Finger Lakes Fish building a market for coho in upstate New York

Published on
February 26, 2020

With no commercial fishery in sight in upstate New York, Finger Lakes Fish is aiming to fill the fresh fish gap with farm-raised coho salmon.

Working in a 43,000-square-foot recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) facility in Auburn, New York, U.S.A., the company plans to hit full capacity in July of this year: 2,000 market-ready fish a week, or 450 tons annually. Right now, the company has two raceways – tanks of oxygenated water 6-feet deep, 16-feet wide, and 80-feet long – operational and is in the process of building seven more in the coming months.

Hatched from certified-organic eggs and raised to maturity, the sushi-grade fish are marketed under the label LocalCoho and are bound for a premium market, according to Finger Lakes Fish, setting the product apart from more common, recognizable species.

“Coho is not a commodity,” Finger Lakes Fish General Manager Phil Gibson told SeafoodSource. “Atlantic salmon pretty much is at this point. So, we decided to set ourselves in a premium class to avoid that kind of competition and to distinguish ourselves in the market.”

While Gibson, who is also on the company’s board, did not want to elaborate on Finger Lakes Fish’s plans for expansion down the road, he did note that expansion across the country in as many as 12 regional locations is a possibility. The Auburn facility will serve as proof of concept for new facilities.

In October, Finger Lakes Fish became the world’s first RAS coho salmon farm to be awarded Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) certification, and became one of the first aquaculture production facilities to receive certification from the Safe Quality Food (SQF) Program in January.

“As a brand dedicated to elevating industry standards, LocalCoho strives to be an industry role model for the safety and quality of our products and facilities,” Ed Heslop, the company’s CEO, said. “Operating among the first SQF-certified RAS production facilities demonstrates our commitment to doing our best for our industry, for our customers, and for our environment.”'

“As an individual member of GAA, I have advocated for its Best Aquaculture Practices for years,” added Gibson. “[BAP certification] is a verification that our RAS operation is committed to doing our best for our industry and our environment.”

Finger Lakes Fish currently supplies two restaurants – Glenora Wine Cellars in Dundee, and Graft Wine + Cider Bar – and is in talks to supply a few high-end grocers. While sustainability certifications and best practices awards certainly help the company build business-to-business partnerships, the marketing, as the name LocalCoho suggests, will be focused on the freshness of the fish and proximity to the consumer.

“Our facility, and future facilities, will only supply fish within a 300-mile radius,” said Gibson. “The retail and food service industries have certainly picked up on this growing consumer preference for buying more local products. If you go to a grocery store, you see signs all over the place about how many local products are available. So, not only will we be delivering a fresher product, but it gets put in that local category as well.”

On the LocalCoho website, consumers can find tips on how to evaluate, prepare, and cook their coho. Working with farm-to-table distributors, Gibson said the firm has had a lot of success on restaurant menus early on.

“What we're finding is that the people that we're selling to embrace it as a point of differentiation from their competition,” said Gibson. “It’s a different species, it’s local, it’s something that people want to try.”

And even with potential expansion of facilities on the radar, the company plans on sticking to coho instead of experimenting with different species, continuing to build this species-specific brand nationwide.

Heslop said the business has raised private equity from across the U.S., Europe, and South America. The company’s first coho were raised in a King Ferry, New York-based barn in April 2018, when Finger Lakes Fish purchased its current facilities for USD 1.35 million (EUR 1.24 million), according to reports from The Citizen.

Photo courtesy of Finger Lakes Fish

Reporting from Portland, Oregon

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