Ask a Fish Farmer: Talking Barramundi with Josh Goldman of Australis Barramundi
Curious about farmed fish and the world of aquaculture? In our new series, “Ask A Fish Farmer,” we’re exploring the fascinating and important work of growing fish by going right to the source and chatting with fish farmers.
This week, we’re getting the full scoop on the sustainable seabass that’s better for you and our planet with Josh Goldman, the Co-Founder and CEO of Australis Barramundi. He spent three years searching for a better fish that was a truly healthy and delicious alternative to wild stocks and fell in love with barramundi—which we serve up with a yummy Mango Sriracha Chutney.
Read on to learn more about how Josh and his team are reimagining the future of fish through climate-smart ocean farming.
Did you grow up eating and loving fish?
Yes, we were early adopters of healthy, global cuisine and always ate a fair amount of fish—mainly salmon. My mother was a working professional, but was committed to sustaining family dinners so she set the kids up to get dinner started before she got home. So we not only ate fish, but we cooked it as well!
Describe your ideal seafood meal. What’s on your plate?
Simple grilled barramundi topped with a citrus beurre blanc and seasonal vegetables eaten outdoors with friends or family. Oh, and a Croatian orange wine to complement the meal.
Can you tell us about the species your farm works with?
At Australis, we raise barramundi which is a type of sea bass native to Australia and the Indo Pacific. We are focused on unlocking its potential because of its unmatched culinary, nutritional, and sustainability attributes.
What lead to you working in aquaculture?
When I was in senior in high school, I read Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet. It was the first major book to analyze the environmental impact of meat as a contributor to global food scarcity. It was one of the first books that asked whether we could continue to feed a growing population without irreparably harming the planet and explored solutions that might help. I decided to take a stab at answering this question when I got to Hampshire College. I outfitted a student-built solar greenhouse on my dorm with fish tanks to store the sun’s heat and helped create an integrated food-producing system know as a bioshelter. Two years later, the college received a major grant, which built a research bioshelter and pioneered close-containment technology that wasn’t being used anywhere else around the world.
If you couldn’t be a fish farmer, what would you be?
A climate change activist. Or perhaps an entrepreneur working on improving energy storage.
What do you love most about your work?
My days involve an incredibly diverse set of activities. I could be working to design a new culture system, evaluating alternative feed ingredients, or collaborating with our customer to develop a new product. It’s fast paced, challenging, and a whole lot of fun.
Any proud, funny, or memorable moments from the farm?
There are quite a few. On time they had to dismiss the local elementary local school because the smell of the fish manure was so strong. Apparently, the farmer we gave it to decided not to plow it (which they had promised to do).
What is the purpose of fish farming? Why is it important?
Fish farming enables us to produce animal protein in the most efficient and environmentally-conscious manner possible. As our planet is increasingly populated, natural resources, climate and geopolitical factors are becoming more uncertain, we must find smarter ways to feed everyone while reducing farming’s negative impacts.
Why do farms work usually work with a single species?
It’s a huge commitment to learning to farm a single species—there are so many areas that have to be mastered and improved. Beginning with reproduction, hatchery, nutrition, as well as all of the quality and culinary attributes.
How did you choose barramundi?
In the 1980’s I helped bring tilapia to the American market. But even as tilapia was succeeding, I was worried that aquaculture was not fulfilling its potential to provide a truly healthy and delicious alternative to wild stocks, which were in peril. I began to look broadly to see if there was a better fish to farm that could deliver on this promise with a small environmental footprint.
I spent three years searching to see if I could find a fish that met these criteria. After traveling globally and testing over 30 species, I settled on barramundi. Not only did it have great flavor, texture, and mouthfeel, but we found we could really increase its omega-3 profile without using a lot of fish oil in the feed. Furthermore, its habitat reflected the conditions of a farm, which made it viable for a natural approach to farming.
What makes your farm special or unique?
Australis was founded on a “Better Fish, Better World” vision. We were adamant about selecting a product, people, and process that addresses some of our global food system’s biggest challenges. We designed our farms—the indoor RAS facility in Turners Falls, MA and our open-ocean farm in central Vietnam—to make efficient and responsible use of resources. Sustainability has always been core to our mission, and this is embodied in the species we chose, the location we farm in, and the approach we employ.
What is the hardest part of your job or running the farm?
There is a still so much we don’t know, which creates a degree of variability in the size and timing of harvest. This is true on any farm, but it’s a particular challenge when you can only rely on your own farms for the supply our customers depend on. As we grow, have more fish in the water, and gain experience, this gets a bit easier.
How many people are employed full-time, year-round on your farm?
Australis employs about 250 people full-time in Van Phong Bay, Vietnam. The majority are local technical positions. We offer competitive compensation and benefits, a clean and safe work environment, and training. Many of our employees have been with the company for 7+ years.
How does your farm work and how long does the process take to grow the fish?
Generally speaking, there are three phases to the farm:
Reproduction occurs naturally in tanks on the lunar cycle. The resulting eggs soon hatch and the larvae begin to feed on zooplankton, which, in-turn, feed marine algae.
