Food & dining
    Next Score View the next score

    When a chef and a marine biologist team up, everyone wins

    Steelhead trout from the UNH aquaculture program.
    Catherine Smart for The Boston Globe
    Steelhead trout from the UNH aquaculture program.

    About a year ago, Jeremy Sewall — chef and partner of Row 34 and Island Creek Oyster Bar restaurants, and the recently opened Les Sablons — was scrolling through his Instagram feed when he spotted a glistening, speckled Steelhead trout from Greenpoint Fish & Lobster Co. in Brooklyn. The caption read that it was raised through the aquaculture program at the University of New Hampshire. As Sewall tells it, “I screenshot that picture and send it to my purchaser Phil and say, ‘Find me this fish, I own a restaurant in New Hampshire and I need to find this fish.’ ”

    The rainbow trout in question was raised by Michael Chambers, a research scientist at UNH’s School of Marine Science and Ocean Engineering. It was grown in an offshore pen that bears little resemblance to the stagnant, antibiotic-filled fish ponds people might associate with aquaculture.

    Many phone calls to the marine biology department later, purchaser Phil found Chambers and set up a meeting with Sewall. The scientist and the chef sat down to lunch. “Come to find out, that was kind of the end of the project. They had raised the fish [he saw on social media] and they weren’t sure what they were going to do next year, and I was like, ‘We have to do this, it’s incredible,’ ” says Sewall.

    Advertisement

    I meet Chambers and Sewall in the parking lot of the Judd Gregg Marine Science Complex, a modern lab facility that supports UNH’s school of Marine Science and Ocean Engineering. We pile into a dinghy, along with Gunnar Ek, who has worked on aquaculture with Chambers since 2004, Sewall’s publicist, who is eager to see the fish pens for herself, a communication person from UNH, and Sewall’s curious accountant, who, in a previous life, worked on a fish farm in Israel. We’re all here to feed the fish. “As a biologist, you want to see your chicken, your cows, every day — so you can see if they are healthy. If something is up, you can catch it right away. [Automated] feeders are fine, but you don’t want to rely on it,” says Chambers, as we chug away from shore, past a small bobbing graveyard of old fish cages that predate the current prototype of his fish pen.

    Get The Weekender in your inbox:
    The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
    Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

    Ten minutes after pulling away from picturesque New Castle, we arrive at the platform, which looks kind of like a large, floating, wrestling ring. It’s made of HDPE piping – like PVC, but more durable and bendable in rough seas. Chambers tells us the raft was designed by a recent master’s program graduate, Corey Sullivan.

    “What’s unique about this is that we have a floating system that’s designed to hold fish at the center. And we have these,” he says, pulling up tubes of nylon netting, filled with mussels and seaweed growing on rope. “These act as biological filters, or a biological curtain, which are now taking nutrients that the fish give off and are absorbing them, taking that nitrogen out of the system.” This Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture system, known as IMTA, is a big part of what sets Chambers’s project apart.

    Back in 2000, Chambers was raising stocks of native fish, farther out at sea, in submerged cages. “Cod, haddock, and halibut are very difficult to raise, they are very expensive to bring to the hatchery, and it takes 3 to 4½ years to bring to market,” says Chambers. If farming cod is like producing a barrel-aged whiskey, his Steelhead trout — the same fish that are stocked in bodies of water all over the world for recreational fishing — are more akin to top-shelf vodka.

    We dump some fish pellets into the water and a surge of metallic skin splashes and flickers at the surface. Chambers scoops a few lively fish into a net, “And now we look at this fish, we are going to have this fish in the water for four months. This one is more domesticated, it’s easy to get the eggs, easy to hatch, and we can actually take this from fresh to saltwater and it just explodes.”

    Advertisement

    This pen can produce about 8 tons of fish. But Chambers and his team have developed a 40-ton system, which is a bit bigger and can go farther offshore to increase production. The scientist says, “We are writing proposals. If we can build that and put it offshore and give it a trial — this is sort of the initial phase we need to go commercial.” That’s where Sewall comes in.

    Though Sewall makes his living as a chef, he comes from a family of fishermen, including his cousin Mark Sewall, who supplies the lobster for his restaurants, and his grandfather before him, “What else is growing in and around that pen is equally important to the fish itself. And that’s the future of fish farming, in my opinion. We can’t harvest the ocean the way we harvest the ocean and expect there to be fish forever. Aquaculture is the future, and these guys developed a system that is amazing and I think is going to be really important to my industry,” says Sewall.

    I ask Chambers how the local fishing community feels about his project. He says, “Because we’ve been involved with open ocean aquaculture since 2000, we’ve tried to bring them in and they’ve done work with us. And when we started to do the trout aquaculture near shore, we had them in mind and brought them into the permitting process.” Though he is quick to say that, for now, lobstering is a more profitable way for fishermen to spend their time, he believes that many see the writing on the wall and will want to be involved in aquaculture in some capacity in the future. Chambers is headed to a meeting with fishermen later in the afternoon to talk about setting up aquaculture off the Isle of Shoals. Sewall is curious about the sets of wild mussels that grow off the nearby islands and peppers Chambers with questions.

    As a restaurateur, Sewall sees a major business opportunity, likening Chambers’s method of fish farming to the small organic farms that chefs patronize to get the best meat and produce. He is willing to wait for the fish to grow and is eager to create new dishes to showcase the end product. Back on shore he talks through plans with his publicist to host an educational event at Row 34 Portsmouth once the fish are ready to harvest.

    Chambers hopes they’ll be on the menu in the next few months, “I think it’s a great way for the project to evolve, beyond just the research demonstration. It’s great to have a partner like Jeremy; it’s a natural fit to take it to the next step. . . . The market is huge, so there’s lots of room to grow.”

    Catherine Smart can be reached at cathjsmart@gmail.com.