March 13, 2017|By Jeffrey Lewis| Food and Farms

Chefs are in a unique position to influence the way people think about food. By being deliberate in sourcing the food we serve, and by sharing our knowledge, we have the opportunity to spur change in the choices consumers make every day about the food they eat—not only what it’s been exposed to (was it fed hormones? GMOs? antibiotics?), but also how it was sourced and how it impacted the environment.

Consumers have begun to pay more attention. More and more they want to know where their food comes from. They want to support strong, sustainable, healthy local food systems. But it hasn’t always been possible to hit all of these marks when it comes to seafood, which is becoming an increasingly important food source in the United States and around the world.

Estimates suggest that we’ll have to double the global food supply by 2050, but our oceans are already threatened by overfishing and pollution. To achieve this in the face of current resource constraints, we need to find more sustainable production methods. The United States is one of the world’s largest importers of salmon, and it is important that we set an example and lead the way.

The Conservation Fund’s Freshwater Institute has pioneered a method of land-based fish farming that doesn’t affect the natural environment of wild fish, reuses 99 percent of its water, and repurposes waste. It is redefining how we think about local seafood. With this technology, you don’t have to be near an ocean to access fresh seafood—it can be produced anywhere. The Freshwater Institute isn’t a commercial fish farm. They are doing research to solve a problem—namely, how do we provide the world with healthy seafood in a way that’s sustainable, good for the environment and good for local economies—and to introduce a solution into the marketplace.

3 13 Freshwater Institute salmon on ice Kata Sharrer Photo by Kata Sharrer.

The Freshwater Institute has also developed specially-formulated fish feeds that are the most sustainable option to hit the market yet—it contains no GMOs and all its ingredients are sourced from North America. Fish meal (the protein all salmon use to build muscle) and fish oil (added for readily digestible energy and a source of heart and brain healthy omega 3 fatty acids) included in the feed was sourced only as a byproduct from a U.S. fish processing plant—meaning no additional wild fish were caught to provide these feed components. If we are going to put thought into the source of the fish we eat and how it affects the environment, we also have to take into account what those fish are putting into their bodies.

I was able to visit the Freshwater Institute, and being able see firsthand how the fish are raised in each stage was pretty incredible. It was a great moment for me to see the future of the fish farming industry right in front of me, as seafood is a big part of what I serve. 

3 13 Jeffrey Lewis and family at Freshwater InstituteChef Jeffrey and his family visiting the Freshwater Institute. Photo by Steve Summerfelt.

For the past three years, I’ve had the chance to cook with and serve Freshwater Institute’s Spring Hill Atlantic salmon—which was rated Best Choice by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program—during their annual harvest. The harvest is limited each year, lasting for several weeks in March and April. A handful of D.C.- and Baltimore-area restaurants will beginning serving Freshwater’s Spring Hill salmon this week, including my restaurant, the Chart House in Alexandria, as well as Chef Chad Gauss’ The Food Market in Baltimore and Bryan Voltaggio’s restaurants VOLT, RANGE, AGGIO and others. The salmon will also be available for purchase in select Wegmans locations.

The quality is hands down the best farm-raised salmon that I have ever tasted. I would compare it to Wild King salmon in flavor and texture, and the buttery texture is better than Chilean sea bass. The succulence of the fish is fantastic and the flavor is excellent. It is not overpowering like you might sometimes find in another farm-raised salmon. Also, the salmon has a great shelf life and the flesh is firm and it does not rip easily like other farm-raised salmon. Whether you want your salmon cooked medium or well done, it is still juicy and delicious. We have had many guests compliment the Freshwater Institute salmon and say it is the best they have ever had. I would have to agree with them.

3 13 Crispy Seared SalmonCrispy seared salmon from Chart House restaurant. Photo courtesy of Chart House.

It is exciting to use a product that is so sustainable, so local, and so delicious. Even as someone who thinks about this constantly, it really hit home how important it is to pay attention to where your food comes from. I can honestly say that the people at the Freshwater Institute are as passionate about improving aquaculture technology as I am about food.

Steve Summerfelt, Director of Aquaculture Systems Research at the Fund’s Freshwater Institute, shares more about the work at Freshwater in his blog post Healthy Salmon, Healthy Oceans, Healthy Humans.  For more than two decades, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service has supported the Freshwater Institute with extramural research funding, which is annually appropriated by the U.S. Congress with support from U.S. Senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito.

For the fourth year in a row, Atlantic salmon harvested at Freshwater’s facility in Shepherdstown, West Virginia will appear in select Wegmans stores and D.C.-area restaurants for a limited time.  This year’s salmon harvest is part of a research project funded by The Research Council of Norway through the SFI Centre for Research-based Innovation CtrlAQUA project, SalmoBreed AS, EWOS AS and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Check out this video about the Conservation Fund's Freshwater Institute and our recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS), which make it possible to grow salmon on land.