INLAND INNOVATORS

Local Ocean brings sustainable fish farming to Hudson

STEVE BARNES SENIOR WRITER
Section: Food,  Page: E1

Date: Thursday, May 6, 2010

Correction: A story in Thursday’s Food section about the Local Ocean fish farm in Hudson mischaracterized the company’s origin. Its founder and largest stakeholder is Efraim Bason; his three other principal partners are Raymond Mizrahi, Joseph Mizrahi and Igar Avrech.

One of the futures of seafood is being created in a vast warehouse just outside the city limits of Hudson.


As awareness grows about the damage overfishing does to marine ecosystems, as well as of the environmental and health concerns raised by some methods of fish farming, the need becomes ever more pressing for better, cleaner, sustainable ways of raising fish for human consumption.


A company called Local Ocean believes it has a solution: an indoor saltwater fish farm that is self-contained and self-cleaning, and that requires only minimal infusions of new water.


In the 17 months since it took possession of a 160,000-square-foot warehouse vacated when Hudson's Kaz Inc. shipped manufacturing work overseas, Local Ocean has built what it says is the only commercial facility of its kind in the world. It houses 55 polypropylene tanks, each holding more than 3,000 gallons of saltwater and home to several thousand of either of the two kinds of fish Local Ocean is now raising: royal dorado, also known as gilthead sea bream, and fluke, or summer flounder. The building of two 80,000-square-foot greenhouses for more tanks, already under way, will boost production from its present level of 50 tons annually to 600 tons by later this year. The increased capacity will allow Local Ocean to raise other varieties of fish including black sea bass, white sea bass and branzino, or Mediterranean sea bass.


The first fish, brought in last year from a hatchery when they weighed less than a gram, are reaching harvest weight of 450 to 500 grams (1 pound is 453 grams).


"They are so fresh. The quality is amazing," says Luc Pasquier, executive chef of Jack's Oyster House in Albany, who has been serving Local Ocean's fluke and royal dorado as dinner specials recently.


Freshness is chief among Local Ocean's selling points, says Raymond Mizrahi, who founded the company with his father, Joseph, and two partners. They chose the Hudson location for its proximity to major metropolitan markets, as well as for grants and other inducements offered by state and local governments. Once full production is under way -- the company has just begun official sales -- Mizrahi envisions harvesting fish overnight for immediate delivery to restaurants in Philadelphia, New York City, the Hudson Valley, the Capital Region and Boston. That means a chef could be serving a Local Ocean fish little more than 12 hours after it came out of the water. (For many ocean-caught fish, three days from sea to plate is considered speedy.) The company also is seeking to supply supermarkets and hopes to open its own retail shop at the farm by later this year.


"Their fish is awesomely fresh," says Noah Sheetz, executive chef of the Governor's Mansion in Albany, who notes that the fish in a recent Local Ocean delivery didn't go into rigor mortis until the day after it arrived. (Although many people consider beef and poultry undesirably chewy if not inedible when eaten pre-rigor, the state is prized in most fish.)


"We really think we have a business model that will work, that will appeal to the customer and will even make us some money. We certainly didn't go into it because we knew anything about fish beforehand. We didn't," says Mizrahi, whose other businesses include a Brooklyn company that distributes consumer products like batteries, toothpaste and Chapstick to convenience stores.


Local Ocean uses technology developed at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which runs a similar farm for testing and research purposes. There's another in Baltimore, at the Center of Marine Biotechnology at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, with which Local Ocean is also consulting, but neither operates commercially. What differentiates Local Ocean's operations from other commercial, tank-style fish farms -- and gives it less environmental impact -- is that it does not need a continuous supply of new water, losing only 1 percent of its volume annually to evaporation, and its minimal waste, Mizrahi says. The water in the tanks, circulated to be replaced about twice each hour, cascades through a 25-foot-high stack of filters before being moved through settling ponds, where bacteria and algae consume fish excretions and otherwise purify the water. In industry terminology, it's a zero-discharge closed system.


"It's great to see people moving toward other models (of fish farming). Closed containment is a very attractive model," says Casson Trenor. The senior seafood campaigner for the environmental organization Greenpeace, Trenor is author of the book "Sustainable Sushi" and co-founder of San Francisco's Tataki Sushi & Sake Bar, the world's first sustainable-sushi restaurant.


While cautioning that he was unfamiliar with Local Ocean, a description of it caused him to say, "If it works the way they say it does, that would be phenomenal."


Local Ocean's work force of 26 full-time employees, a figured expected to double by next year, includes three marine biologists. One of them is New Lebanon native Kate Frederick. Unable to find work in her field, Frederick applied for a job at a Columbia County winery, where the owners happened to know about Local Ocean and referred her. Today, she and her colleagues are responsible for the health and growth of what projections say could be more than a million fish a year.


"What we're doing is good for the environment and good for the community," she says. "And the fish tastes really, really good."


Steve Barnes can be reached at 454-5489 or by e-mail at sbarnes@timesunion.com. Visit his blog at http://blogs.timesunion.com/tablehopping.


BOX:


Fish facts


Local Ocean


Address: 4269 Route 9, Hudson


Description: Closed-system, environmentally friendly, sustainable fish farm


Products: Royal dorado, fluke (more fish to be added in coming months).


Availability: Slowly rolling out to area restaurants, including Jack's Oyster House in Albany. Sales to supermarkets and opening of retail location at farm predicted by later this year. Retail price projected to be $7 to $9 per pound.


Size: $10 million-plus initial investment, 320,000 square feet after expansion is finished, 53 employees by next year. If Hudson model is successful, several additional farms planned for around the country.


Info: Raymond Mizrahi at 828-6232 or raymond@localoceans.com