Miller Colony to start raising Coho salmon

March 24, 2011 17:16

With the arrival of 10,000 specially-bred Coho salmon eggs last December, Miller Hutterite Colony south of Bynum began operation of the first private, commercial salmon farm in the state using cutting-edge filtration technology that recirculates 99 percent of the groundwater used in the fish tanks, reports with reference to GrowFish.

The sustainable farming project, three years in the making, expects by next spring to produce Coho salmon weighing 6.6 pounds each that the colony personnel will process on site either as fillets or head-on-gutted whole fish to be shipped to the West Coast for sale under the label, SweetSpring Salmon.

David Wipf, the colony's spokesman and secretary/treasurer, provided an overview recently of the project being developed under the enterprise, Teton Fisheries, L.L.C., with colony resident Steven Hofer appointed the salmon plant manager.

"Aquaculture is the fastest growing segment in the farming industry," Wipf said.

After it suspended pig farming (Midway Colony south of Conrad continues that enterprise), Miller Colony began researching other agricultural businesses that would provide income, Wipf said. Envirotech Ag Systems of Winnipeg, Manitoba, that provides livestock-raising services to more than 40 Hutterite colonies in the United States, introduced the Miller Colony research team to AquaSeed Corp. of Rochester, Wash., a global leader of Pacific salmon conservation and a supplier of domesticated Pacific salmon seedstocks to salmon farms worldwide.

SweetSpring Salmon, an affiliate of AquaSeed, began limited distribution to food markets of the cultivated salmon in the Pacific Northwest last year, and during that time, the colony's research team began talks with AquaSeed about the possibility of developing a freshwater salmon farm in Montana.

Added to that development, Holder Timmons Engineering L.L.C. of Ithaca, N.Y. and Courtenay, B.C., had in recent years developed a patented water biofilter that is capable of removing waste and carbon dioxide and adding oxygen, among other things, as part of a closed-container recirculating system.

Wipf said the colony worked with company owner and fish biologist John Holder who developed the business plan and designed a state-of-the-art recirculating aquaculture system to raise Coho salmon at the colony.

"Ten, even five, years ago this would not have been possible," Wipf said of the evolving technology.

Miller Colony garnered a number of investors for the land-based fish farm in December 2009, but Wipf declined to give the cost of the venture except to say it was more than $1 million.

Teton Fisheries L.L.C. "took the plunge" to proceed in March 2010, and started construction in July 2010.

The "eyed" eggs (eggs that have developed to the point that their eyes are visible) arrived on Dec. 17, 2010, and, as of last week, weigh about 2.5 grams each.

AquaSeed also supplies the colony with a custom fish food that contains a minimum of fishmeal. Wipf said the company's goal is to remove all fish from the fish food as part of a sustainable model, and he predicted that someday a local feed mill might produce the fish food.

The idea of building a Coho salmon farm in Montana was so new that the state did not have any rules about the importation of live Coho salmon until Miller Colony petitioned state Fish, Wildlife and Parks, outlining its plan.

"We worked extensively with FWP. We have nothing bad to say about the agency, after all the trips to Helena," Wipf said.

Tim Feldner, the manager of FWP's commercial wildlife permitting program, said the state prohibits bringing into the state any nonnative fish, bird or animal, etc., that is not classified. Miller Colony's petition for classification of Coho salmon triggered a process to ensure that rules were created for the salmon's safe importation and control.

A multi-agency review committee evaluated the petition in early 2010, conducted a scientific review and made recommendations in July of the potential environmental impacts caused by the Coho if it were released or escaped from captivity, the risk the salmon would pose to the health or safety of the public, wildlife or agriculture, and the ability to readily control and contain the fish in captivity.

Coho salmon (Onocorhynchus kisutch) was officially classified as a controlled species on Dec. 9, 2010. Coho salmon may only be raised for commercial activities in a facility that:

  • Is indoors and locked with access restricted solely to individuals involved in the operation and maintenance of the facility;
  • Is not within the 100-year floodplain;
  • Is at least 200 feet from any surface water;
  • Does not receive diverted surface water;
  • Does not have an effluent or discharge of waste or water within 200 feet of surface water including perennial, intermittent or ephemeral streams or rivers; and
  • Complies with all other local, state and federal regulations and permits.

Recently, the Washington state Senate honored the AquaSeed Corp. with a resolution that said, in part, that "the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program took the unprecedented step of awarding AquaSeed's SweetSpring Salmon the acclaimed ‘SuperGreen' designation, denoting the very highest ranking for environmental sustainability and human health."

At the large metal building that contains the colony's hatchery, work continues on installing the larger filtration units and water tanks that will soon hold the juvenile fish.

For now, Hofer works full-time at maintaining the growing fry, Wipf said. The colony expects to have two full-time and four part-time workers dedicated to salmon raising and processing.

"We have a model, but need to work through the whole process," Wipf said, adding that by next year, the colony hopes to sell salmon fillets locally, just as it does its dairy and vegetable products, and its poultry, sheep and beef cattle.

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