Fish For The Future: The Barramundi Swims To The Rescue
By Paul GreenbergOctober 9, 2012
With its tiny head and broad, meat-yielding flanks, the Australian barramundi sure ain’t pretty, but, to some at least, it represents earth’s best chance for sustainable aquaculture.
Inside a warehouse in the New England village of Turners Falls, Massachusetts an Australian barramundi cruises. The artificial lighting reflects off the fish’s strange eyes, giving them a yellowish, opaque cast — the aspect of a blind creature. I toss a feed pellet into the water but instead of rushing to gobble its meal the fish sidles up like a crocodile to the floating morsel of fat and protein. Patiently it flutters its fins, considering its options. Then all at once, “Boof!” its elongated jaws snap above the water and inhale the pellet. The energy exerted in this “hunt” is minimal, and such is the nature of this breed of fish that it quickly returns to its docile state just beneath the surface of its ersatz pond, where it waits, calmly, until its next meal.
Ask the average consumer to describe “sustainable seafood” and she will probably not conjure up the image of a prehistoric-looking barramundi floating in a New England warehouse. More likely she will imagine a small-scale fisherman aboard a tiny boat, pulling in his catch with a single hook and line. But while the artisanal fisherman is an attractive idea, it is the barramundi in its tank that may inevitably be the solution if we are to accrue enough fish to feed the world. For there is an inescapable equation that must be considered whenever you sit down to dine on a piece of wild fish flesh: no matter how sustainably that fish was caught, the human population is expanding; wild fish populations are at best only holding their own. If humans ate only wild-caught fish, there simply would not be enough to go around.
Currently we haul about 90 billion kilograms of fish and shellfish from the oceans every year, roughly the equivalent of the weight of the human population of China. After half a century of consistent increase the wild catch has topped out and shows little hope of increasing. With the world heading toward a population of 9 billion people, we would need nearly 110 billion kilograms of wild seafood annually to meet the USDA-recommended weekly allowance of fish — a potential ecological train wreck.
Which leaves us with fish farming or “aquaculture”, the fastest growing form of food production on earth. Fifty years ago, most of what we ate from the sea was wild. Today nearly half of it is farmed.
Indeed, fish farming is poised to be the 21st century’s most stealthy food makeover. Salmon, turbot, branzino, dorade, Gulf redfish, shrimp, tilapia, clams, striped bass, yellowtail, mussels, rainbow trout, Arctic char, oysters, catfish, carp, and yes, barramundi, all come to us today primarily as farmed products. Add to that a surge in research-and-development projects into the domestication of species that include even the thousand-pound Atlantic bluefin tuna, and you have the gradual emergence of a whole parallel ocean.
But here's the rub: aquaculture has not necessarily fixed the fish-shortage/ human-nutrition problem — in some cases it may even have exacerbated it. In the early days of salmon farming it could take as much as six kilograms of small wild fish, ground up as feed, to produce a single kilo of farmed salmon. Even with marked improvements in feed efficiency we still remove more than 20 billion kilos of little fish from the ocean every year just to feed the big fish on our farms. And while there are some farmed fish that don’t require wild fish as feed (tilapia and catfish, for example), those vegetarian/plant-eating species do not have the nutritional aspects health-conscious eaters seek when choosing fish over fowl or beef. Fish acquire omega-3s by eating other fish and fish that eat plants simply don't deliver the nutrients fish-eaters want.
And so all told, aquaculture raises questions. Done right, it could help feed the world. Done wrong, it could potentially destroy self-perpetuating wild systems.
Which is where the barramundi comes in. If its cultivators are to be believed, the barramundi may be a farmed fish that provides consumers with a full profile of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, while having very few negative impacts upon the wild ocean.
The barramundi is not only a weird looking fish, but it also has other distinguishing, and ultimately useful characteristics.
JOSH GOLDMAN, THE CEO of Australis Aquaculture and the proprietor of all those fish and tanks in Turners Falls, is the public face of barramundi in America. A modest, affable man who has a fondness for big-picture ecological modelling, Goldman settled in his former college haunt of Massachusetts's Pioneer Valley with the intention of trying to figure out how to make fish farming work for the planet.
