Ideal Fish, located in central Connecticut, is a vertically integrated aquaculture company producing, at full capacity, 170M metric tons of Mediterranean Seabass in the United States providing its customers fresh, sustainably grown, fish year-round.
TFF chatted with Operations Manager Joe McElwee, to learn about RAS farming systems, the potential of US aquaculture, and how Ideal Fish adapted their online model to deal with COVID-19 implications.
Today’s Farmed Fish [TFF]: Tell us a bit about the type of fish you raise and how it’s raised?
Ideal Fish [IF]: We are the only producer of Mediterranean seabass (Disentrarchus labrax), also known as branzino, in North America, and the only branzino producer in the world using a land-based recirculating aquaculture system (RAS), to grow the fish to full harvest size. Ideal Fish’s facility, recirculates approximately 95% of the water used to grow fish, and to recover and reuse virtually all the solid waste produced by fish cultivation operations.
TFF: How do you get into this business?
IF: I started around 1983 in Ireland just as the salmon farming marine cage systems were being put to sea, and worked through the various industry developments from inshore cages to the large offshore cages, then the hatcheries, and introduction to RAS farming, to being the Global Manager for Pentair Aquatic Ecosystems and now to branzino RAS farming in the USA! I learned about fish farming initially, then RAS, as it developed in the early 1980’s when farming became controversial with regards to the impact on wild salmon runs in Europe. I wanted to be a scientist and work outdoors and I liked the challenge of what the industry stood for, which was food production, as an alternative more controlled method of producing fish rather than depleting the oceans as was happening.
TFF: What are some of the notable techniques you are most proud of and why?
IF: In our system, we have successfully achieved the removal of salt from the effluent water, enabling it to be returned to the system instead of replacing it, and having a byproduct of organic waste fertilizer which is sold to local farmers/orchard growers and to the general public via Horticulture facilities. In RAS farming, it is the constant daily changing environment the fish grow in that I, as a scientist, can adapt and change and improve. The fish never do the same thing every day, and one needs to be consistently ahead of the game in this regard! I spend a lot of time ensuring the equipment is operating at full potential as well as adapting the biological requirements of the fish. The fish now perform better both with regards to feed conversion, nutritional balance, and survival.
TFF: What do you think are the most pressing concerns within aquaculture today, and how do you want to see the industry move forward?
IF: Education, leading to experience. There is a scarcity of experienced senior management to operate these complicated farms & businesses, and education at the university course level does not reflect what we are doing now on the farms with regards to technology and equipment, so there needs to be more cooperation between what is being taught in coursework and catching up to what is being implemented in the industry.
TFF: What do you think the biggest pain point is for consumers in taking a chance on eating farmed fish? What do you think could be done to address their concerns?
IF:There is still antipathy towards aquaculture as there is no real government push to educate or alert the consumer as to how healthy and available the products are! The biggest pain points are dominating perceptions that it’s foreign, not sustainable, high carbon miles associated with it, expensive, difficult to cook, not market fresh…etc. To address all these issues briefly is difficult, but if the aquaculture industry continues to develop in the USA with the proper legislative, financial, and practical support, these will not be issues. In 2018, the USA imported $21 billion of fish/shellfish and only $2.2 billion was homegrown, of which the majority was shrimp, so that figure tells you the potential of the industry in itself.
TFF: How has the aquaculture industry changed to bring better products to consumers over the last decade?
IF: Sustainability, accountability, production perfection, controlled markets and marketing, and choice of selection all bring better products to consumers. A cow is a cow is a cow, but fish can be freshwater, saltwater, long, tall, fat, round, pink or white-fleshed, etc. There is a huge variety and range as well as clear nutritional and health benefits for the consumer.
TFF: How has COVID impacted your business and what have you done to overcome obstacles in these challenging times?
IF: We adapted very quickly from business to business, to direct to consumer online sales offering a range of products from whole, smoked and lumped meats as well as some additional RAS products from other farms like salmon from Sustainable Blue which allows for a selection of species and product types, which our customer base has taken to.
TFF: What is your favorite farmed fish dish? How do you like it to be cooked?
IF: European Turbot! Simply baked in tinfoil in the oven.
TFF: From which producers would you gladly eat their farmed fish?
TFF: Where can consumers buy your product?
IF: You can purchase our range of whole, smoked, or filleted branzino products from our online store at www.idealfish.com.
TFF: What resources do you recommend for people to do more of their own research?
IF: Look at the companies’ websites. If you see something to discuss, qualify, validate, or question, actually ring up the farm and talk to the people doing it, rather than read and be influenced by false information, select publications by environmental groups with specific message agendas, or general gossip.
TFF: Do you have any favorite fish recipes you can share with us?
IF: Branzino fillets (or salmon or trout or char) in tinfoil, bake for 20 minutes, open, pour some whiskey over it, close the tinfoil up again. Give it 5 more minutes and you will get a beautiful mixture taste of whiskey & succulent flaky fish!