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Former Dorm Room Fish Farmer Scales; Barramundi Becomes Star of Worldwide Sustainable Aquaculture Operation

September 18, 2012 |

A Barramundi fish. Photo Credit: Australis Aquaculture

Josh Goldman started raising fish in his dorm room in 1983. Today, his company Australis Aquaculture, LLC, which is headquartered in a small town in Western Massachusetts, operates one of the world’s largest indoor fish farming facilities as well as several offshore fish farms in Vietnam. The star of his operation is the little known (at least around the United States) Barramundi fish.

Lates calcarifer, also known as the Barramundi or the Asian seabass, hails from the Indo-West Pacific region and Goldman thinks it is going to blow tilapia and farm-raised salmon right out of the water.

Why Barramundi Fish?

“We are told to eat fish that eat low on the food chain. While that’s great from a sustainability standpoint, we aren’t doing the consumer service on the health front,” says Goldman. For instance, farm-raised tilapia, once touted as the chicken of the sea, has since been found to be somewhat nutritionally lacking with low amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Goldman says that he gets much higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in his Barramundi while still feeding them vegetable-based ingredients, such as soy, canola, wheat, and corn.

Goldman is not the only one interested in a healthier, more sustainable fish. Around the same time that he started breeding Barramundi, chefs and retailers began to reject many species of fish such as grouper and Chilean sea bass and sought more sustainably sourced seafood. Dr. Oz recommends the Barramundi fish as one of his top-five superfoods, citing low mercury content and toxin levels. Goldman says that the American market has started to catch on to what he calls, “The Better Fish®,” the name under which Australis markets its sustainable seafood products. Currently, Australis Barramundi is available in over 4000 retail stores, supermarkets, and restaurants. Still, Goldman admits that convincing consumers to adopt a new fish takes time. Promotional boosts from Dr. Oz, Bon Appétit, Women’s Health and Lance Armstrong have helped to promote a buzz about the fish, but he adds that offering samples is consistently the best way to hook new customers. “If you can put it in peoples mouths, that has the highest probability of developing new consumers,” he says.

About the Farms

Australis’s indoor fish farm in Turner Falls, Massachusetts contains 2-acres of aquariums under one roof and cycles 60 million gallons of water every day. Biological filters cleanse the water before it recirculates through the system again. Typically, each count of water is used 300 times. Fish manure is separated and donated to local farmers to fertilize their fields. At a certain point, Goldman realized that the operating costs of maintaining his indoor facility in New England prevented him from being able to offer the fish at a price point that could compete with other farm-raised fish on the market. He began to look for another location halfway around the world.

“In general, the sustainability community says we should be producing our food locally. That’s a great answer for a lot of things but clearly not for fish,” Goldman says. Unlike livestock, fish are cold-blooded animals with strict temperature requirements. For some fish, temperature needs change during the course of their life cycles. The migration path of the striped bass, for instance, spans the entire east coast from Florida to Canada. “Where do you put the fish farm?” he asks. His Barramundi fish are accustomed to warm waters. In New England, breeding the fish locally means raising them indoors, which in turn requires a significant energy investment. While the Atlantic has warmer waters, the Barramundi fish are not native to that region, and should any ever escape, they would become an invasive species, potentially threatening the native inhabitants.

In Vietnam, Goldman found native waters, a local university with experience breeding Barramundi, and an abundance of underutilized processing facilities. University personnel breed the fish on land in containers and nurse them through their early life stages. Fish farmers move adult fish offshore into large submerged cages connected together in mooring grids. Once the fish reach an ideal size, fish farmers haul them onshore for processing, freeze them within 4-24 hours, and ship them to the United States.

Goldman says that he and his team designed the cages and farming schedules specifically to minimize the impact on the environment. Within each cage, the number of individuals remains low to allow the fish ample room to swim around and allow ample area to prevent the accumulation of fish effluent. After each cycle, farmers relocate the entire mooring grid and leave the area fallow for two cycles to restore ecological balance naturally.

While Goldman no longer sees room for growth at the Turner Falls facility, he hopes to continue to expand production in Vietnam while looking to develop additional markets around the world. He expects that will involve additional outreach. Many chefs are reluctant to purchase frozen fish, even though more and more consumers already purchase frozen seafood regularly. Only time will tell how readily the global market will accept a new fish.

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