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Diversity can be the path to a successful aquaculture enterprise

Dan Hansen

Correspondent, Wisconsin State Farmer



Although it’s far better known for another agricultural product, Idaho is also one of the nation’s top aquaculture states, ranking No. 1 in trout production.


Leo Ray, along with his wife, Judy, and son, Todd, own and manage Fish Breeders of Idaho Inc., Big Bend Trout Inc. and Fish Processors Inc. Ray spoke to members of the Wisconsin Aquaculture Association during their recent annual conference about his “42 years of doing something different in aquaculture.”


Rays likes to say he’s an Idahoan who was raised in Oklahoma and did time in California. Currently, he and his family raise, process and market catfish, trout, tilapia, sturgeon, produce sturgeon caviar and grow tropical aquarium fish.


Hot and Cold Water

He says Idaho is ideal for aquaculture – especially raising trout – because of the mountain snowpacks that melt and disperse the water into porous volcanic rock that forms an underground reservoir the size of Lake Erie. 


“The water emerges in the Snake River Canyon, and in a 40-mile stretch there’s about 13,000 cubic feet of water emerging in the spring, which supports the Idaho trout industry,” he explained. “The water we have comes out of the ground at a constant 58 degrees year-round; it is saturated with oxygen which is perfect for raising trout.”


Idaho fish farmers raise 70-80 percent of the trout produced in the US, and Ray has been producing trout since 1980. To obtain the needed cold water, he has contracted with a canal company and power plant to divert water for his operation before it is passed along to the other users.  


Ray also utilizes geothermal water, which comes from the volcanic crater at Yellowstone   National Park that is 50 miles wide and extends into Idaho. This significantly increases the efficiency of his warm-water catfish and tilapia production. He raises catfish in raceways instead of dirt ponds.


The geothermal water is discharged into a gravel ditch, which filters out the ammonia; it then flows about 200 yards and used again. “I have 80 feet of elevation, and we use that water 18 times from top to bottom,” Ray remarked. “The water temperature remains between 82-84 degrees but in the winter we’ll discharge the water as low as 75 degrees.”


Since 1988 Ray also has been raising and selling sturgeon, which began from a confined population in part of the Snake River that was in rapid decline. He noted that with the cooperation of the state fish and game department, a junior college caught some of the fish and spawned them. “The eggs they collected produced enough fish to restock the river for sport fishing and to start commercial sturgeon production,” he added.  


Aquaculture Advice

Offering sage advice based on his four decades of experience, Ray says, “If you’re doing what everybody else is doing, you’re not going to make any more money than they are. If you’re still doing what you were doing 10 years ago, you’re probably obsolete and on you way to bankruptcy. You have to change continuously.”


He stressed that no one ever made a profit raising fish. “You have to be able to sell them, and you need to find the courage to charge a price that will keep you in business,” he asserted. 


“Three things sell fish – price, quality and service – but in the reverse order,” Ray declared. “If you’re selling on price you’re going to go broke. Some say quality is more important than service but if you’re a restaurant with that fish on the menu and it doesn’t get to you, it doesn’t make any difference how good the quality is because you’ve lost your customer and the producer is losing his.”


Ray asserts that diversity is the greatest strength of his aquaculture enterprise. “Every day we process catfish, tilapia, trout and sturgeon, and it’s much easier to sell four or five products than just one,” he remarked. “If I run out of one product, I’m still selling that customer something else. If you’re selling just one product and run out you often have to lower prices to get that customer back.”


Recreational Ponds

Texan Bob Lusk suggests that another way for fish farmers to diversify is to provide recreational fishing opportunities. ‘You can also provide consulting services to rural landowners who want to build recreational ponds and supply the best species of fish for stocking the ponds,” he said.


Lusk has worked as a pond management consultant for over 30 years and is the owner and editor of Pond Boss magazine, a leading national resource for private fisheries management. He’s also owner of BobLuskOutdoors, a lake management consulting company, and Texoma Hatchery. 


He travels extensively throughout the US advising pond owners on the best ways to raise trophy bass, bluegills and other fish. “Recreational pond management is an emerging industry,” Lusk stated. “To be successful, you need to find the box (limiting factors) and then think outside the box to solve the problems.”


During his initial meeting with landowners, Lusk stresses these keys to creating a successful fish pond: habitat, the food chain, genetics and the harvest.


Keys to Success

“Habitat is number one; if the habitat doesn’t match your goals for the target species, you won’t be successful,” he warns. “You have to be able to provide the right food to produce the fish you’re after. Pond owners need to pay close attention to genetics, and when that pond produces a bounty you better be ready to take fish out or nature is going to do some unpleasant things to your pond.”


Water quality is also vitally important in maintaining a healthy fish population in a recreational pond, Lusk emphasized. “Now there are all kinds of aeration products available – fountains, diffusers and re-circulators – to improve water quality, The sooner we can cleanse water in a fishing pond, the more productive that pond is going to be.” 


Lusk says the emerging pond management industry that started in the South is moving north, which is good news for Wisconsin aquaculture. Researchers in South Dakota are  pumping pure oxygen underneath the ice to oxygenate the water. “That could be one of the ways this industry emerges in the North,” he noted.


“If I had to try to make a living in this part of the country, I would zero in on ice fishing,” Lusk declared. “I’d be managing ponds during ice-off to be prepared for the ice-fishing season.”


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