A Waterbury company is raising and distributing fish that never swim in the Sound
More and more, consumers are focusing on where their food comes from. They’re frequenting the local butcher and getting produce at farmers markets. But if you aren’t able to score a fresh catch yourself, fish lovers are forced to rely on seafood imported into the U.S. (estimated at over 80 percent, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).
“We have a large food security issue,” Ideal Fish CEO Eric Pedersen says. “During the pandemic, the supply chain for seafood became very disrupted.” Pedersen’s company is helping to offer a healthy, local alternative. Ideal Fish raises branzino, an Italian sea bass, in a recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) in Waterbury, the only such operation in the world, according to the company.
Like many types of seafood, Pedersen explains, branzino is shipped to the U.S. on passenger jets. When COVID-19 locked down flights, the species was virtually unavailable. Whole Foods stopped selling it for weeks, he says.
Thankfully, this wasn’t an issue for Ideal Fish. In its 63,000-square-foot former button factory, the fish are raised in 28 tanks where the water is conditioned, cleaned and recirculated. “This way, the fish are always growing in very clean, disinfected water that is [adapted] to that species,” he says. The water’s salinity, pH level, temperature and alkalinity are all customized for branzino, which naturally spawn in rivers. The fish grow in a low-stress environment where they aren’t exposed to external pathogens, which means scientists don’t need to add any hormones or additives. “It produces a healthier fish that is raised in the Connecticut foodie’s backyard,” Pedersen says. “Consumers get one that is fresh and hasn’t traveled all of the food miles.” At full production, more than 5,000 pounds of fish are produced each week.
The CEO says Connecticut was well equipped to house the facilities thanks to its highly developed infrastructure. “The state has a large number of industrial buildings that are supplied with high-quality power, water, waste water, and natural gas. As manufacturing moved off-shore, many of these buildings have been underutilized,” he explains. “Plus, we’re right in the middle of the largest seafood market in North America, between Boston to the north, Washington, D.C., in the south, and Philadelphia on the western corner.”
Ideal Fish has been growing roots in the market since 2013, distributing wholesale to grocers and restaurants. Earlier this year, the company launched a direct-to-consumer model as well, where foodies can order RAS-cultivated branzino or salmon online and have it delivered directly to them. “We’re shipping anywhere in New England and New York overnight for $5,” Pedersen says, adding that the locally produced aspect is resonating. “Other than our fish, all of the branzino served in this country is cultivated in the Mediterranean.”
With the Ideal Fish model, seafood is harvested and delivered fresh within 48 hours. Consumers can order directly online, and Pedersen hopes to roll out a subscription service in the months to come.
The restaurant-quality branzino is also helping fill the void many fish-lovers are feeling now that they are eating out less. “There’s a lot of literature that’s been written about enduring trends as a result of the pandemic, and we’re certainly seeing families return to the kitchen,” Pedersen says. For those who want to add branzino into the mix, the species is incredibly simple to cook.
“The great thing about branzino is that you can prepare it in as complex or as easy of a recipe as you like,” he explains. “Take the whole fish, for example, and coat it in olive oil, salt and pepper. Bake it at 475 for eight minutes and it comes out perfectly.” The skin has smoky notes that it imparts into the flesh, and the result is a unique flavor profile with a buttery finish.
If you love the smoke, Ideal Fish is also the only producer of branzino to offer a smoked version. The company’s master smoker uses European methods and locally sourced ingredients, like applewood from a Middletown orchard and whiskey from a Waterbury distillery.
With its branzino in high demand, the company plans to expand production in the years to come. Pedersen is also considering raising other species like red snapper, flounder or halibut. He will also continue to work with sister RAS facilities (where Ideal Fish’s salmon is sourced) to expand the company’s network and help bolster RAS-raised seafood here in the U.S.