A groundbreaking new Ontario farm is taking the guilt out of eating shrimp, and Toronto restaurants can’t get enough
Shrimp are one of those foods that are as troublesome as they are delicious.
Want to support slavery? Look for cheap frozen shrimp from Asia, as there is a good chance they were caught or peeled by modern-day serfs. Want to hasten the destruction of the planet? Buy shrimp that were harvested through bottom trawling, which pulverizes the ocean floor and results in high amounts of bycatch.
The easiest solution, for those of us who care, is to never eat shrimp. But that’s never going to happen. So the next best course of action, in North America at least, is to always buy locally, an option that has traditionally been nonexistent in shrimp-obsessed Toronto.
That was before Paul and Tracy Cocchio, along with their son Brad — a family of farmers in Campbellford, Ont. — decided to make an unlikely move and convert their hog-farming business into Canada’s first shrimp-growing operation.
Now some of Toronto’s best restaurants and seafood purveyors — including Honest Weight, Hooked, Nota Bene, the Black Hoof and Momofuku Shoto — are serving their product. It could revolutionize the way Canada eats seafood.
“The appetite for shrimp is insatiable, especially in North America,” says Jay Browne, manager at Honest Weight. “We need to think of ways to stop pulling things out of the ocean.”
The story of Ontario shrimp began with a Google search.
It was 2008, and the price of hogs was disconcertingly low. The Cocchios, who had farmed hogs for a decade, began considering alternative sources of income.
Paul, the father, did what a millennial would do: he got onto Google. He discovered that farmers in Indiana were using saltwater pools housed in chicken barns to grow shrimp — and they were making money from it.
Brad was surprised by the idea but intrigued.
“My parents are smart people,” Brad says. “We did the research and knew what needed to be done.”
The Cocchios visited farms in the U.S. to get a better idea of operations, and they decided build one of their barns into an aquaculture farm.
They built 16 concrete pools to hold 20,000 litres of salt water each. They bought heaters to keep the water at a constant 29 degrees Celsius. And they brought in baby shrimp: eyelash-sized Pacific whiteleg shrimp from Florida, which they intended to grow to harvestable size.
First Ontario Shrimp was born.
“We were told that the first year would be terrible,” Brad says. “And it really was.”
First there was government red tape. Nobody had tried farming shrimp in Ontario before, so permits had to be secured.
Then there were growing pains. Shrimp, it turns out, are decidedly finicky. They are sensitive to salinity, temperature, ammonia, pH levels and alkalinity. If you feed them too much, ammonia levels skyrocket; if you feed them too little, they start eating each other. The tanks also need time to develop healthy levels of biofloc, a micro-organism that purifies and balances the water.
The first harvest was a measly five pounds of shrimp, but the product was good.
“I couldn’t believe how sweet they were,” Brad recalls. “Shrimp that you buy frozen aren’t as sweet, and the texture is firm.”
These days, First Ontario Shrimp produces around 100 pounds per week. But it’s still a learning process, and Brad anticipates that their one barn will eventually produce around 400 pounds per week. The process, Brad says, is virtually waste-free: the biofloc consumes shrimp waste, dead shrimp and uneaten food, and the growing tanks are self-contained, with no discharge.
Mitchell Bates, chef and coowner of the upcoming Grey Gardens in Kensington Market, thought the idea of Ontario-grown shrimp was crazy when he first heard about it. But he’s a fan of the product, having served it in salads and in sausage when he was chef at Momofuku Shoto.
“The shrimp industry has had a lot of focus on it in the past couple years, and it just needs an overhaul,” Bates says. “Something like this that is farmed and ethically produced is the future of food production for a lot of people.”
Although the project is Ocean Wise certified, it’s not without its drawbacks. The Ocean Wise website lists a sustainability concern with farms like First Ontario Shrimp: “Relatively high amounts of fish protein are used in the shrimp feed.”
Brad, for his part, would not specify what type of shrimp feed he uses.
Still, Ontario has new shrimp farms that are set to follow suit. Toronto entrepreneur Marvyn Budd is set to open Planet Shrimp in a former Imperial Tobacco plant in Alymer, Ont. He hopes to produce 3,600 kilograms of shrimp per week — to start — in the 225,000-square-foot facility.
With output like that, Canadian farm-raised shrimp could become the norm in a few years. And that’s probably a good thing.
Clockwise from top left: a quirky sign at Honest Weight; the Black Hoof’s Ontario shrimp tartare; Brad Cocchio of First Ontario Shrimp and harvested Pacific whiteleg shrimp