As nation's other trout-producing states add facilities, Idaho loses one
By DAVE WILKINS
Idaho is still tops in U.S. trout production, but the industry appears to be battling the twin currents of a slower economy and reduced water flows.
Idaho was one of two states to see a decline in the number of trout farms from 2003 to 2007, according to an overview of the industry released Sept. 29 by the USDA.
The number of trout operations in Idaho declined from 53 to 52. The loss of just one trout farm during a four-year period may not seem significant, but most other states saw increases.
California gained 18 trout operations during the period. Oregon added 16, and Washington gained 62. Pennsylvania added 172 operations. West Virginia was the only other trout-producing state besides Idaho to show a decline in the number of operations during the four-year period.
Things haven't gotten much better for the Idaho trout industry since 2007.
Food-size trout sales during 2008 totaled $35 million, a 24 percent decline from the previous year, according to USDA.
Food-size trout are those 12 inches and longer -- the type typically sold to restaurants and other food-service outlets. Idaho fish farms sold 27.6 million food-size trout last year, a drop of 39 percent from 2007.
Some of the recent decline is likely due to the recession. People aren't eating out as often. But part of the decline is also tied to the declining Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, the giant underground resource that provides cold, spring water to Idaho trout farms, industry officials said.
Steady declines in the amount of fresh spring water gushing out from the walls of the Snake River Canyon have had a negative effect on trout farms.
Clear Springs Foods of Buhl, Idaho, one of the largest producers in the world, has seen flows decline by 1 to 3 percent a year for several years, company officials said.
"We've lost about $20 million in the past five years because of deceased water flows," Randy MacMillan, vice president of research and environmental affairs for the company, said in an interview earlier this year.
Clear Springs owns a fish farm, research facility and a brood stock improvement program -- all of which depend on fresh spring water from the aquifer.
The company says groundwater pumping by junior water rights holders has diminished the aquifer and reduced spring flows to the trout farm. The Idaho Department of Water Resources issued a curtailment order this summer for about 153 junior groundwater pumpers in south-central Idaho as a result.
Despite the industry's recent challenges, Idaho remains the nation's top trout producer by a wide margin. Idaho accounted for 44 percent of the nearly $80 million in total fish sales by U.S. trout farms in 2008.
Idaho fish farms sold 45.4 million food-size trout in 2007, compared with 34 million in 2003.
Staff writer Dave Wilkins is based in Twin Falls. E-mail: email@example.com.