Dining

Food: Fish Empire

Josh Goldman and Australis Aquaculture bring reinvent fish farming in Turners Falls

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Thursday, May 03, 2012
Photos courtesy of Australis Aquaculture
CEO Josh Goldman

I stand before a giant vat of water; warm, moist air steams up my camera lens and softens my notepad. There is a slightly fishy scent—perhaps from the 35,000 fish that swim deep in the tank in front of me, barely visible on the surface. Just as I am trying to fathom this enormous number, Josh Goldman finishes his sentence: there are 35,000 fish in each tank. I look around me. There are a lot of tanks.

The fish are called barramundi, and are a member of the seabass family. I am standing inside the fish farm at Australis Aquaculture, in the Turners Falls industrial park. Goldman, a wiry, bespectacled Hampshire graduate in his early 50s is the founder and CEO. This towering, windowless building is the largest source of barramundi in the world: in one week, it ships out 20,000 pounds of live fish across the United States.

On my recent tour of the facility, Goldman bounds ahead of me, past the sleek couches and marketing materials in the small lobby and through the back door to the 90,000 square foot property. In a few strides, we're immersed in the loud humming of a close-containment fish farm: the most eco-friendly, sustainable method for raising fish.

Goldman steps nimbly over pipes and puddles. Wearing a wool vest over his dress shirt, he sloshes through puddles of disinfectant at the junction of each room, and I scurry to keep up. As he turns his head to throw comments back at me, both his passion for and obsession with this industry are clear. The company won the Seafood Champion award from the Seafood Choices Alliance in 2009, and was featured in Time magazine's July 2011 story, "The Future of Fish." He seems to be the Steve Jobs of sustainable fish farming.

He started working on these ideas while at Hampshire College in the early 1980s. In a solar greenhouse built by fellow students, he experimented with fish farming and aquaculture; he played a large role in securing a grant for the college from the Pew Charitable Trusts for further study on these subjects.

Although the concept of farmed fish has gained a bad reputation, the principles at Australis put any preconceived notions about fish farming to rest. The company uses chemical-free foods. Because of barramundi's natural resistance to disease and the cleanliness of the facility, no antibiotics are needed.

The building's environmental impact is surprisingly minimal. The setup is one of the largest water reuse systems in the world: 18 million gallons of water are filtered and reused daily. To produce nearly two million pounds of fish a year, only 15 pounds of waste are produced each day. The compost is sent to nearby Patterson Farm for fertilizer.

This was the plan all along for Goldman, a kind of "fish whisperer" who is well known within the international sustainable seafood movement. He is credited with playing a large part in bringing tilapia to its current popularity. For nearly 10 years, he worked to perfect sea bass farming in this same location. But he moved on, in search of another kind of fish—in his words, a "more challenging" species. Even more crucial: one that had incredible health benefits that he could grow more sustainably.

It's a fulfillment of a goal that Goldman set for himself in high school, while reading Diet For A Small Planet. He would try to make the world better through food solutions. "Fish are much more efficient converters of feed to flesh," Goldman explains. "We can grow fish with about a one-to-one food conversion ratio, or just a little above, but you can't do that with a cow or chicken." If an animal requires more protein in its food than it produces at the end of its life, there is a net loss of material—not a good thing for a planet with a population problem. Barramundi—a species that hails from the waters of Australia—require less protein to grow than they provide as meat. That's why Australis has coined it "the better fish."

It's an incredibly healthy food, to boot. "One of the ills of the western diet is that we evolved eating a ratio of one to one of Omega 6 fatty acids—which are the main constituents of vegetable oil—to Omega 3," Goldman says. "Now we're eating our oils in about a 12-to-one ratio, and Omega 6 is behind a lot of inflammatory processes that cause illness. So fish are the path to bring us back to a more natural ratio."

Barramundi, to its benefit, is more oily than other fish on the market, so it provides higher levels of Omega 3. The oils make it easier to cook and, of course, make it taste great.

The fish has been growing in popularity, thanks to Australis spearheading the species' marketing campaign. In addition to the local production line that exports live fish in transportable tanks for restaurants and markets nationwide, Australis now runs an open-water facility in Vietnam that produces its frozen products. Eco-conscious precautions are taken at that plant as well.

In Turners, we move into the next gargantuan open space on the tour. Tubing hangs far above the ground in a complicated network, like metal vines twisting toward an unknown source. One of those pipes is the facility's "pescalator": the fish are swooped up in a stream of water and spit out in the next series of tanks. Steady relocation and sorting by size allows the tanks to hold a large number of fish while avoiding overcrowding.

"It's all homegrown technology," Goldman says as we walk. The company uses a patented filtration system that was developed in-house. Australis offers a training program and career path for all employees. "It's all a team effort here," he states simply.

We reach the final tanks, where two-pound adult fish are ready for market. The only way to look in at them is to climb a metal staircase to a raised platform around the tops of the 15-foot tanks. Goldman puts it in perspective: "Each tank is nearly the size of the New England Aquarium, which is 180,000 gallons—and there are 10 of them in this one room!"

He sprinkles food pellets on the surface, and a few brownish fish come up to investigate. Air bubbles immediately appear all along the surface, the result of automatic sensors that trigger oxygenation when food or waste is detected.

Goldman's eyes sparkle as he looks out over the warehouse. The man is clearly excited about the scale of it all, the number of fish that surround us, and the mass of healthful food that is being produced within these very walls.

As I look down at the hundreds of fish zipping along in the current, I find myself caught up in his dream, too. He found a passion for this work when he was just a kid, and followed it through—something that not many people can do. His epiphany as a teenager led to his drive in college, and now to this farmed fish empire—all to better the world and better our health.

As I leave, we pass the holding tanks for the next batch of fish ready for trucking. "By Monday morning these fish will be in Los Angeles Chinese markets," he says with a grin. I can't wait to try one myself.

The list of local restaurants that offer fresh, non-frozen fish from the Turners Falls facility is expanding; presently, it can be found at Hope & Olive, DiPaulos, and The Farm Table. Australis' frozen products can be found at Stop and Shop and many other restaurants in the area.

Local retailers and much more information can be found at www.thebetterfish.com

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