Josh Goldman outlines Australis Aquaculture’s growth strategy in Vietnam

Australis Aquaculture CEO Josh Goldman.

Josh Goldman is the CEO of Australis Aquaculture, a company originally founded as a recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) barramundi farming firm in Turner Falls, Massachusetts, U.S.A., which pivoted in 2018 to growing its fish in sea cages in Vietnam.

Australis has been operating in Vietnam since 2006, with a growing presence over the years. In 2008, it received a 25-year lease of almost 500 acres in Khanh Hoa Province, Vietnam, where it developed a barramundi hatchery and offshore grow-out facilities. In 2016, Australis purchased Marine Farms, formerly a cobia farming firm with a hatchery, shore-based facility, and sea sites in Nha Trang, Vietnam. Australis is now the largest aquaculture sea leaseholder in Vietnam and has focused on building new farms and expanding processing operations. It recently invested in seaweed cultivation as an integrated part of its marine aquaculture operations. It sells its barramundi products via The Better Fish brand.

SeafoodSource: What is the current status of Australis Aquaculture? 

Goldman: A bunch of really positive things happened for the company in the last year. Probably the most foundational of those was that … around half of our seed leases were up for renewal. That was tied into a broader economic plan and the long and short of that is that we renewed all of the leases for another 20 years. So that was a giant sigh of relief. And I think also symbolic of the Vietnamese government's understanding that we're bringing a strategic new industry. Vietnam is the number-four aquaculture producer globally. It’s got this long coast but almost everything that's done here is lower-value production in ponds on land. And so we've brought this much more high-tech, forward-looking approach to ocean farming. And slowly and steadily, we have built a sizable business here with approaching 1,000 employees and approaching 10,000 tons of production.

With the confidence that came from that renewal, we hired Jason Paine to help drive our U.S. sales. We also closed the [USD 15 million in] Asian Development Bank financing, giving us some additional growth capital. And we have been working hard to take the next step in the vision around our growth, and how we really globalize barramundi as a species. Our vision has always been that this can be the tropical salmon – we see this as a species that, like salmon, can be successful everywhere, that it has the fundamentals of a flavor profile that consumers like everywhere. It has perfect oil content and size for portioning. All those things are the ingredients for success in lots of markets.

SeafoodSource: Australis received a call-out from The White House in advance of U.S. President Joe Biden’s 10 September meeting with Vietnam General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. What did that mean to the company?

Goldman: In 2001, Australia's received a significant acknowledgement from the U.S. State Department, which was that we, along with Patagonia, won its Award for Corporate Excellence, both for our work in developing climate solutions through seaweed cultivation, and for bringing better aquaculture operations to the tropics. Traditional aquaculture production is going to face a lot of challenges from sea level rise and seawater intrusion and so by farming a very heat-loving species in the tropics and then linking that to our project around growing asparagopsis as a methane mitigation tool, I think were the things that made that happen. More recently, when Biden was in Vietnam in September, announcing a strategic partnership, I think the administration was looking to highlight the economic ties, the U.S. technologies, and the work we're doing on climate resilience, and thematically what we're doing aligns very well with all of those, so it was a lovely pat on the back, but that's all it was.

SeafoodSource: The announcement revealed Australis has a USD 100 million (EUR 95 million) budget for expansion in Vietnam. What are your plans?

Goldman: Vietnam is a great place to be in the seafood business from a labor standpoint, from a natural environment standpoint, we have a lot of the fundamentals here. And I think because the labor costs are low, we can put a lot of attention to detail into our processing –really trim stuff beautifully and achieve great results. We’re also very technologically focused. We've got a data scientist on staff and I think we're up to three Ph.D.s on the team at this point. So we're focused on innovation and biological performance. Whether that's smarter ways to treat parasites or bioenergetics of feed, following a lot of great research governments and universities are doing in major species like salmon and shrimp, we've got to go walk that path ourselves. But the good news is that whatever we do is commercially relevant and we own the results. We've got 48 R&D cages where we're cranking out three trials a month, and there's a lot of commitment to innovation here to drive cost quality and sustainability.

SeafoodSource: You said you have the possibility of expansion. What is the timeline or potential for that in Vietnam or elsewhere?

Goldman: We're pretty focused on Vietnam, at least over the next five-plus years. In the core region that we focus on Van Phong Bay, in central Vietnam, we have 20,000 tons of permitted capacity. So we're about 50 percent built out, and that's still with lots of sites that are followed and good distance between the sites, so we're not pushing the environment in doing that. We're still following the farming model that we've built and that we've got confidence in. And then in this region, there's a series of additional sites that we're working on. That could take us to 30,000 tons here. And then in parallel, we're probably three years into a permitting a second region in southern Vietnam. And we're about a year post stocking in that region – it’s not really commercially ready, but we’re getting good data about biological performance and disease issues. So that when we do go commercial, we will understand a lot about that environment. And that second region is permitted for 30,000 metric tons. So we've got a pathway to 50,000 metric tons, with more under development at kind of a slow pace. We've got a great runway to keep growing.

SeafoodSource: What's it like operating in Vietnam?

Goldman: From a human resource standpoint, it's fantastic. You have people that are really hard-working, they have a good feel for the animal. They're very good at following protocols. Where you need help is, you may not have the level of experience or innovation. So we've got a Norwegian director of marine aquaculture on the cage side. We've got a guy coming out of Greece who was in charge of all the hatcheries at Selonda, which is great because barramundi is sort of a marine fish on the juvenile side and kind of a salmon in the sea. From a government policy standpoint, there's a lot of support for the industry, but it's still an emerging regulatory environment. And it's complex, because there's a lot of both regional and national regulations that are on the books, but people haven't necessarily implemented them and so it's very time-consuming to secure permits.

SeafoodSource: Relations between the U.S. and China are tense at the moment, and it seems like Vietnam is playing an increasingly important role geopolitically in the ... 

Photo courtesy of Australis Aquaculture

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