Fish farming thrives in neighboring states, but operations in Oregon stay small
By LEE FARREN
For the Capital Press
Washington state produces 20 million pounds of farmed salmon every year. Idaho is the No. 1 producer of trout in the U.S. The California aquaculture industry racks up an annual farm gate value of $80 million to $100 million.
But in Oregon, aquaculture is represented by a handful of small businesses that cater to grandparents who want to stock ponds for their grandchildren to fish in.
"We're surrounded by states with huge aquaculture industries, while Oregon's aquaculture industry is very small," said Clint Bentz, president of the Oregon Aquaculture Association. "They have a very vibrant aquaculture industry that Oregon does not."
Bentz attributes much of the difference to the regulatory environment.
"The state of Oregon heavily regulates what can and can't be raised," Bentz said. "It's difficult for private aquaculture producers to site facilities here or be equally competitive with other states."
Aquaculture in Oregon is regulated by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. In Idaho regulation is carried out by the Idaho Department of Agriculture. The Washington Department of Ecology handles ongoing regulation in Washington state, while the California Department of Fish and Game is the lead agency in that state.
Most of the fin and shellfish produced in California, Idaho and Washington are destined for grocery stores and restaurants. In comparison, all 24 of the licensed fish farms listed on the ODFW website either sell live fish for stocking or run "U-catch" operations.
"The majority of licensed propagators in Oregon are micro-businesses," Bentz said. "Salmon are a huge deal in Oregon, so all the efforts have been in protecting the wild fish. Based on our history and the politics of Oregon, we decided on a choice between supporting a local aquaculture industry or making sure there are no perceived threats to the local strains of fish."
Guy Chilton, hatchery operations biologist for ODFW, has a different take on the situation. He sees water quality and out-of-state competition as the limiting factors.
"Oregon has lots of water, but it may not be available for aquaculture," Chilton said. "Water pulled out of surface streams carries fish pathogens, which are not something you would want."
Chilton cited the Thousand Springs area of the Snake River, where most of Idaho's aquaculture is located, with its high quality, oxygen-rich spring water at temperatures optimal for rainbow trout. When it comes to salmon, the Oregon coastline has few sheltered areas, like Washington's Puget Sound, suitable for marine net pen facilities. Both Bentz and Chilton mentioned competition in national food markets from older, well-established operations in surrounding states as another difficulty for Oregon aquaculture.
Oregon's markets are primarily within the state and are dominated by demand for stocking for recreational purposes, said Dan Driscoll, who operates Prairie Springs Fish Farm in Dayville, Ore.
"The majority of fish stocking in Oregon is done by state hatcheries," Driscoll said. "I'd like to see more of that done by private hatcheries on a competitive basis."