The juvenile fish are reared in on-land recirculating nurseries where they are regularly graded before being transferred to the sea.
At approximately 120 days of age, they graduate to our low-density, open-ocean net pens, which are set 6 miles offshore in Van Phong Bay, Vietnam.
Market-sized fish are humanely harvested, individually bled, iced, and then transported to our processing facility where they are hand, filleted, flash frozen, and individually vacuum-packed within hours of coming out of the water. The final products are then loaded into a shipping container and exported to the US, Asia, and Australia.
This entire process (from hatchery to harvest) takes on average 16-20 months, depending on their harvest weight.
At Australis, we feel strongly about raising the healthiest and safest fish possible, in the cleanest environment possible. Our ability to produce a quality product is in large measure due to the unique location of our farm. Australis Barramundi are raised 6 miles offshore in the pristine ocean waters of Van Phong Bay. The bay has no river inlets (which is the primary risk factor for industrial pollution and human waste), and the area is sparsely inhabited with minimal industry or agriculture.
In contrast, typical Southeast Asian fish farming environments are crowded into the mouth of a river with dense human populations, industry, and agriculture. These farming environments typically have limited flushing and a storm can easily result in the release of untreated wastewater. Because of the significant geographic differences, our fish are quite simply not exposed to the same contamination risks.
What is a hatchery and why is it important?
A hatchery is a rearing area where larval fish are hatched and fed under controlled conditions. It is important because without the hatchery, we wouldn’t have any fish to farm! A single large female barramundi can release upwards of 10 million eggs, so we can bring a lot of fish to the world.
What do you feed your fish? What is your fish in/fish out ratio?
Barramundi require different levels of proteins, energy, and vitamins as they grow so we calibrate the feed accordingly. To start, juvenile barramundi eat zooplankton in the hatchery that are cultured at the farm. They are then transitioned to a high quality, sustainably-formulated feed aimed to maximize flavor and nutrition. The protein level goes down and the fat level increases as the fish grow— which helps to optimize the conversion efficiency and reducing our reliance on fishmeal, while ensuing a high fat (essential omega-3 fatty acids) content in our product.
To meet our sustainability goals, we use a blend of plant-based protein concentrates and use very limited quantities of fish meal and oil. We add prebiotics and herbs to enhance our fish’s immune systems. By feeding barramundi a well-balanced diet, we’ve been able to achieve an optimal fish-in-fish-out ratio of less than 1:1.
Are there any fish-meal replacements that you are excited to try?
We are using a number of new functional ingredients that help our fish thrive without much reliance on traditional feed ingredients. We have done a lot of work blending oils in a precise way to maximize the omega-3 context of our product, while reducing the need for fish oil. We consistently trial novel ingredients to support innovation and increase the range of sustainable alternatives which are available.
Do you use antibiotics on the farm?
Almost never. The water quality and low density of our farms are key to minimizing the need for antibiotics. We also incorporate prebiotics, probiotics, and herbal extracts in our feeds to promote health. If it is ever necessary to treat, we double the FDA withdrawal time and test the product to ensure there are no residuals (there never are). As such, our products are consistent with an “Antibiotic Free” label designation as it’s applied in the US market, though we don’t label them in this manner. We also vaccinate every fish to enhance their natural immunity.
Do you use growth hormones on the fish?
No, we never use growth hormones. Why would we?
How do you monitor water quality?
We test the water daily for a variety of potential contaminants. We also have a much broader environmental monitoring program on and around the farm in Vietnam which has allowed us to ensure that we are not having a negative impact within the local environment.
What does sustainable mean to you? Is fish farming sustainable?
Sustainable aquaculture is about building a system on practices which don’t degrade the human or natural environment. It’s an intentional path with honest scorekeeping.
What are you doing here on the farm to prevent harm to wild fish of the same species?
Our farm acts something like an artificial reef and appears to be enhancing the diversity and abundance of life around the farm. Raising fish in the marine tropics is a lot different than farming traditional cold-water species like salmon. These areas are often characterized as “nutrient deserts” with limited upwelling to facilitate nutrient cycling. A well-managed farm in the marine tropics can do a lot to restore diversity and enhance the productivity of fishery resources for within the area.
How do you prevent escapees?
The farm uses robust gear designed to withstand typhoons and similar events. Our farm sites are also sheltered, and we’ve been through quite a few typhoons unscathed. We also utilize a proprietary net tensioning system the makes our nets impenetrable to local prey.
What do you do to protect the ecosystem where the farm is located?
The farm is not sited in proximity to any sensitive habitats. As such, the seafloor under the farm is the principal concern in terms of local impacts. We space are cages quite widely and then rotationally fallow each of our farm sites to return the seafloor (benthic environment) back to baseline conditions before resuming farming on that site.
How do you think most people feel about aquaculture?
People are really all over the place on this. Most people have very little idea about aquaculture since it’s not something they see or interact with on a regular basis. Others may have read an article portraying the so-called evils of shrimp or salmon and adopt a negative view based on very little information. And yet others are discovering how sustainable aquaculture can be and are glad to learn more and support the innovations that are driving this forward.
