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U of I Big Fish in Aquaculture

April 19, 2023

University of Idaho was a small university with a mammoth presence at a recent national aquaculture conference that attracts top scientists from throughout the world.

The schedule for Aquaculture America 2023, hosted Feb. 23-26 in New Orleans, was filled with presentations featuring students, postdoctoral researchers and faculty involved in U of I’s Aquaculture Research Institute (ARI).

The Vandals were in impressive company at the conference, participating alongside the likes of Texas A&M University, Louisiana State University, Auburn University, Mississippi State University, University of Florida and University of California, Davis.

“Most universities there are twice as large in enrollment as U of I. We punch above our weight class in that respect,” said Matt Powell, a professor specializing in fish genetics and physiology with U of I’s Department of Animal, Veterinary and Food Sciences. “We’re exceedingly well represented, more so than any other university our size and more so than most all of those other universities.”

ARI is regarded as the top U.S. program for freshwater fish research. The institute has also been ranked on a couple of occasions as the No. 1 program for publishing research on fish nutrition, according to publications that review literature on the subject.

“We study cold-water fish like trout, salmon and burbot,” Powell said. “For cold-water aquaculture, we’re the place to go.”

History of ARI

The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) and the College of Natural Resources (CNR) are the key partners in ARI, but the institute is interdisciplinary, working with departments and colleges across the university. ARI also has formal collaborative research agreements with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Both entities contribute to the high-tech equipment housed at ARI, which helps the institute leverage greater funding for its projects.

The institute’s history traces back to the 1980s, when the U.S. sought to deemphasize poultry programs in favor of aquaculture research. U of I was part of the trend, founding ARI on the site of an old chicken coop at the Moscow campus in 1987.

An aquaculture wet lab, which is still used, was built on campus the following year. Separate small tanks in the CNR building are still used for disease research.

In 1996, U of I leased a mothballed fish nutrition lab and 4 acres of property in Magic Valley from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The federal government transferred ownership of the facility — called the Hagerman Fish Culture Experiment Station — in 1998.

“We have a whole gamut of students interested in conservation, as well as true fisheries, as well as commercial aquaculture,” Powell said, adding that the facility’s technology attracts international scientists and students interested in using it for their own projects.

ARI Research

Fish represents the major protein source for 15% of the world’s population, outstripping both poultry and beef production, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Aquaculture is the world’s fastest-growing agricultural sector, with global production increasing by 8% annually. Demand for fish should only continue increasing, given that it’s a cheap economical protein source to produce. The Magic Valley is a major player in the industry, producing about three-quarters of the farm-raised rainbow trout consumed in the U.S.

Furthermore, about 14% of the nation’s trout broodstock possess genetics that ARI helped develop.

Throughout the past 22 years, ARI has led major advancements toward moving the industry away from feeding fishmeal, which depletes the oceans of their wild fish populations, in favor of a sustainable, vegetarian diet. ARI scientists and their collaborators have bred rainbow trout — a carnivorous fish in the wild — capable of thriving on soybean meal, without sacrificing the taste or nutrition of the fillets. ARI’s vegetarian trout grow as rapidly as trout fed fishmeal.

ARI researchers have also developed feed with half of the usual phosphorus content, which helps reduce water pollution and enables fish farmers to step up production while still meeting water-quality standards. With grant funding ARI recently received to study fish farm effluent, Powell will soon study mechanical and physiological ways to reduce nitrogen loading into the environment.

ARI research has broad applicability beyond regional trout production.

“The questions we answer and address for this industry are questions that worldwide help with aquaculture sustainability,” Powell said.

Like the industry it serves, ARI is also growing. The institute added Jacob Bledsoe last summer as an Extension specialist focusing on fish physiology and the microbiome, and two research scientists started in February and already have several research projects in the works.

Published in Catching Up with CALS

The University of Idaho's Aquaculture Research Institute is regarded as the top U.S. program for freshwater fish research. The institute has also been ranked on a couple of occasions as the No. 1 program for publishing research on fish nutrition, according to publications that review literature on the subject.

About the University of Idaho

The University of Idaho, home of the Vandals, is Idaho’s land-grant, national research university. From its residential campus in Moscow, U of I serves the state of Idaho through educational centers in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls, nine research and Extension centers, plus Extension offices in 42 counties. Home to nearly 11,000 students statewide, U of I is a leader in student-centered learning and excels at interdisciplinary research, service to businesses and communities, and in advancing diversity, citizenship and global outreach. U of I competes in the Big Sky and Western Athletic conferences. Learn more at


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