Farming for the future

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UI paves the way for progressive fish farming techniques

University of Idaho’s Aquaculture Research Institute (ARI) is on its way to cutting down imported fresh and saltwater fish to the U.S. and is making strides to bring burbot back from the brink of extinction.

The new facility broke ground in 2017 and is expected to be finished this summer. The facility will join a select group of others like it in the Western U.S. ARI will make farmed fish more readily available to central parts of the country. According to a UI news release, ARI will be equipped to research everything fishy, including “genetics, nutrition, selective breeding, physiology, health, and endangered species of fresh and salt water fish.”

Idaho produces the most farmed trout in the country, according the U.S. Trout Farmers Association. UI’s new facility will be starting a program to research both fresh and salt water species. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 125 million tons of fish were consumed by humans in 2011 alone.

According to the Washington State Department of Health, fish provide omega-3 fatty acid, vitamins D and B2, minerals like iron, zinc, iodine, magnesium and potassium, along with the biggest benefit of being a fast-growing protein.

Scott Williams, UI’s research facility manager for aquaculture research institute, said the over-farming of fish cannot continue much longer.

Grayson Hughbanks

“The level at which we’re harvesting wild-caught fish is not sustainable,” Williams said in a UI news release.

The facility will be filled with new features that could attract researchers and students from around the world.

In some cases, students will be learning how to bring back populations that have been lost to their homelands due to over fishing, specifically in Asia, where fishing is a huge part of local diets. ARI will be full of anything a fish researcher could dream of: tanks, incubators, chillers, pumps, blowers, filters and much more according to the news release.

“We provide a place for researchers, wherever they come from, to do work here. It’s a facility that enables collaborative and cutting-edge research in a unique terrestrial setting,” Williams said in the release.

Besides working on global issues like food supply, the ARI will also be working close to home.

For the last 10 years, researchers at UI have been working with the Kootenai Tribe from Montana to bring back the burbot, a quickly disappearing species of fish. According to Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game, burbot numbers have been declining in the wild for years, mainly due to the encroachment and destruction of their native environment due to a dam built on the Kootenai River in Montana.

Burbot are unique fish, as they are the only species of freshwater cod found naturally in the northern regions of the U.S. and Canada. Recently, the population has plummeted. ARI will continue its research into sustaining the population that is left and attempt to bring the entire species back from the brink of extinction.

Over the last decade, researchers have worked closely with the Kootenai tribe, helping to commercially produce the species and restore the population.

Burbot are not the only fish being researched at ARI. The facility has also focused on Chinook salmon, sturgeon, and several other species.

According to UI’s news release, the facility is exploring strategies on how to maintain healthy levels of omega-3 fatty acids in farmed fish fillets, new formulations for fish food, vaccines against Coldwater disease, selective breeding in trout and identification of genetic markers for fast growing fish.

The facility is lead by Ron Hardy, an expert in animal nutrition with an emphasis on fish. He has been the director of ARI since 2002.

“Overcoming the challenges to increase aquaculture production in environmentally friendly and sustainable manner requires scientific advances in fish feeds, selective breeding, farming systems and fish health management, woven together using a holistic approach,” Hardy said in the release.

ARI has research agreements with the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, according to the UI’s website.

One of UI’s facilities, the Hagerman Fish Culture Experiment Station, hosts scientists from both the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service.

The original ARI was founded in 1988 to facilitate and support the progress of food production research and fisheries enhancements in Idaho, according to the news release. A main focal point for ARI is that they will work with other institutions such as the government and various industries.

The cost of the new building has been split in two, with $2 million coming from state funding and the remaining $400,000 from the Vandal Strategic Loan Fund, according to the release.

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