Inside two visions -- one salt water, one fresh, both landlocked -- of the perfect system

| 01 May 2012 | 03:21

    By Becca Tucker It was at the World Aquaculture Conference in Veracruz, Mexico, that Mike Finnegan ate the tomato that changed his life. A Mexican farmer had Finnegan taste three tomatoes. The one grown hydroponically, in a solution of water and liquid fertilizer, tasted like cardboard. The field-grown tomato tasted like only a field-grown tomato can. The one grown aquaponically, in water with fish waste in it, was almost as good as the field-grown. Three years later, Finnegan has banked his Wall Street fortune that aquaponics – the combination of aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (growing food without soil) – will be on the forefront of the future of food.

    So far, “it’s going wild, just wild,” Finnegan said of the brand new $5.2 million aquaponics operation, Continental Organics, that he co-founded. “People are coming out of the woodwork looking for our products.”

    Inside what used to be a catering hall in New Windsor, NY, in a fish nursery sealed off from visitors, 30,000 fingerling tilapia are growing in quarantined tanks. When these spiky-finned evolutionary warriors – which got a shout-out in the bible – get to be index-finger size, they’ll graduate into blue tanks in the fish house, a long warehouse-like that’s still under construction. This year, 110,000 pounds of fish will come out of this fish house. In five years, a million pounds of fish will swim through the system, operated by 120 employees, if all goes according to plan.

    That’s a million pounds of fish that won’t be coming out of the overfished oceans, or flown from a fish farm in China. (China, the giant in the fish farming industry, has been fingered for such misdeeds as feeding fish human waste, mislabeling fish and adding banned chemicals.)

    As the fish eat and excrete their vegetable-based feed, a pump circulates their nutrient-rich waste water through pipes that run under the parking lot to twin greenhouses. Inside the greenhouses, endless rows of greens flourishing in white plastic trays. The plants’ matted roots collect the nutrients from the reservoir of fish waste that runs through the trays. The roots cleanse the water, which is then circulated back to the fish in a closed-loop system.

    The self-contained system addresses all the major potential pitfalls of fish farming, including the spreading of disease to wild fish, discharging polluted water, and the nagging problem of how to feed farmed fish without further depleting wild fish population. Tilapia are omnivores – here, they eat organic vegetable-based feed – which means that unlike fish higher on the food chain, raising them doesn’t require depleting wild fish populations. Growing food hydroponically also uses 90 percent less water than conventional agriculture, according to Finnegan.

    Despite the intimate connection between fish and greens, the tilapia (other than the one co-opted into posing for the cover) will never enter the greenhouse. That’s because plants and fish prefer different environmental conditions. Plants need dry air to transpire efficiently.

    The bib lettuce, arugula and basil – with tomatoes to follow – are being snapped up by the Culinary Institute of America, West Point, and are on shelves of grocery store chains Adams Fair Acre Farms and Red Barn Produce. The operation is strategically located in Orange County, near Hunts Points and West Point, future tilapia buyers.

    Almost everything in the system is re-circulated or re-used. Dead fish and excess fish waste will be bagged, sold and turned into fertilizer. The only piece that doesn’t have a second life is the fiberglass “rock wool” in which seedlings are started. The search is on for a compostable alternative; trial one revealed that corn husks get moldy after a month in water.

    Finnegan, 56, who spent years at JP Morgan and in the army, is working 17 hour days and has, he claims, never had more fun. Still, for first-time visitors to a fish farm, the idea of raising wild creatures in what is essentially a factory inevitably has a dystopian quality about it. The two farms in this story are paradigms of what modern technology can do to forward environmental stewardship. Kate McLaughlin, seafood program director of the Blue Ocean Institute, called them both “heartening” examples of “U.S. companies working to grow aquaculture domestic production in ways that minimize negative environmental impacts.” And yet, the tanks in which fish will spend their lives swimming against manufactured currents, are a poignant reminder that at population 7 billion, in an age of $22 all-you-can-eat-sushi, we have vacuumed the sea floor to the point where the tuna and marlin are nearing extinction. Endangered, too, are fishermen in the image of that old man of Hemingway’s, with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck and deep-creased scars on his hands from handling fish on heavy cords.

    Does it make them somehow less strange, that farmed fish can inflict scars, too? Kevin Ferry, 40, designer of the Continental Organics system, has been sent to the hospital three times by tilapia spines. Ferry grew up at the end of a cul-de-sac collecting frogs and digging ecosystems for them in his backyard. After graduating from SUNY Cobleskill with a degree in hatcheries and aquaculture, Ferry studied at Amherst’s bioshelter, a million-gallon aquaponic facility that Ferry says made every mistake, but ahead of its time. He hatched Coho salmon in Alaska for four years. But Ferry’s not just a fish guy.

    “Mostly,” he shrugged, “I’m a farmer.” He aims to get out of work in time to get home with enough light to see his exotic Asian chickens before they go to roost.

    Although aquaponics is growing, Ferry says it’s still hard to find people who feel comfortable in the greenhouse and the fish house. That may be a symptom of a national issue; America, which eats more seafood than any country but China and Japan, lags much of the developed world when it comes to growing its own. Finnegan is not the only entrepreneur rushing to fill the gap.

    You think, pulling up, you’ve got the wrong address. The decrepit-looking warehouse once packed floor to ceiling with air humidifiers, 100 miles inland in upstate New York, doesn’t look like the world’s first commercial scale, zero discharge inland ocean ecosystem. Around back, an African Ridgeback – the kind of dog bred to chase lions up trees – gives a welcome lick, and the man smoking a cigarette on the stairs nods yes, this is Local Ocean.

