Idaho burbot researchers look to shift from conservation to commercial aquaculture

Published on
December 4, 2019

Researchers at the University of Idaho Aquaculture Research Institute are shifting their goals when it comes to their work with burbot, and are exploring the feasibility of introducing the species – the only freshwater cod species in North America – to the commercial aquaculture industry.

In the early 2000s, the burbot population on the Kootenai River in northern Idaho and British Columbia had dwindled drastically due to habitat alteration and loss throughout the region. At its lowest in 2004, the burbot population on the river was just 50 fish, according to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG).

That figure was a wake-up call for regional agencies and, since then, a joint force of the IDFG, the University of Idaho, Kootenai Tribe, and Montana and British Columbia fisheries agencies has helped the species recover. Today, the population is closer to 50,000 fish and is supported by ongoing restorative work at the university and by the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho at its USD 15 million (EUR 13.5 million) hatchery devoted to the cause. In January, Idaho opened the stock to recreational fishermen for the first time in 26 years.

Kenneth Cain, a professor of aquaculture and fish health at the University of Idaho and associate director of the Aquaculture Research Institute, has been studying burbot since the university began assisting in conservation aquaculture efforts in 2003. Now, funded under a National Institute of Food and Agriculture award from the Western Regional Aquaculture Center, Cain is directing a four-year project to push the species into the commercial sphere and is looking to for industry partners to farm the species for the first time.

“No one in the U.S. has been working on rearing this species in captivity,” Cain told SeafoodSource. “Since our research team has been working with burbot for over a decade, we’ve been brought on board to explore its viability on the market.”

Raising burbot is a challenge because the fish goes through what scientists call a larval stage once hatched. Early on, they are too small to be fed artificial diet like young trout or salmon. Instead, baby burbot feed on small plankton called rotifers, before graduating to brine shrimp and, later, artificial pellet feed.

This presents an economic issue for potential producers weighing the cost and infrastructure needed to raise live food rather than pellet feed. In response, Cain and his team have been working on simplifying the feeding process, reducing the number of live-feeds needed as the burbot grow and experimenting with different feed types to cut down on costs. The Soy Aquaculture Alliance has provided the research team funding to to look into soy-based food as a more sustainable protein source for aquaculture.

“We’re always on the lookout for opportunities to test soy-based feed with new species,” Soy Aquaculture Alliance Andy Tauer told SeafoodSource. “We see these sorts of tests as a way to extend the volume of fish meal that’s on the market today. We know some species cannot go soy-based for 100 percent of its diet, so we’re looking for that threshold that works.”

According to Tauer, they’ve seen success in juvenile burbot replacing up to 25 percent of its protein intake with a soy-based protein meal so far.

“If there are people willing to invest, I think this is an ideal species for aquaculture programs,” Cain said.

Before the stock’s collapse, burbot was sometimes referred to as “poor man’s lobster,” depending on how it was prepared. As part of the study, Cain’s team has conducted taste-tests, providing burbot to a southern Idaho restaurant. Roughly 150 customers who ordered burbot – which has a mild, white meat – completed surveys and overall the fish received rave reviews. According to Cain, testers generally preferred burbot to regional trout species and tilapia dishes.

A coldwater species, burbot would likely thrive in systems based in locales similar to the rivers of northern Idaho, but Cain says those environments can be replicated in recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) essentially anywhere with the necessary infrastructure. The team is also working to produce sterile fish so that burbot would be a viable option for growers dealing with regional authorities concerned about escapement of a non-native species. Right now, burbot is being slowly pitched primarily to trout farms as an easy way to diversify their harvests, Cain said.

“We’re producing between 40,000 and 60,000 juvenile burbot a year right now and we’re happily open to providing them to any grower looking to experiment with a new species,” he said.

The team hopes to find aquaculture partners within the next year and developing a guide on rearing the species to interested businesses. 

Photo courtesy of the University of Idaho

Reporting from Portland, Oregon

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