Barramundi Fulfills Elusive Promise of Sustainable Seafood

Barramundi Fulfills Elusive Promise of Sustainable Seafood

Image CC licensed by Flickr user avlxyz

Josh Goldman has been growing fish for nearly 30 years. He began as a student at Hampshire College, a hippie school in western Massachusetts (that also spawned entrepreneur Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farms). He started a company than farmed tilapia, and then another that farmed striped bass. Now, he's the founder and chief executive of Australis, the world's largest producer of barramundi.

Never heard of barramundi? You're not alone.

This is what makes Australis such an interesting company. Josh decided to grow barramundi, not because it is a popular or well-known fish, but because the fish, which is native to Australia and southeast Asia, is an environmentally-preferable alternative to most farmed fish. It doesn't need to eat a lot of other seafood to grow, it doesn't make a lot of waste, it doesn't require a lot of antibiotics and oh, almost forgot ... it tastes O.K., too.Josh Goldman

"It has a flavor profile that meets the broad preference of the middle of the market," says Josh (pictured right). "In other words, it's a great fish because it doesn't taste like fish. And it's got a great health story, too."

I met Josh last week at Fortune's Brainstorm Green conference where I led a panel on sustainable seafood. (Yesterday's blog covered Bumble Bee.) I'd read about him in Four Fish, a superb book on fishing by Paul Greenberg that was published last year. (See my blogpost The Industrialization of Fishing.) As Greenberg writes, "choosing which fish will be our domesticated 'seafood' will have huge ramifications for our species and for the planet." Unhappily, we often choose wrong. Salmon, for example, has become one of the most widely-farmed fish because the demand for  wild salmon exceeds the ocean's supply. The trouble is, farmed salmon need to be fed lots of  wild fish (roughly 3.5 pounds for every pound produced on the farm), the farmed salmon can escape and crossbreed with wild stocks and industrial-scale salmon farms generate lots of waste.

By contrast, Josh told me that he looked at environmental impacts of aquaculture and figured that demand could take care of itself. "Our approach was grounded in an analysis of the factors that would be important in the future, principally waste," he said.

After profiling about 40 species of fish, he chose to farm barramundi, a prized sport fish that is sometimes called Asian sea bass, because it's hardy, fast-growing and rich in Omega-3 fatty acids that are said to promote heart health. Barramundi only need about 0.8 pounds of wild fish feed to grow to one pound of fish, and their diet is supplemented with soy, wheat and canola.   Australis began farming them in 2004 in a factory in Turners Falls, Mass., not far from Hampshire, using a closed system that all but eliminates the risks of disease, pollution or escapes. "It's a big intensive care unit," said Josh.

Barramundi in a tank

Generating demand took some time. They began with chefs in white tablecloth restaurants who are concerned about sustainability. (By coincidence,  two prominent chefs who served barramundi, Rich Moonen and Michel Nischan, were among the chefs who came last week to Brainstorm Green.) The high-end spa Canyon Ranch put barramundi on the menu. So did Chinese restaurants in New York and Boston, which bought live fish from Australis.

Magazines ranging from Pregnancy to Runner's World wrote about barramundi. The fish got a nice boost when Dr. Mehmet Oz, who hosts a syndicated TV show, named barramundi as one of 5 Superfoods To Eat Now. Nicole Kidman told Food & Wine that barramundi is one of her favorite cook-at-home foods.

Today, barramundi is sold in about 3,000 supermarkets, including Safeway, Stop & Shop, Giant and Whole Foods, mostly in the form of frozen fillets that cost about $10 to $12 per pound. The company is now talking to mainstream restaurants including Red Lobster about putting barramundi on the menu, branding it as "the sustainable seabass." "These restaurants really have the ability to educate the mass market," Josh said.

The appetite for barramundi is such that Australis now owns and operates a farm in Vietnam and buys fish from Indonesia, which produce far more fish (about 10 million pounds, annually) than Turner's Falls. Here's a video of the Vietnam facility. In fact, there's now more demand for barramundi than the company can satisfy. "We anticipate being demand-constrained for a long time," said Josh.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user avlxyz.