    Inside, the temperature is Mediterranean. So are some of the fish. (So is the dog. The Ridgeback, Mia, came to Hudson, NY from Israel with the system designer, Sharon Geula.) One and a half million saltwater fish the size of a pinky finger – sea bream, European sea bass, striped bass, black sea bass, yellowtail amberjack – have traveled here from Israel, Chile, California, and the hatchery that Local Ocean bought in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Local Oceans sends the biggest of its small fries up to the hatchery, where it is raising its own brood stock. That will cut down on incidents like when airport staff, seing the word “perishable” on styrofoam boxes, stuck the baby fish in a cooler and they arrived dead.

    Upon arrival at the fish farm, the fingerlings are divided by size and handled to bring out any diseases that might have been lying dormant, even though they all come with a clean bill of health. Before entering the nurseries, visitors step into a tub of chlorine and squirt antibiotic soap on their hands. In a closed system, one sick fish could mean a million dead fish.

    A year after their arrival, the fish meet their end in an ice bath and end up at restaurants and grocery stores like Price Chopper and Fresh Direct, where a sushi-grade Yellowtail amberjack can be ordered with a few clicks (you specify the cut and whether you want the head), and arrive at a Manhattan apartment the next day. The total waste product the fish will excrete into the atmosphere in their lives: nitrogen gas bubbles.

    “It’s insane how fast they built this,” said marine biologist Kate Frederick, 29, who manages the nursery. Frederick grew up in nearby Canaan. When she moved back home, she never expected to find a job in her field in Columbia County.

    Local Ocean’s creation story remains something of a mystery. A story in the Hill Country Observer explained that Efraim Bason, an Israeli businessman, hooked up with Grupos Alimos, a Mexican fish distributor that imports for Wal-Mart, which provided most of the $11 million start-up costs. Bason is now the chairman; the new CEO is Zev Zaidman.

    Planning began in 2009. In July 2009, the first shipment of 45,000 sea bream flew in from an Israeli kibbutz, along with salt pellets from the Red Sea, to be added to the city of Hudson tap water. Two months later, Local Ocean was selling fish. When it hits capacity, this facility will produce 2 million pounds of fish yearly. “It’s mostly Israelis, and they have a very different cultural mindset. They’re much more driven than any other people I’ve ever met,” said Frederick.

    The long-term plan is to have a location within five to eight hours of most major U.S. cities, said Nadya Peeve, the head of business development.

    Frederick, tasked with playing tour guide, took visitors up to a high vantage point to get a view of the 50-odd “grow-out units” that line the single-story concrete warehouse. The water in some tanks circulates clockwise, counterclockwise in others, and one section of tanks under renovation is still and fishless. A young man caught fish with his bare hand out of the trough-like purge tank in which fish spend their last few days fasting, and put them in a handheld net. On the phone, Raymond Mizrahi, the vice president of sales and marketing, gave us his blessing to take close-up pictures, but not to photograph the entire system – presumably because it’s proprietary.

    Later, we saw what this operation looked like when the builders weren’t working within an existing concrete structure. The attached 5-acre greenhouse, which smells like the ocean, has 120 bigger tanks; a longer, narrower and deeper settling pond; a biofilter built into the ground; and lets in sunlight, which makes it more energy efficient.

    Local Oceans is a closed-loop system that, like Continental Organics, continuously recirculates its water, adding water only to compensate for evaporation. At this juncture, the cleansing role is filled not by plants, but by aerobic and then anaerobic bacteria. As the salt water moves through a series of filters and into a settling pond, the bacteria feed on the fish waste, just as happens in the ocean. The water is treated with ozone, cleaned with a protein skimmer that removes organic residue, and released back into the system. Local Ocean’s scientists are researching growing mangroves and a red algae called Gracilaria hydroponically.

    The species at Local Ocean are all higher on the food chain than tilapia. Read: they eat feed that contains other fish. The necessity of using wild fish to feed captive fish is one of the biggest obstacles to aquaculture’s sustainability. Eventually, said Peeva, the goal is to find ways to reduce the percentage of fish meal in the feed by tailoring fish feed to the specific breeds that Local Ocean grows -- but that’s down the road. “We believe we’re already doing a great deal in terms of sustainability. We are working on improving our energy efficiency. We believe we are doing better than most. This comes with the recognition that there’s more to do, but we have to start with where we’re at,” she said.

    Sharon Geula, 37, has been around since the beginning. He emigrated from Israel three years ago with the core team that started Local Ocean. He has been surprised that Local Ocean’s sea bream and bronzini are bigger and better than those produced in the open ocean fish farm in Israel where he used to work. The fish farmed in open cages “had copper, mercury, pollution from boats. Fish is like a sponge.”

    But he still won’t eat these fish. “Ninety percent of people here don’t eat fish,” he said. “They are family. I can’t eat family.” Geula wears a necklace with a fish tail pendant and seashells on it. On closer look, Frederick has one on, too. Geula’s is inscribed, in Hebrew, with the words, “Just the sound of waves and wind in the sails.”

    Geula describes the work here as “very intense. If you are not 100 percent into this thing, you will not survive even a week.”

    Geula is a nurturer. His eventual plan is to move back to Israel – with Mia, of course – to farm sheep. In the meantime, he considers the work he and his compatriots are doing in upstate New York a way to “say thank you back” for the help that the U.S. has provided Israel. By creating “employment and a better society,” he said, “we are doing Zionism here.”