological limit. Aquaculture has been offered as a way to meet the world’s demand for fish without depleting wild stocks and damaging the marine environment.

But not all fish farms are created equal. A variety of methods exist for housing fish as they develop—open net pens, ponds, raceways and recirculating systems—and some are better for the environment than others. For example, there has been contention over the use of marine open-net pens and ponds, specifically in the international shrimp farming industry and the salmon industry, because of the destruction it wreaks on coastlines, the concentrated pollutants the farms release into ocean waters and the possibility for escapees to genetically pollute wild populations. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program, a popular source for information on sustainable seafood consumption, freshwater rainbow trout farmed in ponds, raceways and recirculating systems are considered a “best choice” option.

“You’ve got a much more controlled and contained system in ponds or tanks or raceways inland,” explains Peter Bridson, aquaculture research manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “So that’s the advantage you have with things like trout and catfish is that you can contain them much more carefully, you can have screens on your outlets and…you don’t have the storm risks, you don’t have the risk of backing a boat propeller into your nets, or a seal chewing a hole in your net.”

So what is it about farm-raised rainbow trout that makes it widely considered a sustainable fish choice? The answer lies in Magic Valley.


The land of 1,000 springs
Parked on the side of a backcountry road overlooking the Snake River, aquaculture farmer Leo Ray makes a sweeping hand gesture to the half-frozen natural springs bubbling out of a looming canyon. “This is the reason the trout industry is here in Idaho, these springs,” he says.

Ray, owner of Fish Breeders of Idaho, settled in Hagerman in 1971 to raise warm-water fish—catfish and tilapia—in the area’s geothermal springs. Over time, he’s moved on to farm cold-water fish like trout and sturgeon, and even brought in alligators. Originally from Oklahoma, Ray speaks with passion and a measured drawl about his profession.

“Trout was raised in Idaho before Idaho ever became a state,” explains Ray. “Sun Valley had a bunch of mines, but there really wasn’t an agricultural industry up there to supply food for all the miners. The Snake River Valley became the food bread basket.”

Though it’s been a common industry in China for thousands of years, the first commercial aquaculture enterprise wasn’t developed in Idaho until 1928, when Jack and Selma Tingey started the Snake River Trout Company. The Tingeys soon discovered that the constant 58-degree temperature in the Thousand Springs area was ideal for cultivating trout. By the 1960s, the aquaculture industry was booming. In 1966, Clear Springs Trout Company—now the single largest company raising rainbow trout in the world—was founded by Jess O. “Ted” Eastman in Buhl, Idaho.

“We’re here because of the spring water,” says Cally Parrott, director of corporate relations for Clear Springs Foods. “It’s just perfect for raising rainbow trout, the 58-degree water—winter, spring, summer and fall.”

Sitting at her desk in the Clear Springs corporate headquarters in Buhl, all smooth bleached wood and breathtaking panoramic views, Parrot explained the Clear Springs concept:

“We’re totally vertically integrated. By that I mean we control every aspect—from the egg to the market. We have a broodstock station over in Soda Springs, Idaho, where we grow our eggs. We even have our own feed mill. We make our own feed, then we process [the fish]. We have our own marketing department. We have our own trucks. We control everything, which is really nice because we know that it is the very best quality.”

And that is exactly how Clear Springs came to produce 20 million pounds of trout per year (60 percent of all the trout that come out of Idaho)—absolute efficiency. Out at one of Clear Springs’ aquaculture facilities, a few short miles away from corporate headquarters, creviced canyons jut up behind a giant inclined and netted area full of hundreds of terraced concrete rectangles—or raceways. At the top of the incline, water from an area spring flows into the first line of raceways containing the youngest trout—the ones that are only around 2 months old and need the freshest, most nutrient rich water. The water then flows down in mini-waterfalls to the next terraced level containing slightly older fish, then the next, constantly re-oxygenating itself. In the end, solid waste is channeled into a settling pond, or quiescent zone, and the filtered water is then dispersed into the Snake River.

