Baramundi – Truly a Better Fish?

“Farmed fish done well is a great solution to ‘what’s for dinner?’, food security and health.”

-Josh Goldman Co-founder/CEO Australis Aquaculture

The Australis Booth at Seafood Expo North America

The Australis Booth at Seafood Expo North America

Those of you who have been following my coverage of Seafood Expo North America (SENA15) know that I’m taking a long hard look at aquaculture this year, and while barramundi is certainly not a “new” species to me, I really had no idea the potential it holds insofar as aquaculture is concerned. What’s the big deal with barramundi, you ask? Josh Goldman, co-founder (2004) and CEO of Massachusetts-based Australis Aquaculture, says that with barramundi, “you’re combining the best of the marine world in terms of flavor and flesh quality and reproduction with the hardiness and flexible use of different grain-based feeds that comes from living in freshwater.”

Super fish? Perhaps, although Australis has come to call it simply “The Better Fish.”

Goldman presented in a SENA15 panel discussion titled “2 Billion People are Coming to Dinner, Let’s Feed them Fish!” As he explained, after having been involved in the development of the tilapia aquaculture model, he was thinking long and hard about what species are really going to make sense to farm in the future. “Aquaculture,” says Goldman, “is the most important part of global food security going forward,” and he wanted a fish that has attributes that could address the constraints and realize the true potential of aquaculture. 

A four-year journey ensued during which Goldman profiled 30 potential species. He focused primarily on each species’ habitat and life cycle, looking for the species that would thrive in the aquaculture environment. In addition to the fish’s suitability for aquaculture, Goldman was equally concerned about identifying species that provide real health (especially heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids) and sustainability benefits. At the end of his global search, he brought four species back to Massachusetts and grew them in the company’s revolutionary closed containment farm. Ultimately he decided on one–barramundi–and introduced it to the market in 2005.

The following year, in 2006, Australis’ Massachusetts farm received a Seafood Watch Best Choice ranking, helping catapult barramundi to as close as the aquaculture world has had to an overnight success.

Meet the Barramundi

Barramundi on ice at the Australis Aquaculture booth at Seafood Expo North America

Barramundi on ice at the Australis Aquaculture booth at Seafood Expo North America

The barramundi (Lates calcarifer), according to Goldman, has great potential for aquaculture. Native to the Indo-West Pacific, barramundi can be found from the eastern edge of the Persian Gulf to China, Taiwan and southern Japan and then south to southern Papua New Guinea and northern Australia. It is a catadromous species, meaning it migrates from fresh water to estuaries and the ocean to spawn (the opposite of anadromous species like salmon). Barramundi are fast growing fish that can reach a theoretical maximum length of 200 cm, although most adults do not exceed 150 cm. 

Barramundi is a highly fecund species, with a single female capable of producing as much as 2.3 million eggs per kilogram of body weight. Males migrate downstream at the start of the monsoon season and spawn with resident females in marine environments. The spawn is tied to the lunar cycle, with barramundi spawning on the full moon and new moon. As protandrous hermaphrodites, most barramundi first reach sexual maturity as a male and then, several years later, transition to female.

Barramundi are opportunistic feeders, consuming everything from insects and algae to shrimp, frogs and other bony fish. The species has adapted so it can eat very low on the food chain, and barramundi have the ability to build omega-3s without necessarily having to consume them. While there are many advantages to barramundi from an aquaculture standpoint, their ability to convert feed to Omega-3-rich flesh efficiently is one of the most important.

Because the young adults often occupy river systems subject to monsoonal patterns that leave the rivers relatively stagnant during some parts of the year, Goldman says, baramundi have developed a hardiness factor that makes them ideal aquaculture candidates. 

In addition to the common market name barramundi, there are at least 12 other market names used around the world and close to 100 common names. The other most common name for barramundi in the US is Asian seabass, although one may see it sold as Akame in sushi restaurants. The word barramundi is commonly said to be derived from Australian Aboriginal language, where it is translated as “large-scaled river fish.” At least one source says barramundi more likely originally referred to Ceratodus forsteri (lungfish) and not L. calcarifer.

Australis Aquaculture has coined barramundi “the sustainable seabass.”

In addition to being a food fish, barramundi is a popular sportfish and a relatively common aquarium fish despite its size and tankbuster potential.

Location, Location, Location

While largely unfamiliar to Americans until quite recently, barramundi is an iconic seafood species in Australia–in Brisbane it was once described to me as “the Australian cod.” When Goldman identified barramundi as the species with which he wanted to work, that work began at Australis Aquaculture’s closed containment facility in Massachusetts, but then moved to Vietnam in 2007, where an ideal location was identified to ramp up production.

Australis is farming in an offshore ocean environment in Central Vietnam in a bay that Goldman says is pretty ideal. “The bay is about 100,000 acres,” he says, “It’s open to the South China Sea and is actually the closest point to the Continental Shelf so it’s a very well-flushed, essentially constant temperature environment, and it’s one of the few bays in Vietnam that has no river going into it, which is quite important from a water quality-pollution standpoint and stability.”

The fish begin their lives in land-based, recirculating nurseries, before being moved roughly eight kilometers offshore to modern sea cages. This hybrid approach to farming mitigates many of the risks associated with other aquaculture initiatives. In order to deal with the challenges of warm-water tropical marine environments that can make farming in sea cages more challenging, Australis uses an open-grid configuration for their cages and keeps the cages spread them farther apart. In addition, they maintain relatively low stocking densities (averaging just 15 pounds of fish per ton of water).

