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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Aquaponics Startup Serves Up Rainbow Trout with Side of Veggies

July 13, 2016 |

Redemption Fish Company in Salem, MA is a budding aquaponics business raising fish and produce to stem the tide of collapsing fisheries in New England. Photo courtesy of Andy Davenport.

A view of one of Redemption Fish Company’s young aquaponics tanks. The Salem, MA based company is a budding aquaponics business raising fish and produce to stem the tide of collapsing fisheries in New England. Photo courtesy of Andy Davenport.

Selling seafood in New England has never been a problem. But with local fish populations collapsing, and the appetite for seafood remaining the same, providing fish to sell is becoming more dire than most people may realize.

“Living in New England, we are assailed with seafood left and right—it is a humongous part of the culture up here—and a delicious one at that,”  Redemption Fish Company co-founder Andy Davenport says. “With the constant pressure on the oceans and recent restrictions on fishing, such as the Cod populations in the Gulf of Maine, we figured we would help lighten the load and provide people a local option to [help] the hurting oceans and the current farmed fish option that’s from hundreds of miles away.”

To be clear, Davenport and his business partner Colin Davis aren’t your typical New England fisherman. They met as roommates in Cambridge, Massachusetts while Davenport was working in the biotech industry and Davis ran a farm-to-table grocery business. With their backgrounds, it may make sense that aquaponics was a natural outgrowth of their friendship. The duo started out with a hobby fish hatchery in their basement that ballooned to a young colony of 10,000 trout. But before they hauled in a big catch, they hauled in a notice from their landlord. This was perhaps a blessing in disguise because it forced Davenport and Davis to find a warehouse in nearby Salem to house their growing business, although that step up didn’t necessarily help the Redemption crew get out of the underground.

“Many people walk up to our facility and have no idea what to expect,” Davenport says.“You walk into a dark basement that shows several decades of clutter and accumulation before reaching our operational space, which is lush and alive—it’s quite the dichotomy. By taking aquaponics to a place like this, we show the rehab potential that exists with this technology. [It can make] a long forgotten warehouse into an integral part of the food network.”

Redemption Fish Company is making the most of not only their location and market conditions, but also their aquaponic system. The company raises rainbow trout — a prized fish in New England because of its scarce availability and highly coveted flavor — as well as tilapia, hybrid­ striped bass, and landlocked Atlantic salmon. With the aid of the effluent from the fish, the operation grows basil, lettuce, kale, ghost chili pepper plants, tomatoes, and wasabi.

“Fish alone would have been a great business in our current environment, [but] the fact we can grow valuable produce, cut costs, and save environmental impact through aquaponics—despite the fact it’s extra work—makes the whole concept worth it to us,” Davenport says. “The idea that fish make an environment worse for themselves through their actions, but make it better for plants… shows the beauty of nature and the opportunities that exist in harnessing that power and system.”

Not all of Redemption’s products have made it to market yet. In fact, many of them are still in the research and development phase. But the company’s trout, sold at a few local farmers’ markets, has helped them keep their heads above water in the company’s early phases and establish a brand built on quality.

“The markets themselves cover our costs, but barely, so,” Davenport says. “We’re not quite profitable, but as a proof of concept, it is very encouraging to see the outpouring of support for local agriculture from our communities. The benefit of growing our product in the neighborhood is that we have the freshest fish and produce at the markets. You don’t need to be a local food junkie to enjoy the benefits of locally produced food. This is exactly how we like it—and while local and sustainable are the pillars of our company, we also want to meet people on their level and have high­-quality, new, exciting options.”

To keep up the momentum but also achieve profitability, Davenport says Redemption is embarking on a fundraising campaign to capitalize the company beyond family resources and the contributions of a few enthusiastic supporters. Redemption needs the money specifically to build out a facility that can support the ambitions of the company. With a fully developed facility, Davenport says Redemption could produce 200,000 pounds of fish and about one million pounds of produce per year.

But first, they have to convince local Greater Boston funders that large-scale aquaponics is a better investment than the quicker returns to be found in tech startups and other opportunities.

“People are excited by the prospect, but the entrepreneurial climate doesn’t favor an asset based business these days—[there’s] more interest around investment in technology and solutions driven companies,” Davenport says. “We have found several strong partners. However, the long game aspect of aquaponics requires the right kind of visionary and the buildout to [become a] stable and strong company can be a longer payout than a tech venture.”

If Davenport and his team succeed, Boston-area eaters can expect an even larger stream of fresh seafood that helps them support local New England fish and make progressive food choices, on the strength of a non-conventional source. And keeping fresh fish on tables across New England may depend on it.

“We became interested in aquaponics [because it seemed like] a really cool way to create an as close to a zero­-waste production cycle as possible,” Davenport explains. “By bringing food production closer to people, we hope to start conversations that lead to the best possible decisions.”

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