“The water just comes right out of the canyon wall. And we have a canal system that just takes the water to the ponds. The water is only actually on facility for like 15 minutes and then goes out into the river,” explains Parrott.

Each raceway contains hundreds of fish that are roughly the same age and size. In order to ensure a uniformity, a man in rubber galoshes combs some of the raceways with a bar grader, removing the larger fish and transferring them to a row with similarly sized fish. This process is done infrequently due to the high amount of stress it puts on the fish. At the bottom of the terrace, 9- to 10-month-old trout wait to be taken to one of Clear Springs’ processing facilities.
 


In hot water
Things are done slightly differently over at Fish Breeders of Idaho in Hagerman. First, in addition to raising cold-water trout, Ray also uses eight geothermal wells with temperatures ranging from 90 to 95 degrees to rear warm-water species like catfish and tilapia.

“The most underutilized resource in Idaho is geothermal water,” says Ray. “It’s a tremendous energy resource.”

In a steamy wooden warehouse, geothermal waters nurse the fry in long tanks that separate fish of different ages. After three to four months, the fry are taken to the outdoor terraced raceways. Because Ray raises more than one type of fish at his geothermal facility, he is able to create a more symbiotic, or polycultural system. At the top, Ray stocks channel catfish, followed by lower-oxygen-tolerant blue catfish at the next level and then the most tolerant tilapia near the bottom. The water cycles through the system and then runs through a rocky brook where it is cooled and filtered before being discharged into the river. Some is also diverted into a pond where alligators lurk in the murky warm water, waiting to recycle dead fish.

Down the road, Fish Breeders’ rainbow trout raceways are similar to the ones used for tilapia and catfish, but much colder. Unlike the automated system that drops feed periodically into the Clear Springs raceways, the trout at Fish Breeders control the amount of feed they receive by bumping a chain that disperses it from a tank into the water. They are also fed a specialty diet to meet demands of one of Ray’s most selective customers—Whole Foods.

“First of all, you can never use any antibiotics on the fish, no chemicals, no antibiotics,” says Ray. “And the next is feed. You cannot feed them any land-based animal protein. Their reason for that is the danger of mad cow disease was spread by feeding cows that had died of mad cow disease back to cows or other animals. This runs the price of feed up considerably.”

Though Ray explains that this diet worked out well for his trout, he ultimately had to take his catfish off the Whole Foods program. It turns out some sustainability requirements, though well intentioned, aren’t always tailored to meet the needs of all fish.

“We found that the feed we had been feeding them all the time, our catfish never got sick. They didn’t have any need for antibiotics. Once we went to the diet [Whole Foods] wanted us to use, we’ve had a lot of disease. You either take tremendous losses or you have to feed them antibiotics.”

While in this particular case, Whole Foods’ feed regulations proved not to be beneficial for Ray’s catfish, many regulations put in place over the last few decades are greatly improving both the efficiency and the eco-friendliness of the aquaculture industry.


Monitoring marine life
One of the facets of the industry being highly monitored is water quality. Now that there are approximately 115 aquaculture facilities in Idaho—70 percent of which are in the Magic Valley—the state is heavily regulating spring water use. According to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), before a facility can begin diverting spring water for aquaculture, they first have to obtain a water right from the Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR). Next, they have to apply for a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit from the Environmental Protection Agency. The NPDES permit regulates, among other things, the amount of phosphorus that each farm can discharge into the Snake River.

“The EPA checks phosphorus because it’s the most difficult of all of the pollution elements to control. If they know how much phosphorus is going in, they can tell you how much nitrogen, nitrate and all the others,” explains Ray. “In order for us to raise more trout, we have to find methods to reduce the amount of phosphorus that we discharge.”

