The University of Idaho cut the ribbon on a new $2.6-million facility for its Aquaculture Research Institute last week. Officials say the new building will give Moscow-based graduate and undergraduate research students direct physical access to live research experiments.

“In the past, undergrad students, and even master’s students, didn’t get the chance to have hands-on experience with the aquaculture because our main Aquaculture Research Center is in Hagerman, (Idaho),” said Vikas Kumar, an associate professor with UI researching fish nutrition and nutrigenomics.

Kumar said it’s about a seven-hour drive to the facility in Hagerman from Moscow.

The new 9,000-square-foot facility includes office and conference space on the top floor, and features a series of aquaculture labs beneath. These spaces include a lab for researching and rearing juvenile shrimp as well as a room for raising zooplankton for feed. Currently, the majority of the lab space is devoted to raising and studying a freshwater cod, called burbot, in captivity.

Burbot are a muscular, leopard-patterned fish that weigh about 3 pounds and are a little under 1 1/2 feet from tip to tail. Originally, UI raised them for conservation purposes in collaboration with the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help recover local populations.

Hatchery Manager and research technician Joe Evavold said at one point, there were as few as 50 individual burbot in the entire Kootenai River. He said this year, thanks in large part to the efforts of UI and the Kootenai Tribe, populations have recovered enough to support a fishing season for the first time in roughly 20 years.

“You can actually catch these in the Columbia River and they’re delicious,” Evavold said. “That’s the next project that we’re currently on is to develop these as a commercial food species.”

Much of the work done by the Aquaculture Research Institute, including some of the research devoted to making burbot commercially viable, deals with developing sustainable feed and feeding practices, Kumar said.

He said trout, burbot and other carnivorous aquatic species require animal protein in their diet in order to remain healthy, but current practices are often costly, time consuming and unsustainable.

He said trout researchers at the Hagerman facility were not only able to reduce the percentage of animal protein in their feed, but were able to selectively breed to create a generation of the fish that can survive on a vegetarian diet.

The research space on the lower floor offers many options for other research, too.

Evavold said tanks and supporting systems can be shifted around in order to support the needs of different projects and species of fish. Kumar said moving forward, the space could be adapted for studying salmon, trout and possibly European seabass.

“Things will constantly change and that’s very normal in these sorts of situations,” Evavold said, gesturing at the room. “All this stuff can be torn out and changed.”


Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to sjackson@dnews.com.

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