How does aquaculture support the future of wild fish and fishermen?
Aquaculture is critical to support the survival of wild fisheries and fishermen. By bridging the growing gap between supply and demand, aquaculture helps the oceans to recover. It is also one of the best ways to use the knowledge, skills, and infrastructure of coastal communities. Often, the next generation can’t go into fishing because the permitting system—or even nature itself doesn’t allow it. So farming is the way to keep coastal communities productive and working the water.
What makes farmed fish just as delicious as wild fish?
The idea that farmed fish isn’t as delicious as wild fish is all in people’s minds. It’s not a taste difference; it’s a perception difference. Many independent blind tastings have proven this. In most instances, consumers actually prefer the taste of farmed fish over its wild counterpart. This really isn’t all that surprising when you think about the higher level of freshness and control farms have during harvest and processing.
How are the diets of farmed fish different from those of wild fish?
Farmed fish’s diets are dictated by humans, whereas wild fish forage and eat whatever is available in their habitat at that moment. This offers unparalleled traceability and control.
Do farmed fish have the same amount of nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and healthy fatty acids as wild fish?
It will depend on the farm and species, but farm-raised fish can absolutely be as nutritious or even more than wild, when properly nurtured. For example, Australis Barramundi have 3 times the level of omega-3s as a wild barramundi. Our fish are harvested at the perfect size, whereas larger fish can become tough – think zucchini! Australis barramundi have comparable levels of omega-3s as wild coho salmon, but only half the calories of farmed salmon!
Is farmed fish just as safe or safer to eat than wild fish (in terms of mercury, etc.)?
Mercury is primarily a concern for a few species of large predatory fish (tuna, shark, swordfish) which bio-accumulate mercury via algae up through the food chain. It’s also an issue for some freshwater fish, which are mostly caught locally rather than traded.
Still, the merits of farmed are that it has potentially far greater consistency if you’re buying from a single farm with constant methods. The wild fish versus farmed fish have been long debated (less on health merits alone, and more often motivated by larger industry forces or politics), and informed experts recommend both responsibly-caught wild fish AND responsibly-raised farmed fish.
Everyone wants their seafood to be super fresh. How fresh is farmed fish compared to wild fish?
I think people use “fresh” as a signifier for quality. So if the real question is “how does the quality of farmed compare to wild,” I would argue that it’s ultimately about how much care is built into the process. As farmers, we have certain advantages in that we can ikejime our fish immediately—which is an incredible enhancement to quality—and them transport and process them in a very short amount of time. There is no top or bottom to the catch.
What role do you see aquaculture playing in the future of seafood? Or the future of feeding the world for that matter?
Aquaculture will play a leading role in the future of seafood (70% of the world’s seafood will come from aquaculture by 2050), and it will play a critical role in feeding the world as people place higher importance on their personal health and global health in the future.
What innovations or changes have occurred in the aquaculture industry over the past 30 years that you’d like consumers to know about and understand?
That’s almost like asking what innovations happened after Edison invented the phonograph. Truly, the progress has been exceptional. In my mind, the big wins have been the development of stable methods to rear small marine fish juveniles, since this opened up whole new species and environments to us. The second has been the development of vaccines to prevent disease and virtually eliminate the need for antibiotics. Nutritional innovations have allowed us and others to use very efficient feeds. And finally, better recirculation technology is allowing for protected rearing of juvenile fish and get them off to a strong start which helps them perform better through the balance of the farming process. Since aquaculture is so diverse and so global, innovations from one area or species can help make others more efficient—so it’s a really different knowledge “ecosystem” than it was even a few years ago.
What does the future look like for land-based recirculating systems as far as lowering carbon emissions?
This is a debate much like that between field-grown and indoor/vertical farming. Today, farming in the natural environment is still the much lower carbon solution, even when accounting for most forms of transportation. Personally, I believe we will be raising fish the ocean for a very long time and using recirculation primary for juvenile the production stage as a way to ensure the fish get off a strong start and maximize their performance through the balance of the farming process.
Do you plan on utilizing or exploring multi-trophic level aquaculture? Why or why not? If so, what species would that consist of?
We currently have a pilot program raising seaweed alongside our pens. This is a great way to enhance local employment, sequester carbon, improve water quality, and enhance fisheries. We are also in the process of forming a group of international collaborators to grow a type of seaweed which has never to be farmed in the ocean which has shown to dramatically reduce the carbon emissions in beef when fed to cattle.
Can you share how you first found out about LoveTheWild?
Jacqueline and I met at the Aquaculture America conference just as she was launching LoveTheWild. I think she was in line for food right in front of me, and we struck up a conversation.
How do you feel about LoveTheWild and what they are trying to do for the industry?
Our missions are in complete alignment. We’re both in the front row of the effort to educate and open people’s minds so that they can eat better and smarter. We’ve been at it for a while, and it’s great to have company! They bring impressive new insights and energy to the space.
Can you let us in on the secret to running a great fish farm?
It starts with the site and the fish. Then it’s all about the team and developing robust systems.
How can people follow what you and Australis Barramundi are doing in the aquaculture world?