Raising Fish Aquaculture business growing in Somerset County

October 6, 2018

It takes employees at Laurel Hill Trout Farm about a decade to master the craft of raising fish. All sorts of things can go wrong.

“I figure it takes about a year to train an employee. I would say it takes 10 to be competent in knowing what you’re doing,” said co-owner Adam Pritts. “You don’t hit the same scenarios. It takes a year to go through a full life cycle for a fish. So for someone to see what happens at all stages, they have to be here for a full year to know. There are some scenarios we might hit once every five years. And you won’t know what to do unless you experience it.”

The trout farm, which has a location in Osterburg and on Route 31 between Somerset and Donegal, stands out in the county and in Pennsylvania. Aquaculture, which is the practice of raising fish on a farm, is the fastest growing segment of agriculture in the world. Its growth in the United States and in Pennsylvania, however, has been hampered by government regulation.

Laurel Hill Trout Farm produces rainbow, brook, brown and golden trout. Clair Bassett, Adam’s grandfather, opened the business in 1964, with the first hatchery right below the entrance to Hidden Valley Resort. It operated there from 1964 until the 1970s before it was bought by New Enterprise. Bassett had another property near Chippewa Lake in Somerset County that he operated for two years. Then he and Robert Pritts, Adam’s father, built the trout farm in Osterburg. Robert Pritts bought out Bassett in the late 1980s. Adam Pritts started there in 2004, and he is now a co-owner.

Globally, aquaculture is a $1 trillion industry. Since 2014, it has produced the majority of all seafood consumed, according to Malcolm Beveridge, a researcher and professor in zoology, marine biology and ecology and aquaculture and fisheries. Aquaculture produce is one of the most widely traded commodities in the world. It employs around 20 million farmers worldwide.

“Despite its antiquity – it’s certainly not as old as agriculture (10,000 years BP) but at 2500 years old is nonetheless pretty old — aquaculture should be regarded as a modern phenomenon,” Beveridge wrote in an email. “Until the last few decades it was only of local importance in economic and food security terms. Today, following several decades of rapid and sustained growth thanks largely to huge amounts of private sector investment, it has become the world’s most important source of aquatic foods.”

Carole Engle, executive editor for the Journal of the World Aquaculture Society, said the costs of complying with state and federal regulations governing aquaculture has slowed growth in the United States.

“They’re increasing the cost of production,” Engle said. “But they’re also making it more difficult to continue to sell their fish. And it’s making it difficult to expand. Because of that the costs are going up. The farms are trying to expand, but regulations are preventing them from expanding. So it really is having a negative impact on aquaculture farms, including in Pennsylvania.”

Engle said demand was high for trout in Pennsylvania, both as a source to restock streams and rivers and for restaurants in places like Pittsburgh.

“People know that trout in Pennsylvania is good,” she said. “It’s known for it. But it wouldn’t exist on this level without farmers stocking the streams. And the regulations are putting the farms in jeopardy and forcing some to leave the industry. The trout industry could grow quite a bit to the benefit of everybody.”

Engle said fish farmers have to fill out duplicate paperwork to meet the same requirements that are held in different states. She said it’s unnecessary to have overlapping and unreasonable regulatory actions that take time and money away from fish producers without improving the environment or other quality of life issues that the original laws intended to do.

“The regulatory structure has gotten so complex and so cumbersome that it’s driving people out of business,” Engle said. “The demand is here. People in Pennsylvania would prefer to have Pennsylvania trout. But if they can’t get it they’re going to import it. It’s driving out the smaller scale farmers. That’s because it’s duplicative and redundant. We need to reform these regulations.”

Were it to be deregulated in Pennsylvania, there could be additional sales annually of $665,875. These sales could contribute $9.5 million in economic activity based on farms alone, according to Engle. If the economic impact from expenditures by anglers were to be included, this value would be more than $20 million annually.

Aquaculture has become an important part of the farm-to-table movement, which is an effort to serve local food at restaurants and school cafeterias. Adam Pritts said his business has seen 150 percent growth in the past decade. Around 20 percent of his total revenue is from the service industry. It’s now served in higher-end establishments like Hyeholde Restaurant in Coraopolis and Poulet Bleu in Pittsburgh.

“If I looked at all the Pittsburgh restaurants in total, they’re the biggest customer now,” Pritts said. “The local food movement has done some of the push. Most of any trout that restaurants have had was available from Idaho. A lot of the fish coming from Idaho are flash frozen. There were a bunch of customers that were looking for a fresher product. They started to approach us. And our name got out. It kind of snowballed.”

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