When you think of fresh, regional fish, you think of Boston, Long Island, the Jersey Shore, and the Cape. You don’t think of Hudson, New York. But you should.
A new company there, called Local Ocean, now supplies fresh, clean, farm-raised fish; two types are being distributed to about 30 restaurants in the Hudson Valley, including Jack’s Oyster House in Albany and Ca’Mea in Hudson. In August, the company announced a retail partnership with Price Chopper Supermarkets, which offers its royal dorado at six stores in the Capital Region and Hudson. And Jonathan Eisenberg, vice president of corporate development for Local Ocean, says the company is in talks with locations in several other states — including California, Nevada, Texas, and Florida — about establishing similar production plants around the country.
So how did Hudson, hundreds of miles from the open seas, become the site for the world’s first and only (they claim) self-contained, self-cleaning, water-miserly indoor saltwater fish farm?
About three years ago, a group led by investor Efraim Bason and Joseph Mizrahi, who owns a distribution company in New York, recognized a market need: fish that came not from the oceans, where they are rapidly disappearing, but from a sustainable, eco-friendly and — these are businessmen, remember — profitable fish farm. They met with marine biologists also looking for a solution to over-fishing; and with representatives from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, which had patented a system for efficient and sustainable fish farming.
The university’s system worked for small-scale testing and research purposes, but Local Ocean’s biologists and engineers needed to adapt it for commercial use, Eisenberg says. “We took the science and turned it into an art,” he says, “adding our own proprietary technology to execute it on a commercial scale.”
The group also needed a location, and Hudson came forward with the best economic and noneconomic incentives. “We chose Hudson because it offered the most business-friendly enticements and was well situated geographically for our target radius, which was close to Albany (our initial market), and to New York and Boston,” Eisenberg says.
He also notes, “Todd Erling, executive director of Hudson Valley Agribusiness, and Ken Flood, Columbia County planning commissioner, have been very supportive from the concept phase all the way through planning, production, and now commercial sales.”
Two years ago, with an initial investment of approximately $10 million, Local Ocean moved into the vacant, 160,000-square-foot Acme Building, on Route 9 just outside of town. Today, the company is almost finished with an expansion project that will add two new 80,000-square-foot buildings, effectively doubling the size of its space. By year’s end, a total of 175 tanks will produce upwards of 1,000 tons a year of royal dorado (also known as gilthead sea bream), summer flounder (or fluke), yellowtail, white sea bass, European sea bass, and black sea bass. More species are slated to be added in the future.
Each of the polypropylene tanks holds more than 3,000 gallons of saltwater. The environmentally friendly technology that Hebrew University patented efficiently recycles the water in the tanks. The system loses only one percent of its volume each day to evaporation or waste, Eisenberg says. The water continually flows through a system of filters and then collects in settling ponds. There, bacteria degrade fish waste and purify the water, after which it reenters the tanks.
Local Ocean maintains that the system has other advantages as well. It can hold 80-100 kilograms of fish per cubic meter of water on average, compared to 10 kilograms in some existing aquaculture systems. The fish are below detention levels for mercury and lead. Maintenance and transportation costs are lower than in other systems. And it uses less energy, with minimal heating requirements and a passive solar design to help power lighting and heating. The tanks in the expanded section of the farm are even more energy efficient, Eisenberg points out. “Some of the tanks are below ground, so we can use gravity instead of pumps to circulate the water,” he says.
The fish themselves come as hatchlings from hatcheries. Once they grow to about one pound in weight, they are ready for harvesting. The price is in line with other fresh or farm-raised products (Price Chopper has the dorado retailing for $9.99 a pound at press time).
Most important, the freshness and taste of the fish has earned rave reviews from the likes of Noah Sheetz, executive chef of the Governor’s Mansion in Albany; and Brad Rosenstein, owner of Jack’s Oyster House. They can serve up a pan-seared sea bream the same day it left its tank, whereas ocean-caught fish takes two to three days at best to reach your dinner plate.
And in a lousy economy, Local Ocean has created about 50 jobs. This is a fish story that a lot of people are believing.