“I remember I was in a used-book store back in the early 1990s, and I came across a book by the legendary British fisheries genetic scientist Colin Purdom,” Goldman told me one crisp autumn day. “Purdom made this argument. He said before you start domesticating something, you need to understand what nature has been up to. I realised we were spending all this effort trying to solve some really difficult problems of domestication on many familiar species. But with all these fish we never asked fundamental questions about the species’ habits. What does it eat? What are its behaviours?”
It was these questions that led Goldman on an international quest to find a fish that worked in a farmed environment. After trying out more than 50 different species, Goldman lit upon the barramundi, which is native to the warm waters of Australia’s north.
Barramundi have many natural qualities that are in sync with aquaculture. Besides having a body that works well for domestication — with tiny heads and broad, meat-yielding flanks — these fish are catadromous. This means that unlike, say, salmon, which spawn in fresh water and migrate to the ocean, barramundi do the opposite. In the process they often get stuck in billabongs, areas of rivers that get cut off during the Australian dry seasons. And what’s a billabong if not, more or less, a big aquaculture tank? This stagnant environment has, over aeons, caused barramundi to evolve docile behavioural characteristics. While other open ocean species, such as mahi mahi, struggle and sometimes thrash themselves to death when confined, barramundi are calm. They’re also unperturbed by crowding, so they can be farmed cost-effectively in out-of-ocean tanks. In addition, barramundi have adapted oversized gills, which make them resistant to fluctuations in oxygen — this can come in handy in a tank environment should a power failure knock out aerators.
Perhaps the most important qualities of barramundi are their adaptability to to vegetarian feed in an aquaculture environment, and their ability to thrive on small amounts of wild fish meal. Even though their feed pellets are composed mostly of vegetable matter, they do something unusual for fish-kind: they can partially “elongate” the fatty-acid chains inherent in vegetable matter and convert them into omega-3s.
Again, it is the barramundi’s natural life cycle that makes this feat possible. Because barramundi live in fresh water and spawn in salt, they must quickly acquire, or synthesise from vegetable matter, enough omega-3s to pass on to their eggs when they migrate to the sea to spawn. This ability means that, in a farming situation, barramundi can be given vegetarian feed for most of their lives and then be ‘finished’ on a fish diet right at the end of their lifecycle. The result: a mild-tasting, white-fleshed fish that delivers the American National Institute of Health’s recommended daily .6 milligrams of EPA and DHA fatty acids in a 142 gram serving, while requiring significantly less wild fish meal and oil than many other farmed fish.
True, Australis-farmed barramundi do not have as high concentrations of the stroke and heart attack-preventing EPA and DHA fatty acids as, say, farmed salmon, but that is precisely because Goldman has consciously chosen to feed his fish in a more ecologically sound manner, using less wild fish oil and fish meal. As Frederick T. Barrows, a fish nutritionist at the US Department of Agriculture notes, “[a fish's] fatty acid profile is dependent on what they are fed. If they are fed a diet high in herring oil it would be a very 'heart healthy' product, but if they were fed a diet very high in corn oil . . . then not so much”. Goldman’s goal is to steer a middle course through this dilemma to achieve a product that is heart healthy enough to be good for us, but sustainable enough to be good for the planet.
There is of course a marketing angle in this. The United States’ prestigious Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program awards aquaculture products a much coveted “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” rating based on how they perform on five criteria, one of which is the pounds of wild fish required to produce a pound of finished product. This is often called the Fish In Fish Out ratio, or FIFO. By carefully looking at feed ingredients and paying particular attention to the amount of wild fish in his feed, Goldman is able to far exceed the Monterey Bay standard with a FIFO of about .9 kilos of wild fish inputs per kilo of barramundi output.
OVER AND ABOVE what the barramundi eats is a more essential question: how does the barramundi taste? The most sustainable fish in the world won't do much for the world if nobody in the world wants to eat it.
