There’s a new fish in town. Well, perhaps not that new, since Oprah featured it in her magazine, and Paul Greenberg included a few pages on it in his fine book Four Fish. But it’s new for me, and perhaps it is for you as well.
It’s a kind of seabass called Barramundi, an Australian Aboriginal word that means ‘large-scaled river fish’. It lives along the coasts and estuaries of South West Asia, Papua New Guinea, and Northern Australia. Some call it Asian Seabass. The Thai call it Pla Krapong, and eat a lot of it.
This is a fish worth seeking out at your local fish market. Like other coastal seabass, it is a white fish that is considered to be fine eating. Like other seabass, it is also an exciting recreational fish – it grows large and fights hard, and supports an active recreational fishery, at least in Northern Australia and in Thailand – but that’s another story.
Most seabass grow up in coastal waters and then migrate up coastal estuaries to breed. Barramundi do the opposite: they live in rivers, and then descend to estuaries and tidal flats to breed. A female lays millions of eggs that require at least brackish water to develop. The fish grow up as males, reaching a length of about 60cm by the time they are 3 years old, and then they become females as they continue to grow. This is an excellent reproductive strategy – males don’t need to be large to produce abundant sperm, while the larger a female, the more eggs she can produce. A female could grow to 1.8 m in length, and then shed a remarkable 30 million eggs.
This is a fish that is ideal for aquaculture. It has huge gills that let it tolerate environments with little oxygen. It is disease resistant, needing little in the way of antibiotics, or hormone supplements, for that matter. Despite its reputation as a spectacular fighting sport fish, it is docile in captivity. And it grows quickly on vegetarian feed, able to make Omega-3 from plant oils. It needs only small amount of fish oil and feed at end, as a finishing diet. It is usually sold at about 400gm and 32cm ‘plate size’, good for 2 people.
Most Barramundi aquaculture of course is in Australia, India, Indonesia, and Thailand, though Israel and Poland are in the business as well. In the US, it is cultured at Australis Aquaculture at Turners Falls, Mass, in a closed, recirculating system using water from the Connecticut River. They start with hatchery fish at least 5cm long, grow them to 400-600gm in 12 months, and to 3kg in 18-48 months.
So: fast growing, and unlike salmon, mostly vegetarian, non-polluting, disease resistant, and no added antibiotics or hormones. This fish could solve a lot of aquaculture challenges. And yes, it has a fine flaky white flesh. Steam it, fry it, or grill it wrapped, with some herbs, lemon, and white wine.
I found Barramundi at a fish monger in the great St.Lawrence Market in Toronto, but it isn’t always there. I don’t see it around at the local supermarkets, but I’m asking every time I visit.
Ask for it where you are, if you haven’t eaten it, and want to.
This fish could make a difference.