A Salmon Harvest Feeds D.C.’s Hungry and Models Eco-friendly Fish Farming

Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson
Salmon going to D.C. are kept on ice until a refrigerated truck arrives in Shepherdstown for transport. They are used to make pasta dishes and BLTs, and are barbecued to serve with salad.

Travis May stood looking down into the 40,000-gallon water tank, his face a mix of awe and accomplishment.

Below, nearly 1,300 mature salmon swirled together in a counterclockwise orbit, their silvery scales reflecting the overhead lighting that burns at all hours inside the laboratory at the Freshwater Institute in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

As the aquaculture production manager at the facility, May and his team had spent the last two years raising these fish from eggs. That meant late nights and holidays continuously checking water oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, long hours sifting through data sets on growth and behavior – all pieces in an experiment in eco-friendly fish cultivation.

Now the Institute, part of the national nonprofit Conservation Fund, was nearing the end of the salmon group’s life cycle. As May watched the fish spin in the tank, other members of the facility’s 20 person staff were nearby humanely culling fish and loading them into ice-jammed crates.

Rather than sell the salmon or pile them on a compost heap, the Institute this summer has been donating the fish to D.C. Central Kitchen. More than 20,000 pounds of salmon will eventually be used to create more than 50,000 high-quality meals for the District’s hungry.

“This is the largest harvest they have donated to us, and by getting it raw we are able to transform the salmon into a lot of different meals,” said Amy Bachman, D.C. Central Kitchen’s director of procurement and sustainability. “At market rate, this amount would be very expensive to purchase.”

The salmon’s two-year-lifespan has more benefits, providing research for a relatively new U.S.-based industry and potential best-practice blueprints for interested commercial parties.

“The fish are our number one priority here. . . . We have alarms that will notify key individuals if anything is out of spec,” May said. “We monitor the amount of water we’re using, the amount of waste and feed in the tanks. All these things are critical to the sustainability puzzle.”

The current batch of salmon is the first group at the facility to be U.S.-born and -bred.

According to May, 98 percent of the Atlantic salmon commercially available in the country is imported from abroad. Chile, Norway and Canada are the main global suppliers, and because of that market dominance, salmon operations in the United States have been slow to get off the ground. That has stalled the widespread adoption of advanced growing techniques.

Unlike traditional salmon farming that occurs in patches of open ocean, new tank-based techniques allow producers to control all aspects of a fish’s environment. It also means farmers don’t have to worry about the impact of rising ocean temperatures or pollution.

“This is really a new industry in the U.S.,” May said. “But if we can provide more high-quality product made in the U.S., we can take our dependency away from foreign imports and then strengthen our food supply chain.”

Typically the Institute also raises salmon groups from eggs coming from overseas. But two years ago, for the first time, May and his team received a large number of inseminated salmon eggs from an Agriculture Department laboratory in Maine. The team at the Freshwater Institute set out to raise the domestic Atlantic salmon to harvest size – around nine pounds – in the best sustainable conditions.

“The goal here is to gather data on this group of fish that U.S. producers can use,” May said. “When all this is done, we’ll be able to publish the findings in a peer-reviewed journal. That will show all the metrics that a farmer would need to know so that when they purchase eggs for their fish farm, there won’t be as many unknowns and uncertainties.”

The fish eggs arrived and matured in the Freshwater Institute’s controlled system, where the temperature is maintained at 8.5 degrees Celsius, about 47.3 degrees Fahrenheit. As they grow and move into larger tanks, the salmon are fed every half-hour.

The facility’s efficient water system filters the total 70,000 gallon volume completely every 30 minutes. Water quality is tested every week. The careful management of the system’s water is key to the entire operation, May said.

“The reason we’re able to do this in southern West Virginia is because of the technology that we have in place,” he said. “It allows us to use the minimal amount of fresh water to grow 20,000 pounds of salmon.”

Once the salmon reach harvest size, the fish are culled in the most humane way possible – a six-second process that first stuns then cuts the salmon at the throat. Because of regulations, the Institute cannot sell the fish once they are at harvest size. Releasing them into the wild is also not an option.

Since 2012, the Institute had been donating whole fish on occasion to D.C. Central Kitchen. The nonprofit – which provides more than 3.6 million meals a year for struggling residents in the District while also providing culinary job training – was able to accept this summer’s bulk salmon offering because of new partnerships. C&S Wholesale Grocers paid for the Institute to truck the whole fresh salmon to ProFish, a D.C.-based seafood wholesaler.

ProFish then delivers fillets within three days to D.C. Central Kitchen. Shipments have been coming to the kitchen throughout the summer. According to Bachman, the 20,000 pounds of fresh salmon help the kitchen provide healthy meals to families that do not normally have access to quality options.

“We have a big focus on scratch cooking and doing home-cooked meals, so getting a raw protein really allows us to do the meals we want to do,” said Bachman. “These are the donations that allow us to serve food with dignity.”

The salmon will go toward the kitchen’s community meals program, which provides both hot and cold meals to shelters and area nonprofits. So far the staff has used the fish for meals such as salmon spinach Alfredo with noodles, salmon BLT and barbecue salmon with green salad.

“It’s definitely a unique opportunity in terms of the volume of protein we’re getting and where we’re getting it from,” Bachman said.