February 17, 2010 | Register-Star
By Francesca Olsen
GREENPORT — Though Local Ocean is encased in a large warehouse space, it’s actually a farm. It produces no waste and the product it grows is mercury free and pregnancy safe. And the company is doubling its growing space, making it one of the most successful farms in the county.
Why did this business choose to locate in Columbia County on the Hudson/Greenport line?
Truthfully, said Udi Brill, head marine biologist for Local Ocean, it was because the people were nicer.
Local Ocean’s warehouse is a tropical wonderland — it’s kept hot for the fish, which hail from a warmer climate. The 30 circular, 3,800-gallon tanks are full of more than 100,000 fish in varying sizes and types — and some of them bite.
On one side of the huge warehouse is a wall of black boxes and several vats with murky green water in them.
A slow-moving “settling pond” contains anaerobic bacteria to process fish waste and undigested food from all the tanks. The black boxes, lined with aerobic microorganisms, slowly clean and oxygenate the air.
“It’s a true zero-discharge system,” said Columbia-Hudson Partnership Deputy Executive Director Todd Erling. “It’s like being part of a saltwater marsh.”
“It’s really a living machine,” said Erling, who has been working closely with Local Ocean since they came to the area.
A room away from the main tank space is the quarantine area, where fish come when they’re first delivered. They’re closely monitored (the entire Local Ocean headquarters is staffed 24/7), sized and conditioned in an effort to keep mortality rates low.
“It’s very hard work to go with. You can go from full survival to full mortality,” Brill said. “The first hours are critical.”
So far, success: There are now more fish at Local Ocean than anyone expected. Mortality rates have been much lower than usual and shipments of tiny fingerlings are coming once every two months.
Many of the original shipment of 45,000 fish — Gilt-Head Sea Bream from Israel — are growing ahead of schedule. The fish are constantly sized and grouped together in tanks with fish of the same size and breed, starting with quarantine, and when they get to the big tanks, they’re fed every two hours.
Light cycles are imitated and every effort is taken to duplicate a natural environment.
Local Ocean has a hatchery permit from the Department of Environmental Conservation for sea bream and Mediterranean Sea Bass. In October, the DEC approved an addition to their permit for summer flounder, black sea bass, white sea bass, yellowtail amberjack and greater amberjack.
The fish are grown organically — no genetic engineering, no strange chemicals — just machinery to create good growing conditions.
So far they’ve had three shipments. The latest this month: 60,000 bream and European sea bass. A hatchery is planned for the future.
Also in the works for the very near future is a huge facilities expansion. Currently, construction work is taking place behind the current building, even on freezing days, to add 160,000 square feet of space to the current 40,000-square-foot operation.
The first concrete has been poured for two greenhouse-shaped buildings that will allow Local Ocean to increase capacity to 1,000 tons of fish per year by the end of 2010.
Brill’s goal is to have “fish in the water” in the new buildings by this summer.
There are also currently 17 employees at Local Ocean, but they predict 53 or more jobs will be added by the end of 2012.
It takes about a year for fish to reach market weight, about 1 pound. The first fish, which arrived in July 2009, are ahead of schedule and Local Ocean has committed one of its first batches to be served at the governor’s mansion.
As space increases and shipments become more frequent, the output of fish will be regular and constant.
“If you have fingerlings all around the year, you have market all around the year,” Brill said.
Of course, this means a tremendous investment, almost a billion dollars, coming mostly from two private investors.
And an interest in buying the fish is coming from all directions. Mostly the fish will sell wholesale to restaurants and markets, but Brill is also planning a storefront space in Greenport.
“We’re part of this county,” he said. “I think the people here have a right to buy the fish here.”