The snake river plain is wide and rolling, swept with irrigated alfalfa, potato and sugar beet fields, three of Idaho’s most important cash crops. At the plain’s southeast edge, where it meets the Snake River, a vast underground aquifer emerges from rock canyon walls. Thousands of springs flow here, clear and cool, and the conditions are ideal for raising trout.
Idaho is more than famous potatoes, vast tracts of wilderness and wild whitewater. The Gem State is among the world’s leading producers of commercial trout, and odds are good that, if there’s trout for supper, dinner plates from San Francisco to Orlando are adorned with trout raised in the Thousand Springs region of Idaho.
On this thirty-mile stretch of the meandering Snake River, nearly 75 percent of the United States’ farm-fresh trout is cultivated, and Clear Springs Foods in Buhl is the largest of the region’s aquaculture farms and fish processors. Clear Springs is also an industry leader in environmental awareness, devoting substantial energy on maintaining the health of the land and water that makes its work possible.
-Dr. Ron Hardy, Director of Aquaculture Research
Since 1986 Clear Springs has operated its own research facility, allowing the company to “guarantee (their product) from start to end,” said Director of Research Scott LaPatra. Investment in biological and environmental sciences has helped the company develop some of its most sustainable practices with feed, fish health and water quality.
“We use that water. We don’t want to abuse it,” LaPatra said. “We have some of the strictest water quality restrictions, and we’re going to be good stewards for the environment. That’s our mantra.”
Big Farms, Big Business
On an early Monday morning last winter, Jeff Jermunson was excited about the fish being loaded from a truck into Clear Springs’ Buhl processing plant. While acres of nearby farmland lay fallow, the production at Jermunson’s facility had been buzzing since 4 a.m. “Mondays and Thursdays are our busiest days,” Jermunson said over the din. By that afternoon trucks bearing the fruits of the day’s labor would be on their way to restaurants in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Boston.
Clear Springs produces more than 22 million pounds of trout annually, or about one third of total U.S. production (roughly 50 to 60 million pounds), said Clear Springs Director of Marketing Chris Howard. The Buhl plant can process more than 80,000 fish a day.
Other area farms, including Idaho Trout Company, IdaSea and Blue Lakes, along with state, federal and private hatcheries and a research institute run by the University of Idaho, make the trout business one of the largest employers in southern Idaho.
Clear Springs thinks of them as green jobs. The company reuses as much processing waste as it can: After fish are filleted, leftover backbones and ribcages are collected, stripped of remaining meat and cooked down for products such as breaded fish sticks and patties. Other viscera, scraps and waste are converted into a certified organic liquid fertilizer.
Harnessing waste is only one of the reasons farm-raised trout are considered a “best choice” by Seafood Watch, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s guide that has become an important resource for consumers who want to make the right decisions when it comes to seafood consumption. The aquarium lauded Idaho trout producers for fish that’s “farmed in an ecologically responsible way.” Recent industry advancements, particularly with fish feed, have helped it achieve the conservation group’s top rating.
Choosing the right seafood is an area where consumers can “vote with their forks,” said Tim O’Shea, a seafood industry expert and co-founder of CleanFish, a San Francisco-based organization that advises fish farms and wild fisheries on sustainable practices.
-Scott LaPatra, Clear Springs Foods Director of Research
“I’m encouraged by the changes that the Idaho trout farms have gone through, but I would also be interested in supporting smaller regional trout farms,” O’Shea said. The changes that have allowed Idaho trout to become a sustainable choice are due largely to aquaculture research.
LaPatra said Clear Springs’ research facility monitors water quality exiting the canyon walls’ springs as well as the water that leaves the cement raceways where trout are raised from birth. The departing water flows directly into the heavily-used Snake River. The company has also conceived innovative methods to vaccinate fish for disease and uses selective genetics to ensure they are raising healthy fish and, to some degree, a uniform product.
The farm uses the spring water that flows into its raceways for less than an hour before it runs into the Snake River and, due to this high turnover, trout farms are considered “non-consumptive” water users. Waste is, where possible, segregated from raceways that are staggered in a stair-step format with pools interspersed between each. In these pools, called quiescent zones, uneaten food and fish waste settles and is eventually gathered and made into organic fertilizer. LaPatra added that the fish are vaccinated in separate tanks so that chemicals in the vaccines won’t enter the river’s water supply.
Clear Springs isn’t the only company using the outstanding spring water near the Snake River for research. The University of Idaho Aquaculture Research Institute, based in Hagerman, houses research programs in commercial and conservation aquaculture. Dr. Ron Hardy, director of aquaculture research for the institute, has explored fish laboratories around the world and said Hagerman’s is one of the best, largely because of its unique geology.
The spring water that emerges from the Snake River Plain Aquifer and spills from the basalt walls of the Snake River Canyon is a constant 58 degrees Fahrenheit. These are ideal conditions for studying cold-blooded creatures like trout year-round.
“What we’re able to do here that makes us kind of unique is being able to do basic research that can also be applied to the business side,” he said.
Among its litany of projects, the institute is researching ways to make vegetarian trout food. While Hardy said it’s difficult to put a hard number on how much the institute’s research benefits the aquaculture industry, the benefit to Idaho is clear.
“[The trout industry] is a source of high-tech and high-paying jobs,” he said. “It’s the third largest employer in this part of the Magic Valley.”