We arrived in Cuerici on 14 September. After we ate lunch and warmed up with some hot chocolate, we started out on an orientation walk through the grounds. Don Carlos, the farm owner, led the walk. The majority of our tour was centered on his trout farm, which he stated is the last of its kind in Costa Rica. Trout farming in Costa Rica began with the introduction of imported trout to mountain rivers, however gradually died out over time in favor of importing trout from Canada and other Northern areas. As we approached the first of his many trout ponds, Don Carlos began to explain the extremely detailed and complicated process of trout farming and mating.
Upon the arrival of mating season, Don Carlos will check his trout each morning, looking for the females that appear to be ready to lay eggs. When a female is ready to lay, her ovaries will begin to swell and eventually burst. This releases a specific liquid that signals the males to become sexually mature, ensuring they are ready to release sperm to fertilize the eggs. The way Don Carlos could tell if this had occurred in a female was by looking at how bloated and round the female was, and if she attempted to swim upstream out of the main pond. Once he has determined a female is ready to lay eggs, he will very gently pick her up out of the water using a paper towel. He will then bring her over to a separate tub, where he will massage a specific part of her cloaca and stomach in order to prompt her to lay her eggs. Once she begins to lay, he must hold her with her head tilted upwards and her cloaca downwards, in order to ensure that all of the eggs are laid. If the female doesn’t lay all of her eggs, and some remain inside her body cavity, she can get an infection and die, hurting his business and the fish. As the female lays her eggs, he catches them gently in a paper towel, and quickly puts the female fish back into a pond he referred to as a “resting pond” to help de-stress the fish. To top it off, this is all done in approximately 15 seconds, to minimize the stress level of the fish. If a female begins to get too stressed, or if he takes longer than this to complete the process, it can hurt the female and her eggs. Once he has collected the female eggs, he inseminates them with the sperm from the males, and then moves the eggs to another area to grow. After doing this for so long, Don Carlos told us that he could immediately tell which eggs are and which aren’t going to hatch, and that he goes through the thousands of eggs and individually picks out the bad ones.
I was immediately amazed by the complexity of the process and the precision and detail needed to ensure this is done properly so not harm the eggs or the females. I had never imagined how much thought and detail went into trout farming, let alone the egg extraction process. The part that surprised me the most was that the egg extraction and insemination were only the very first step in a complicated process. Once he has the fertilized eggs, he must raise them in very pure and clean water, as water with any organic matter in it can kill the young trout. This is just one of the many more very specific steps before the trout is large and healthy enough to be sold for consumption.
Another topic that Don Carlos brought up was the contrast between his and other trout farms in the North. Don Carlos is fortunate enough to have a natural water spring on his farm, giving him access to pure water for his farm. This allows him to not have to use chemicals or anti-fungal treatments in his water, which other farms often have to do due to lack of clean water. He also raises worms to feed his fish, personally selects the next generation of breeding fish, and does all of his work by hand. He mentioned how other farms use tranquilizers in order to extract the eggs, and often use dyes and chemicals to ensure that the fish are visually up to “consumer quality”, while he prefers to do everything natural and chemical free. I really connected with this and respected his efforts, since changing to a process with more chemicals or with imported fish could possibly be easier and allow him to sell more fish. I have noticed this quality in both of the farmers that we have spoken with so far on this trip, Don Carlos and Don Roberto (a coffee farmer), and it is something I really admire. The commitment to producing natural and healthy products that have low ecological impact is something that I wish more farmers and manufacturers had in the United States. Learning about these farmers and their work has inspired me to try more often to support businesses that are similar in their values to Don Carlos and Don Roberto as well as to think more critically about how and where the products I use are produced, something I hope will continue to follow me.