Today Australis is the world’s largest producer of barramundi and offers a full line of fresh, frozen and value added (e.g., Tuscan Herb Encrusted Barramundi)  barramundi products to the retail and foodservice markets in the United States.

The Future of Fish Farming

Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program identifies Australis' farmed barramundi from Vietnam as a Best Choice."

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program identifies Australis’ farmed barramundi from Vietnam as a Best Choice.”

While the story of how Australis created a successful business built around a fish virtually unknown to Americans a decade ago, the reason I’m most interested in Australis is because of what its efforts may show us about the future of aquaculture. As I said in a post earlier this week, I live in a state where it’s not infrequent to see the bumper sticker “Friends don’t let friends eat farmed salmon.” Public perception is still often biased against farmed fish, but that perception is largely based on old information. Are there still very real problems with aquaculture in some parts of the world? Absolutely, but well-managed aquaculture has come a long way, and those companies like Australis Aquaculture,  Kampachi Farms and Verlasso Harmoniously Raised Fish, amongst others, are laying the foundation for an industry that will be essential to global food security, health and environmental sustainability.

But don’t just take my word for it. In June of 2014, recognizing the innovation and commitment to sustainably farming fish that is at the heart of Australis, the company’s Vietnam farm received a Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program “Best Choice” rating for sustainability.

“I believe this is the only green-rated marine cage in the world today,” says Goldman. “A lot of work went into demonstrating that indeed a marine cage farm can operate at the highest standard of sustainability. We see that as really missionary work to get out there and again show what is possible and what can be done–to shift the thinking.”

Other sustainability leaders have also taken note, including Barton Seaver, Chef and Director of Healthy and Sustainable Food Program at The Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard. “To see a business like Australis take the lead in innovating new and sustainable ways to farm a species like barramundi is both exciting and encouraging,” Seaver, who is also a Fellow at the New England Aquarium, says.

In addition to providing a roadmap to the future of aquaculture, there is another aspect to Australis’ work with barramundi that can play a more timely role in ocean conservation. Goldman describes baramundi as a very mild white fish that fits the flavor profile of grouper or snapper. Others have likened it to Chilean sea bass. These are all species that are commonly red-listed from a wild-capture standpoint. “We view [baramundi] as a sustainable replacement for this flesh category,” says Goldman, “which tends to be under-represented in aquaculture today.”

Finally, some have wondered if the popularity of barramundi aquaculture can positively affect the situation in East Africa with the closely related nile perch Lates niloticus. The story of the Nile perch fishery in Lake Victoria (told in the 2004 documentary Darwin’s Nightmare) is the antithesis of sustainability. Could the successes of barramundi aquaculture be applied to the environmental and socio-economic catastrophe of the Nile perch fishery?

All Barramundi is not Created Equal

The dashed line represents barramundi landings in tonnes in Indonesia compared to  total global landings (solid line) [Source: Sabeni, Calderini 2012]

The dashed line represents barramundi landings in tonnes in Indonesia compared to total global landings (solid line) [Source: Sabeni, Calderini 2012]

While farmed barramundi produced by Australis is considered a good sustainable choice, not all barramundi is. Most wild-caught barramundi comes from Indonesia in a fishery with relatively poor data and questionable fishery sustainability. As a result, wild-caught barramundi from Indonesia is ranked by Seafood Watch as “Avoid” for gillnet, hook and line, and pelagic longline fishing methods. Very little if any wild-caught barramundi is currently imported into the US, but you may well see it on the menu during your next vacation to Thailand or Australia. Barramundi is one species where requesting farmed over wild is usually the more sustainable choice.

While Australis is the largest producer of farmed barramundi, there are other barramundi farms in the world. Without global standards for aquaculture, not all farms are well-managed. New England Aquarium gives the following advice:

Barramundi are farmed in Asia and Australia with a variety of different production systems including ponds, tanks and open net pens or cages. In the U.S. barramundi is mainly farmed in closed, recirculating systems that reduce the risk of fish escapes, disease transfer and pollution. Barramundi are well suited for these systems due to a fast growth rate and tolerance of high stocking densities. Therefore, choosing U.S. farmed barramundi ensures making an environmentally responsible seafood choice. There are, of course, individual farms in other countries that also have high environmental standards, look for those products that highlight their environmentally responsible actions.

Vision & The Future

Australis’ history over the past decade has been defined by innovation, and there is no reason to think that innovation will be less a part of the next 10 years. So what’s next for Australis? I’ll close with what Goldman had to say on that point at SENA15.

Our vision going forward is that the next iteration of aquaculture really needs to build on the foundation of efficient resource use to deliver high levels of omega-3s–we can’t just trade-out those critical, essential fatty acids and feed fish herbivorous diets. We really have to innovate and have fish continue to play that critical role in human nutrition. Ultimately we have to take on the bigger challenge of not just efficiency but carbon sequestration. This really fundamentally means starting to use the oceans as a form of primary productively and recirculating those nutrients going back to the ancient origins of aquaculture–that polyculture methodology–to begin to integrate seaweed production as a means to grow protein or lipids that are recycled back into the fish. I think in a fabulous way the future really builds on the foundation laid in the past to realize the vision of sustainable aquaculture.

I look forward to covering innovations by Australis and other leaders in aquaculture, so if this is a topic about which you are interested, please consider subscribing to The Good Catch Blog and/or following the Blog on Facebook or Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
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