Another day, another cooler full of fish heads. Tom Baldwin eyes the latest special delivery from the Nebraska Game and Parks Department.
“Rainbow trout,” he guesses.
Some weeks, Baldwin brings in more fish than a commercial gillnetter. The catch varies: Goldfish from Arkansas, tilapia from North Dakota …
When the Washington State University veterinary pathologist opened his lab in 1994, he became the first U.S. Department of Agriculture fish inspector in the nation.
Today, his lab is one of only four in the country. The health certificates he issues help fuel an international market for American fish farmers.
That hasn’t been lost on Washington lawmakers, who have been sinking money into Baldwin’s lab to subsidize the state’s $30 million to $40 million aquaculture industry. Two weeks ago, Baldwin’s lab reeled in another $100,000 from the Legislature.
“Industry needed it, WSU had to respond, and fortunately the system worked. It’s a success story,” says Jim Zimmerman of the Washington Fish Growers Association.
“Their little lab down there does all the proper procedures and the right things, and they are recognized internationally. Nobody does it better.”
Perhaps that’s why Baldwin receives tens of thousands of fish from 10 states every year.
Fish farming is the fastest growing segment of American agriculture.
Idaho supplies 70 percent of the nation’s farm-raised trout with its $90 million-a-year fish production and processing industry.
Of the trout eaten in the U.S., more than 90 percent is raised domestically, says University of Idaho aquaculture educator Gary Fornshell of Twin Falls, Idaho.
“Seafood is a high-end item, and when the economy is good, people eat out more,” Fornshell says.
“Most people ordering trout in restaurants for the last 10 years are eating farm-raised fish,” Baldwin says.
Washington, meanwhile, leads the nation in producing clam and oyster seed, as well as eggs from rainbow trout and salmon.
Troutlodge Inc. ships 300 million live fish eggs from its plant in McMillin, Wash., to places as far away as Chile. Chileans buy salmon eggs, raise the fish in farms at the base of the Andes Mountains, Baldwin explains, then sell the fish for meat to the United States.
With American demand for fish rising and wild stocks disappearing, aquaculture began booming in the 1980s.
Asian-Americans, for example, are buying more tilapia, a flavorful pan-sized fish popular in the Philippines and Indonesia. The warm-water fish are raised in geothermal waters of southern Idaho and North Dakota, then hauled live to Seattle, Vancouver, British Columbia, and Calgary.
But before North Dakota can sell tilapia or Washington can export salmon eggs to Chile, companies must have health certificates that guarantee their product is disease-free.
That happens in Baldwin’s lab on the second floor of Bustad Hall, where he and other scientists examine thinly-sliced sections of fish for 13 different viruses, bacteria or parasites.
While most of the diseases aren’t harmful to humans, they can wipe out entire fish populations if not detected.
As catfish circle in a tank above him, Baldwin peers through a high-power microscope, noting telltale signs of whirling disease in a batch of trout from Utah.
He shakes his head, sorry to see the fast-spreading skeletal disease that causes fish to chase their tails until they starve. It has devastated rainbow trout in some of Montana’s blue-ribbon streams.
The USDA inspection process Baldwin helped develop four years ago is a safeguard against the spread of disease across international borders.
That safety net is increasing global trust of U.S. fish exports. Baldwin issued 151 health certificates last year, compared with just seven the first year.
Farmers usually send Baldwin a sample of 60 fish. Last year, his lab completed 460 inspections of fish samplings, charging Washington customers $562 per batch and out-of-state customers $843. Just like with other livestock, most countries and many U.S. states require a USDA stamp of approval before live fish can be exported to residents inside their borders. Federal and state agencies used to provide fish inspections, but they’ve had to cut their budgets. Most states prioritize inspecting state hatchery fish first, which often backlogs inspection services for private companies.
Aquaculture advocates lobbied lawmakers last month to give WSU’s lab more funding so Baldwin could handle additional tests and help the industry avoid delays.
“The fish catch in the Alaska and Canadian sounds was at a record low this year, but nobody knew it in the grocery store,” Baldwin says.
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: MONEY CROP Fish farming is the fastest growing segment of American agriculture.