A California fish story
June/July 2012 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Darren Simon
Photos by Kevin Marty
Family farm provides catfish for recipes and recreation.
At sunrise, Imperial Catfish employee Bonifacio Ortiz sets netting in a pond. The netting will be used to harvest mature catfish to be trucked fresh to California stores and fishing lakes.
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On a tranquil summer morning in the Imperial Valley, quiet surrounds a series of large ponds off a county road. The only sound is the gentle movement of water and the occasional croak of a great white egret.
Then, the quiet is broken as a tractor rumbles to life and makes its way onto a dirt road overlooking one pond. As the tractor reaches its destination, a machine much like a snow blower begins hurling its contents over the pond.
The Elliott family once purchased catfish from what is now Imperial Catfish to stock their recreational fishing business; now they own it. From left, brothers Craig and Cory, their uncle Greg and father, Douglas.
What follows is a frenzied dance as some 50,000 young catfish launch themselves toward their feed.
For Craig Elliott, whose family owns and operates the Imperial Catfish farm, the dance at feeding time is critical. It is a sign of a healthy pond and healthy fish.
"California provides some the healthiest, cleanest fish in the world and we do it in a very environmentally friendly manner," said Elliott, who oversees the farm with his brother Cory.
Bonifacio Ortiz and a second worker use nets to catch the mature catfish.
Part of California's increasingly vital aquaculture business, Imperial Catfish raises up to 2 million blue and channel catfish annually to help meet the Southern California demand. Half of the fish raised at the farm go to food markets—the majority of which are Asian markets selling live fish. The other half is used to stock fishing lakes and ponds.
As a menu option, farm-raised catfish is a sustainable food source. With low fish-to-feed ratios, that means less impact on natural resources, Elliott said.
Farm-raised catfish is recognized as an excellent source of protein. And because of its mild flavor and flaky texture, it adapts well to almost any seasoning or cooking method—from frying or grilling to steaming or baking. The lean fish is also well suited to soups and stews.
"The catfish we produce provide a sweet, mild, delicate fillet that just can't be beat," Elliott said.
Along with raising fish for food, Imperial Catfish also raises fish for fun. The family business supplies catfish to the California Department of Fish and Game Fishing in the City program, which brings fishing to urban communities in the Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento metropolitan areas (www.fishinginthecity.org).
The program gives city dwellers an opportunity to learn how to fish and to fish close to home, according to program coordinator Brian Young. Ponds are stocked with trout in winter and catfish the rest of the year. In Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties, those catfish come from Imperial Catfish.
"It is rewarding to me that we are supplying fish for outdoor recreation, which kids need to do a lot more," Elliott said.
Throughout the day, staff at Imperial Catfish must work to keep the fish ponds oxygenated, using aeration devices like the one attached to the tractor.
"There are so many benefits to fishing," he said, including the opportunity to learn the ecology and biology of angling and to gain a respect for the natural world. In addition, it's an activity children and adults can enjoy together.
"These are bonding moments," Young said.
Similarly, the Elliott family has bonded through the art and science of fishing.
Thirty-five years ago, Douglas Elliott, Craig and Cory's father, leased Irvine Lake in Orange County with a partner and started a recreational fishing business. The family went on to lease or purchase lakes throughout Orange and Riverside counties for use as recreational fisheries.
The Imperial Catfish farm, in operation since 1974 as Valley Fish Farm under different ownership, was among the suppliers to the Elliott family fishing operation. Seven years ago, when the previous fish farm owner decided to retire, he asked whether the Elliotts were interested in purchasing the farm.
The family said yes and re-launched the farm as Imperial Catfish with Craig and Cory overseeing the operation. Craig, a licensed attorney, is in charge of the day-to-day operations, working directly with the farm's on-site managers. Cory uses a design and fabrication background to fix, build and maintain the farm's equipment. Douglas keeps track of operations from his home in Anaheim, along with his brother, Greg, an accountant for the family business.
The fish are fed pellets from a machine that shoots the fish food out over each pond.
The Elliotts rely on longtime experts in fish farming to help run the farm, which they say involves a fine balance of business and biology that requires 24-hour monitoring.
Dennis Faria, who has been in fish farming for 40 years, serves as general manager. Another key manager is Arturo Esparza, who has a master's degree in oceanography. He leads the operation's hatchery, which produces close to a million fingerlings—young fish—annually. In all, a crew of 20 works to run Imperial Catfish.
"You have to have people who care about what they are doing, and these guys go above and beyond the call of duty quite often," Cory Elliott said.
Crews use nets to harvest the mature fish.
Included among the staff are those who work overnight, a challenging time for the farm. When the sun is up, photosynthesis from algae in the water helps produce the ever-so-critical oxygen that keeps the fish alive. At night, the process slows and oxygen levels drop. Crews have to know what aeration measures to take to ensure the water provides a healthy environment for the fish.
And there are a lot of fish.
There are 36 large ponds, each about eight to 10 acres in size, and then there are several smaller ponds used for fry—recently hatched fish—and fingerling production. The farm stretches 600 acres and each pond has up to 40,000 production-sized catfish.
The ponds were built over an ancient lakebed so that the ground consists of clay, which prevents water waste through seepage. This clay provides a natural sunscreen, due to the very fine particulates suspended in the water. That allows the fish to develop a light silvery color, which is a highly prized attribute in Asian food markets. Craig Elliott refers to those fish as "silver cats."
In addition, the ponds' water comes from the Colorado River, a natural source. That exposure enables the fish to build up immunities early in life and ultimately allows for better growth and health.
A crew of 20 runs Imperial Catfish, including, from left, Arturo Esparza, Abraham Flores, Miguel Huerta and Dennis Faria.
The Elliotts say they look forward to the continued expansion of the family fish farm—as well as the growth of aquaculture as a means of food production, especially in the Golden State. With some 85 percent of all seafood consumed in the U.S. coming from imports, California aquaculture offers a large variety of species—including trout, abalone, oysters, bass and sturgeon—for local consumption.
"Our society is going to need a lot more aquaculture in the future," Craig Elliott said. "Our oceans are fully utilized, so we need another source of seafood to meet population growth and increased per-capita consumption."