By SEAN ELLIS
BOISE -- A bill meant to protect Idaho fish farmers by adding fish and aquatic animals to Idaho's list of production animals has been introduced in the Idaho Legislature.
The bill, designed to ensure Idaho fish farmers aren't unfairly accused of animal cruelty, was sent to print Jan. 24 by the House Agricultural Affairs Committee, which guarantees it a public hearing.
When the legislature was crafting a bill last year that added a third-offense felony for animal cruelty to the state's animal welfare laws, lawmakers created a list of animals involved in production agriculture that are exempt from the new law.
However, fish and other aquatic animals raised for food were inadvertently left off the list.
"It's a perception issue. People don't automatically think of aquaculture as agriculture," said fish farmer LInda Lemmon, executive secretary of the Idaho Aquaculture Association, which is backing the bill.
Lemmon said that when the list of exempt production ag animals was being created, lawmakers were "very thorough to include every production animal you could have on a farm," including working dogs
"But they just didn't think about fish farming," she added. "People forget we raise fish on farms in Idaho."
The House ag committee chairman, Rep. Ken Andrus, a Republican cattle rancher from Lava Hot Springs, said fish and other aquatic animals were unintentionally left off the list because of a miscommunication over wrong terminology included in the animal cruelty bill.
The problem was noticed just as last year's legislative session was wrapping up and it was too late to return the bill to committee to fix the problem, said Randy MacMillan, vice president of Clear Springs Foods, the world's largest producer of rainbow trout.
"Fish and aquatic animals should have been included under the list of production animals because that's what they are," he said.
The bill is sponsored by Rep. Donna Pence, a Democrat from Gooding in Idaho's Magic Valley, where the state's aquaculture industry is centered.
Idaho produces 75 percent of the nation's foodsize trout and Idaho aquaculture producers also raise tilapia, catfish, sturgeon meat and caviar, tropical fish and even alligators.
The bill would exempt fish and other aquatic animals raised for food from animal cruelty laws that apply to companion animals and place them in the production agriculture category, "which is really where they belong," Pence said.
She said the bill is needed to "protect against the possibility of someone coming in and accusing (fish farmers) of animal cruelty."
If any accusations of cruelty to fish are raised in the future, the bill would ensure experts at the Idaho State Department of Agriculture investigate. It's important to have experts look into such claims rather than normal law enforcement officers, MacMillan said.
"If concerns are raised about animal cruelty, we want to make sure people who are (experts) are the ones making that judgment," he said.