Prawn stars

A ground­break­ing new On­tario farm is tak­ing the guilt out of eat­ing shrimp, and Toronto restau­rants can’t get enough

North Toronto Post - - Food - By Jon Sufrin

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

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