No Ocean Required
Forward-thinking fish farmers are growing world-class salmon in the heart of the Midwest
As the most-consumed type of fish in the United States, salmon is an incredibly important—and uniquely healthy—source of protein. But while wild-caught Pacific salmon remains plentiful in the Northwest, fish farms provide 100 percent of the country’s supply of the long-endangered Atlantic salmon. Located in places like Chile and Norway, these traditional offshore aquaculture businesses grow plenty of fish, but come with their own challenges, from disease and pollution to the high cost of bringing them to market.
Yet a new, more environmentally friendly way of salmon production is emerging. Today’s most innovative fish farmers are giving the ocean a pass altogether and raising Atlantic salmon in freshwater tanks miles from the nearest ocean—bringing them closer than ever to consumers.
“Superior Fresh is the largest aquaponics facility in the world, and the first land-raised Atlantic salmon facility in the United States,” says Nate Hefti, the Hixton, Wis.-based company’s director of sales. “Our owners wanted to create a sustainable model of food production that would address the growing population.”
Aquaponics, he explains, is a system that combines conventional aquaculture with hydroponics. In Superior Fresh’s case, that means fish waste is used to fertilize organic crops such as romaine and arugula, creating a closed-loop system that recirculates 99.99 percent of its water.
“We’re able to take all the waste from the fish and use that for nutrients for our plants,” he says. “Once the plants uptake the nutrients, it in turn cleans the water and we’re able to recirculate that water back to the fish house.”
The salmon is a hit with chefs, who appreciate its mild, buttery flavor, deep pink flesh and unblemished skin—perfect for an upscale presentation.
“These chefs are used to getting Atlantic salmon that has traveled over 4,000 miles to 5,000 miles, so it really doesn’t get any fresher,” he says. “It’s a tremendous competitive advantage for chefs who are looking to give their guests a farm-to-fork dining experience.”
Although smaller, AquaBounty has big plans for its new aquaculture facility in Albany, Ind. Its competitive advantage stems from its fish, which have been genetically modified to grow faster than conventional Atlantic salmon.
“We are the first approved genetically engineered animal for food use,” explains AquaBounty CEO Sylvia Wulf. “It’s one Chinook salmon gene that was incorporated into the genetic structure of an Atlantic salmon, which contains 44,000 genes, and that modification took place 30 years ago.”
Approved by both the FDA and Health Canada, the fish are indistinguishable from conventional salmon, and require fewer resources to produce.
“Because of its accelerated growth we can produce more fish in the same amount of time as conventional salmon,” Wulf says. “Our fish are also more efficient in terms of how they process the protein in their feed, and we have about a 25 percent improvement over conventional salmon in what’s called the feed conversion ratio.”
The company’s been selling its AquaAdvantage-branded salmon in Canada for four years and plans to begin U.S. sales this fall, with an international expansion in the works.