But lowering phosphorus levels is a tricky task. As a key element in the production of living cells, too little phosphorus can lead to brittle bone development in fish, while too much discharged into a river system can lead to plant growth, like algae blooms, that obstruct water flow. And with so much water being constantly pumped through the raceways—2.75 million acre-feet according to Bob McLaughlin, public information officer for the IDWR—controlling effluent discharge becomes vital to maintaining the health of the river system.

Though it seems like a lot of water is used by the aquaculture industry, it is classified as non-consumptive use. Unlike land-farmed plants that consume irrigation water through transpiration, aquaculture farming only uses water for a brief period of time before discharging it back into the river.

But even in that short time, the high volume of fish being farmed can still cause contamination in the water. That, combined with the fact that fertilizers and chemicals from agricultural farms in the area can seep into the soil and also affect local groundwater, is why a total maximum daily load (TMDL) was instituted in the mid-Snake River. The TMDL and new, more stringent general NPDES permits adopted by aquaculture facilities have both helped to lower pollution levels in the Snake River over the last few years.

“That area is still considered ‘water quality limited,’ which is code word for polluted,” explains Justin Hayes at the Idaho Conservation League. “The fish farms getting their new permits was a big part of trying to limit nutrients flowing into that part of the Snake River. The new permits have resulted in a big reduction in pollutants from the fish farms, and that’s a good thing.”

With their livelihood so dependent on clean, renewable water sources, it seems to be in the aquaculture farmers’ best interests to comply with permit limits.

“I would say, in general, the aquaculture industry has a pretty good track record of meeting their permit limits,” says Sonny Buhidar, regional water quality manager for the DEQ. “One of the reasons is because they want to make sure that they are in compliance, and the other reason is because if they’re not in compliance, they could potentially affect their own production. They don’t want to have, for example, excess ammonia because if they did, they would be killing their own fish, and they don’t want to do that.”

Both Fish Breeders of Idaho and Clear Springs Farms are working on ways to increase productivity while still staying within set EPA discharge limits. One vital area being researched is fish feed composition.
 


The need for feed
In 1988, the University of Idaho opened the Aquaculture Research Institute in Hagerman as a resource for the aquaculture industry in Idaho. For the past 12 years, Director of Aquaculture Research Ronald Hardy has been experimenting with various fish feeds that minimize the amount of pollutants discharged in fish excrement.

“When I came here, the biggest problem with sustainability revolved around phosphorus,” says Hardy. “The trout industry in particular was just frantic about the newly imposed restrictions that were being considered by DEQ.”

Though Hardy explains that so much progress has been made in the way of lowering phosphorus levels that it’s “not a big deal” anymore, he calls these achievements “environmentally benign,” as opposed to being truly sustainable.

“In terms of sustainable,” Hardy explains further, “that’s a whole other deal. That’s looking for ingredients and inputs in the fish feed industry that are not depleting the planet of scarce resources, like fishmeal and fish oil.”

Currently, one of the biggest debates among conservationists regarding the aquaculture industry revolves around using wild fish in farm raised fish feed—which the U.N.’s 2006 State of World Aquaculture Report estimated accounts for 35 percent of the world’s fishmeal consumption.

“In the industry, particularly last year, the price of fishmeal and fish oil went through the roof,” explains Bridson of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “So there’s a financial reason for doing that, and also there’s a sustainability issue in terms of moving away from wild-caught marine resources and converting one type of fish into another type of fish.”

To ameliorate this inefficient practice, researchers at both the Aquaculture Research Institute and the Clear Springs private research and development lab have been experimenting with plant-based protein sources that can healthily sustain carnivorous species like trout. Hardy has looked at various combinations of soybeans, wheat, corn and barley, among other things. But removing fish protein completely can be problematic when trying to meet the complex amino acid needs of a growing fish.

“We can easily remove half the fishmeal, and everything comes out okay. But taking it all out is hard. We’ve done that; we can get fish to grow, but they don’t grow quite as fast as they do with a fishmeal diet, and they don’t grow efficiently. They’re off by somewhere between 8 to 10 percent, which is not bad,” says Hardy. “That means we’re 90 percent there.”

