MACKAY — An $82,000 state-of-the-art aquaculture lab is being built for ag students at Mackay High School, funded with private donations and grants, including a recent $4,000 grant from the Idaho Cattle Foundation.
The 1,400-square-foot, cold-water lab will be certified disease-free, enabling students to coordinate with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Forest Service to raise certain species of fish and release them in local rivers and lakes.
“At a high school level, it’s the first of its kind statewide that will be certified as disease free,” said Trent Van Leuven, agriscience instructor and National FFA Organization adviser. “Never before has a facility been built in Idaho with water recirculation and students in mind — the possibilities are endless.”
He hopes to partner with Fish and Game and envisions students raising 20,000 fish for select state waters.
“There have been some awesome things discussed,” he said. “We have all of the equipment necessary.”
Students have outgrown their current lab, where they are raising more than 1,800 trout and more than 50 sturgeons in 15 tanks. The cattle foundation supported the new fish lab because the aquaculture program teaches principles that apply to beef production — genetics, nutrition, rate of gain, feed efficiency, and research.
The program’s advisory committee includes two fish biologists and four ranchers.
“The goal has been to develop the next generation of fish biologists and ranchers who have a mutual understanding of their compatible interests,” Van Leven said.
Some environmental groups have tried to pit ranchers and biologists against each other by proposing grazing restrictions to protect fish habitat.
Van Leuven said a driving force behind the aquaculture program is to encourage students to find jobs in the fisheries industry, whether at anIFish and Game hatchery or commercial fish farm.
“Aquaculture businesses are a growth industry in rural southeastern Idaho,” he said. “There is an unmet demand by this industry for qualified labor.”
Idaho leads the nation in production of trout, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, accounting for 46 percent of the total value of fish sold nationwide annually.
Statewide, aquaculture ranks as the third-largest food-animal industry, according to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, which oversees permits for approximately 115 aquaculture facilities.
About 67 fish farms are in south-central Idaho, where growing conditions are ideal near the Snake River. Idaho fish farms raise both cold and warm water fish including trout, steelhead, salmon, sturgeon, catfish, and tilapia.
Since an aquaculture program started in the late 1990s, Mackay ag students have raised a variety of warm and cold water fish including trout, sturgeon, grayling, and tilapia in a section of a modified greenhouse.
For years, students have improvised and used inexpensive livestock feed tubs and an old shower stall for fish tanks. Students and community volunteers are building the new lab.
“This will be a dream compared to our old lab,” said Christina Woodbury, a freshman, while helping frame the lab and nailing up plywood for the walls. “I’ve learned carpentry skills and how to hold a hammer correctly, so your wrist won’t get tired.”
Kase Hainline, a sophomore who donated $500 to the lab, said, “It’s been fun watching the different stages of construction and seeing our lab go up.”
The aquaculture lab and students’ projects have received national recognition.
Bryce Cluff, 2017-18 National FFA western region vice president, visited the high school recently to see how the lab was progressing.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in all my travels,” Cluff said. “It’s an awesome partnership that students have with the Forest Service and other agencies. They’re making their community better.”
Despite having rudimentary equipment, students have accomplished pioneering milestones.
“It’s unprecedented what they’ve done in that lab on a shoestring budget,” said Bart Gamett, U.S. Forest Service fish biologist in Mackay. “Students have had amazing opportunities to work with state and federal agencies and private hatcheries on vital projects.”
Last spring, students released 325 golden trout in Lower Cedar Creek, supplementing a successful release in 2015.
“As far as I know, it’s the first time golden trout have successfully been introduced into a stream in Idaho,” Gamett said. “They’re usually stocked in high-mountain lakes.”
Another unusual project was raising whitefish. From 2009 to 2013, Selena Gregory reared Big Lost River Mountain Whitefish and stocked them in Antelope Creek, where their population had disappeared.
With the cattle foundation’s recent grant, $79,000 of the $82,000 goal has been raised.
Van Leuven said, “It’s a remarkable accomplishment for a school our size, with 80 students in the high school, to build a lab like this. We’re grateful for the grants and donations and all the volunteers who helped students.”
Major donors include the Mackay FFA Chapter, $17,500; the Idaho Division of Career and Technical Education Program Quality Improvement, $15,408; Coeur d’Alene Tribe, $10,000; Idaho Fish and Wildlife Foundation, $7,000; Whittenberger Foundation, $6,000; Idaho Chapter of the American Fisheries Society, $5,000; Rackham Roofing, $3,500; and Voya Unsung Heroes, $2,000.
Donations may be mailed to the FFA at P.O. Box 390, Mackay, ID 83251 or made at a crowd-funding website, Piggybackr Mackay High School Cold Water Fish Lab.