To get a bead on its eating qualities, I asked chefs where the fish falls in the culinary spectrum. By and large, what I found is that US chefs who know the Australis story tend to evaluate barramundi in the context of the fish’s ecological benefits. “If handled correctly it can be a very delicious seafood choice and I enjoy pairing the taste and texture of the fillet with earthy flavours — mushrooms and root vegetables,” the American sustainable seafood guru and celebrity chef Rick Moonen told The Global Mail. “I support this fish mostly because it is farmed in a closed-containment system and I believe that this should become the norm as a model for future sustainable aquaculture.”
In Australia, chefs tend to favour the taste of wild barramundi over farmed, and even the country’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry notes that the farmed version may have a “muddy taint”.
And even though Australis seems to have overcome their muddy taint problem, other issues have arisen.
While Goldman acknowledges that American sales of barramundi are still modest by comparison with other established species, his fish are currently sold by approximately 4,000 retailers and club stores. As barramundi has grown more popular, spreading from a small coterie of sustainable seafood restaurants like Moonen’s, to the point where it can now be found at US chain stores such as Wegman’s and Stop & Shop (and, coming this summer, Costco Australia), Australis has had to reevaluate its production model and move away from the closed-containment system upon which it built its reputation. In fact, the vast majority of Australis barramundi that consumers are likely to encounter today is not farmed in closed-containment systems at all, but rather in open-net cages in a saltwater bay in Vietnam — a practice that is generally discouraged by the ratings of organisations such as Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.
How and why this came about has to do with both taste and economics.
Barramundi raised in Australis’s freshwater containment system were at times affected by something that is known in the seafood industry as ‘off flavour’ — a muddy quality that arises when algae blooms in the fish-farm environment and emits a harmless compound called geosmin. Human taste can detect geosmin at concentrations as weak as two parts-per-trillion. Fish raised in saltwater don't have a geosmin problem, but processors of freshwater fish such as catfish must employ teams of “tasters”, who sample a few fish in every shipment, in advance of processing. If the tasters detect off-flavour, the rest of the fish are sent back to their ponds, to wait until the algae bloom passes.
In an artificial tank environment, waiting for the bloom to pass isn't really an option. If the water goes bad, it has to be made good again, and that’s expensive. Moreover, barramundi raised in saltwater simply taste better. “The meat is denser,” Goldman says, “and noticeably different than when raised in fresh.”
Goldman was eventually able to conquer the off-flavour problems at his freshwater containment facility at Turners Falls. But it was economics that led him to move to open-water net cages for barramundi: “in order for barramundi to become the ‘next big fish’,” Goldman told The Global Mail, “we needed to get those larger, five- to seven-ounce [140 to 200 grams] boneless fillets into supermarkets. And we found when we ran the numbers we just couldn't grow the bigger fish we needed in containment and still hit our price point of about USD8.99 a pound [450 grams] in retail.”
After an extensive search for a site in which to try net-cage farming, Goldman found Van Phong Bay in Southern Vietnam, the place where Jacques Cousteau is said to have first fallen in love with the sea. Goldman specifically chose this bay because no rivers enter the ocean here — an element that can introduce industrial runoff from enterprises further inland. Goldman also felt that introducing “good” net-cage culture into a country that had been cited for poor environmental performance was something that would ultimately help aquaculture. “I became convinced that we could implement a better model,” Goldman says. “We could address the environmental concerns of net-cage farming by establishing a series of performance benchmarks.”
Those benchmarks include not using copper or other anti-foulants to clean nets, but instead carrying out regular “fallowing of net cages”, to limit waste accumulation on the sea floor; and not using antibiotics to keep diseases at bay, but rather following the disease-minimising practice of keeping stock densities low — about a third of what is normally used in salmon farms. Australis has also built a re-circulating aquaculture facility, similar to the one it runs at Turners Falls, right near the bay’s shore, which allows it to raise fish on land for a relatively long period of time and then transfer them to net cages at a larger size than most aquaculture operations. This practice obviates the need to transfer fish from one net to another at sea — which can result in substantial fish escapes. In the world of sustainable aquaculture, limiting escapes into the wild environment is a key benchmark for keeping a farm’s footprint as small as possible.