According to Ray, finding a nutritious feed is essential to keeping fish from getting sick.

“My philosophy has always been, healthy fish don’t get sick,” explains Ray. “What makes them healthy is water quality and feed quality. But if you get nutritional problems in your feed, then that’s when they get sick.”

While some facilities, like Fish Breeders of Idaho, don’t use antibiotics, opting instead to isolate sick fish in clean, oxygenated water to build their immune systems, others, like Clear Springs, find it necessary to use vaccines and, rarely, antibiotics to keep from losing large numbers of their stock.


Vaccines and ill pills
Down a sterile tiled corridor at the Clear Springs research lab, a few scientists mill about in rooms full of graduated cylinders and circular fish tanks, jotting notes on clipboards. This team of scientists research water quality and feed ingredient issues, along with new vaccines and antibiotics to help improve the health of their fish. Some bacterial pathogens that affect trout like cold water disease and enteric red mouth—which both can have extremely high mortality rates—have been virtually eliminated through selective breeding and vaccine development done at the Clear Springs labs.

“We can induce 100 percent immunity in rainbow trout to enteric red mouth,” explains Randy MacMillan, vice president of research and environmental affairs at Clear Springs. “It’s a very effective method for us, and from a sustainability standpoint, that works out quite well. That way you don’t have to use antibiotics to try to take care of it.”

Though MacMillan says Clear Springs’ fish health technicians occasionally have to isolate raceways and treat the fish with antibiotics, he explains it is a process that they prefer not to mess with because treated fish have to go through sometimes prolonged withdraw periods before they can be consumed by humans.

“We can only use FDA-approved antibiotics, and there are very few of them that are available in the United States. Many other countries have a much more liberal approach to the use of antibiotics in fish farming. The [United States] has a very restrictive program that way,” says MacMillan.

But if Whole Foods doesn’t allow antibiotics in the fish it buys from Fish Breeders of Idaho, then there must be some potential health risks involved. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization’s “Responsible use of Antibiotics in Aquaculture” report, the use of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance in fish, which can then be transferred to humans when consumed. The report cautions, “Even when treatment is suspended before the fish is sold for consumption, the resistance can still be transmitted.”

While the report notes that “wider ranges of antibiotics are approved in Asian countries” than in most of the Western world, antibiotic use remains a divisive practice.

Interestingly, though, one of the most widely debated issues in fish consumption—mercury contamination—is less of a concern in farm-raised fish than wild-caught fish. The Whole Foods website explains that because farm-raised fish generally live for a shorter time than most wild-caught fish, they often do not accumulate as much mercury. And even smaller wild fish fed to carnivorous farm-raised fish are often species low in mercury.


Fishy future
By 2030, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the U.N. estimates that an additional 40 million tons of fish and seafood will be needed just to sustain today’s levels of consumption. And while much still needs to be done as far as imposing regulations on international (particularly marine) aquaculture facilities, the more sustainable fresh-water industries like those found in Idaho might just be the solution to meet the world’s increasing demand.

While many of the state’s aquaculture facilities are working to become more sustainable—researching plant-based feed composition and alternatives to antibiotics—two issues at the heart of most ecological arguments in Idaho might threaten the sustainability of the industry: water quality and quantity.

“I think that they are a sustainable industry, but I don’t know whether they will be able to continue to be here—not because of something that they’re doing, but because of things that are happening around them,” explains Hayes at Idaho Conservation League. “They are very dependent on clean water coming into their facilities, and I think that the purity and quantity of that water remains under threat in Idaho. Their industry might be very in peril by things that are happening to them, not things that they’re causing.”

Though this pending peril remains to be seen, Idaho’s aquaculture industry continues to thrive in what—by many estimates—is a sustainable manner. And while this is only a brief glimpse at a small section of a very complex industry, the research and practices taking place in Magic Valley are helping to pioneer the future of an industry that might just hold one of the keys to sustainably feeding a growing world.
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