Aquna growing fast through interest in “unique” Murray cod
Aquna Chairman Ross Anderson calls Murray cod “the rarest fine-dining fish in the world.”
Outside Australia – and even inside it – Murray cod isn’t very well-known or appreciated, according to Anderson. It’s not actually a cod, but rather a predatory freshwater perch (Maccullochella peelii) that grows only in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin river system. Its population was decimated by severe overfishing in the 1800s and early 1900s, and a ban on commercialization of wild-caught Murray cod remains in effect in Australia, though recreational fishing of the species is allowed.
However, Anderson said his Griffith, New South Wales, Australia-based company has had great success farming the species in earthen ponds, and has been able to carve out a niche in the marketplace for its premium product, for which it charges AUD 22.00 (USD 15.62, EUR 14.88) wholesale per kilo (though Anderson said a price increase is coming soon as a result of global inflation).
Speaking to SeafoodSource at Seafood Expo Global in Barcelona, Spain on 27 April, Anderson said Aquna is ramping up quickly to produce enough quality and quantity of the freshwater fish to meet its aggressive goals for growth. Aquna currently has a production capacity of 4,000 metric tons (MT) but plans to reach 10,000 MT of production by 2030.
“We’re on perfect track at the moment,” Anderson said. “We’ve been building our productive capacity at the same time we’ve engaged in an educational process to introduce [Murray cod] to the world, so we’ll be ready to sell all our fish as we grow them. But there’s been so much interest that demand is ahead of our production right now.”
Anderson said Aquna – which means “flowing waters” in the language of the Australian Aboriginals living in the Murray River system – has found the ideal method of farming Murray cod, in earthen ponds built from the same soil type the fish are used to encountering in their local microclimate, flooded with water from the Murray-Darling River Basin. The company has been able to achieve steady growth for its fish of a kilo a year, until they are harvested at between 1.5 and 3 kilos in weight, though Anderson said Aquna is able to grow them to custom weights, including larger-sized fish valued by Chinese clients for banquet centerpieces.
Aquna is “one of most sustainability-focused fish farms in the world, with the fish effectively living in their native, natural environment,” Anderson said. The nutrient-rich wastewater from the farm is as fertilizer for local farms, and most of the farm’s power is sourced from a solar panel array. The company is currently in the midst of studying how a 100 percent plant-based diet impacts the taste, growth, and health of its fish. And it is engaged in a project to restock the local wild stock of Murray cod, having released an estimated 23 million fingerlings into the wild.
“For us, sustainability is something we want to live and breathe,” Anderson said.
While accessing the global retail market is a goal for Aquna, because of its production limitations, it’s the high-end fine-dining scene where the company’s efforts are currently focused.
“It’s going gangbusters in the United States, and we’re starting to get more interest from some top European chefs,” Aquna Sales Manager Stefan Baumann said. “Ten top restaurants in New York have asked for more fish. The feedback was just overwhelming: ‘I’ve never had this before! It’s such a high-quality eating fish.’”
Murray cod have a high fat content, around 13 percent on average, and its skin crisps well when grilled, Baumann said.
“We have a really unique, new fish that if you’re a chef, regardless of which kitchen style you have, you can get something really special out of the Murray cod,” he said. “We send it whole and it makes them think of how to use the fish from the nose to its tail.”
Baumann said he’s seen chefs use the fish’s rendered fat to stir-fry vegetables and make soft-serve ice cream, its collars to make a barbecued chicken-wing analog, and its ground meat to make sausages and salamis.
“Smoking works very well because of the high fat content,” Baumann said. Anderson noted its smoked and fresh fish products have won awards at the Sydney Good Food and Wine Show for the last several years in a row.
One of the biggest selling points, Anderson said, is the fish’s rarity in the market.
“We like to call it the rarest fine-dining fish in the world, as only a few hundred tons are available per year,” he said.
But while the company is proud of its reputation in white tablecloth establishments, Anderson said Aquna wants to establish and maintain a steady presence in retail, learning a lesson from the COVID-19 crisis. Aquna’s Murray cod is carried by the Woolworths, Coles, and Harris Farms supermarket chains in Australia.
“When COVID hit, foodservice dried up, and everyone including us needed an alternative distribution point,” he said. “And we really want the Australian public to be able to access this iconic fish, as much of Australia’s higher-quality seafood gets exported. Also, if an exporter comes to do due diligence, we need a strong enough domestic market to show we have credibility.”
Financially, Aquna presents a good investment alternative to other aquaculture operations, as it doesn’t have to deal with the complications that ocean farming presents.
“Our cost of production is fabulous,” Anderson said. “We’re not out on the ocean. We don’t have boats, seals, jellyfish. We can control our farming environment perfectly.”
Aquna is traded on the Australian Stock Exchange, and its market cap has grown from AUD 20 million (USD 14.2 million, EUR 13.5 million) to AUD 200 million (USD 142.1 million, EUR 135.3 million) since it was founded in 2011, according to Anderson, who said the firm raised an additional AUD 30 million (USD 21.3 million, EUR 20.3 million) in capital in November 2021 to continue to build out the remainder of its planned 40 ponds and a new state-of-the-art processing facility to augment its output of value-added products, primarily for the domestic market.
“Our balance sheet is nice and strong,” Anderson said. “Last quarter, we were cashflow positive on an operating basis. But everything coming in is going to expansion. We’re all in on expansion because we’re such big believers in this fish and its potential.”
Photo courtesy of Cliff White/SeafoodSource