What then is the result of all this effort? Have Goldman and his colleagues at Australis, after all their searching and testing and benchmarks, at last delivered a fish to consumers that tastes great and is also good for the environment?
I would say yes, mostly, with an asterisked aside on both fronts.
On the environmental front, Monterey Bay Aquarium is still assessing Australis’s Vietnam operation; in fact, the Aquarium (and most sustainable seafood ratings organisations) tend toward country-wide ratings and not individual producer ratings. But the fact that the fish are being grown in net cages does not necessarily knock them out of the box. “We have five different criteria we apply to every fish,” the aquaculture research manager of Monterey Bay's Seafood Watch, Peter Bridson, told The Global Mail, noting that the percentage of wild feed in a fish’s diet, escapes and pollution into the surrounding environment are all weighed in the equation. “Whether the fish is grown in a cage or whether it's a pond in Australia we apply that same five criteria. There are no automatic no’s.”
Given Goldman’s sincere attempts to meet the Monterey Bay criteria it is seeming increasingly possible his Vietnam operation could earn a green “best choice” stamp from that most influential of US seafood ratings systems.
While a rating from Monterey is pending, Australis is innovating. “We started an integrated seaweed farming initiative which uses our cage mooring grids to culture seaweed between production cycles (when the grids are fallowed),” Goldman wrote in an email in October.
“The culture method [uses] submerged tube nets (similar to the type used for mussel farming) rather than traditional rope culture. The idea is to have the gear stand up to the rigors of an offshore farming environment (opening new areas for farming), while also allowing multiple harvests from each planting, thus reducing labor costs. We have started with a local variety of [red algae] Kappaphycus, which has a worldwide market for use in carrageenin production [for food thickening]. Over time, we hope to culture seaweed varieties which will add fats and/or other functional benefits to our fish feed.”
At the same time, barramundi production has increased to the point where it has become a world commodity, with many producers, particularly in Southeast Asia, filling the market with product that is grown without much environmental safeguarding at all. And at the fish shop counter it's not always easy to tell a good barramundi from a bad one — fish tend to be labelled by species name, not by the name of the farm that grew them. No single fish species or fish farmer can save the day. It’s a combination of the right species and the scaling up of the right farm practices at a multitude of farms that will make a difference.
On the taste front, the asterisk has to do more with what we are looking for in a fish than what the fish actually delivers. Whereas wild-fish devotees relish the strong salmony taste of an Alaskan sockeye, or the gamey blast of a grilled mackerel, most Western diners are not in love with fishiness. Everett Poole, a grizzled Yankee fishmonger on the American resort island of Martha’s Vineyard, said to me a few years back: “Your typical American today wants a fish that’s white flesh, no bones, and preferably no taste and no skin. And they cover it with tomato sauce and they're very happy.” By such criteria, the barramundi will make most Americans happy.
This was borne out when I decided to put the barramundi head-to-head on the barbecue with several similarly fleshed species of fish, to see how it stacked up. At my obliging friends’ country house 30 km outside New York City, I grilled a barramundi, a farmed Greek branzino, a farmed American striped bass and a wild black sea bass, each around 400 grams. Of all the fish, the barramundi held up best on the barbie, its elastic skin crisping up nicely and remaining intact when I flipped it over. As for the flesh itself, my tasters scored the barra a respectable second; it was surpassed only by the farmed Greek branzino. Now, factor in the barramundi’s sustainable qualities and you could give it a one-stroke handicap that would see it pull almost even with the Greek fish.
As we were clearing up after dinner and picking at the remains of the different fish on our plates, I recalled Goldman's summing up of our future fish requirements. He’d said, “The United Nations projects that fish farms will need to double their output to keep pace with demand over the next 10 years. There is a pressing need to make far better use of limited natural ingredients so that we don't continue to drain the world's oceans. That is aquaculture's promise and its central challenge.”
In the future we have to factor in a fish’s sustainable qualities when we consider what tastes good. We simply don't have a choice.
Paul Greenberg is the bestselling author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, and the winner of the 2011 James Beard Award for Writing and Literature.