Organic Hudson Valley - Michael Parket
WHAT DO YOU FEEL when you read the term “fish farm”? The internet, for one, seems undecided. A web search for the term presents a contradictory flurry of nutrition facts, armchair environmentalism, techno-utopian optimism and click-bait headlines (“Nine things you should know…”). An image search for “fish farm,” on the other hand, suggests a more united view: each of the hundreds of fish farms pictured is a set of netted pens within a larger natural body of water.
Yet that’s not at all what Hudson Valley Fish Farms looks like. And the more you learn about this new and growing aquaculture operation on the outskirts of Hudson, the clearer it is: Hudson Valley Fish Farms (HVFF) is a new kind of fish farm. They are a land-based recirculating aquaculture system raising “egg-to-plate” steelhead trout for the regional market, hiring and training local workers while commercializing cutting-edge aquaculture industry knowledge, all to prove a model for sustainable fish farming in the Hudson Valley. Owner John Ng will tell you, “If you’re looking for responsibly raised steelhead, we’re the only game in town.” But that’s just the first of many good reasons to seek out HVFF steelhead.
John Ng’s father came to America in 1979 with $500 and a stomach for entrepreneurship. John grew up alongside his family’s growing recycling business, which specializes in telecommunications equipment and today employs 550 people. Though Ng lives in New Jersey, he decided to establish the fish farm in Hudson because of its proximity to two major markets—Boston and New York City—and, he says with a laugh, because it’s the farthest from home his wife would tolerate. Ng also saw the Hudson Valley as fertile ground for aquaculture innovation. He has learned much from Michael Timmons, a Cornell professor who “wrote the book” on recirculating aquaculture systems.
HVFF also hires directly out of SUNY Cobleskill’s Fisheries and Aquaculture program and internally trains the 40 employees who operate the high-tech, 24-hour facility. HVFF is appreciative for its proximity to a bustling river town like Hudson, eager to join the Valley’s regional renaissance of high-quality food producers and proud to be bringing new manufacturing jobs back to a once-industrial city.
The worldwide seafood industry is an oft-cited example of unsustainable food production. A 2016 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations found that one-third of wild fisheries are overfished and 58 percent are fully fished. Fish farms have been found to cause an array of environmental calamities, including polluting natural waters with industrial waste and antibiotics, and allowing fish to escape and disrupt ecosystems. Considering humanity’s increasing demand for meat and limited wild fisheries, though, more aquaculture seems to be inevitable. Fish farming is nothing new: rainbow trout (steelhead is a type of rainbow trout) have been farmed in the U.S. since the 1870s, and overall aquaculture produces half of the seafood eaten in America, according to the HVFF also hires directly out of Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, a seafood consumer advocate. What is new is how we can farm fish sustainably using recirculating aquaculture systems—an advantage that sets Hudson Valley Fish Farms apart.
Hudson Valley Fish Farms operates North America’s largest recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) for steelhead trout. At full capacity, it would produce more than 2 million pounds of steelhead annually. Yet even a large aquaculture operation like this has a limited footprint on the natural environment: RAS facilities are land-locked and bio-secure, closed off from the ecosystem as much as possible. Besides the steelhead harvested for consumption, HVFF’s main output is extracted solid waste, which they compost in greenhouses behind the facility, planning for future vegetable production.
Seafood production in general has a smaller environmental impact, pound-for-pound, when compared to other animal protein production. The simplest way to consider an animal’s impact is its feed conversion ratio (FCR), which measures the units of feed an animal needs to add one unit of bodyweight. The FCR for beef cattle hovers around six. Hudson Valley Fish Farm’s steelhead trout have an FCR of 1.1, meaning they need 1.1 pounds of feed to gain one pound of bodyweight. Steelhead are efficient weight-gainers because they are cold-blooded, using no energy to keep themselves warm.
Hudson Valley Fish Farms relies on its modern RAS facility not only to provide a more environmentally sustainable product, but also a more humane and better-tasting one. For example, they use automated feeders to distribute small feedings throughout the day. This practice eliminates the stress and aggression of fish fighting for food that is typical at other fish farms. HVFF uses automated sensors to test for all varieties of water conditions—temperature, pH, oxygen levels and more—and alarms to alert staff when something is awry. Though this sensitive system demands round-the-clock attention, it is ultimately what allows HVFF to run an aquaculture operation independent of a large natural water body. Such careful and hyper-aware management practices lead to a consistent, safe, high-quality product, which could not be achieved farming in natural waters.