The farmed halibut that’s better to eat than its wild brothers
By Alex Renton, Guardian, Wednesday 22 May 2013.
Gigha halibut’s sweet, oaky taste has high-end chefs queueing up – and its production is environmentally friendly
There are stealth bombers cruising through the huge swimming pool, flat-fish the size of doors, changing colour as you watch, from matt black to pebble-and-sand. Fish farmer Bob Wilkieson pulls one up in a net. It is 7kg of dense, thrashing muscle, utterly alien with its twisted face and deltoid wings.
These are four-year-old Atlantic halibut, and they may be the future of fish-farming: raised without chemicals and on organic feed. Unlike the flabby, slimy stuff we have come to accept as farmed salmon, this halibut is lean and far better to eat – in terms of ethics and taste – than its wild brothers.
I went to Gigha, a little island off the Mull of Kintyre, for a taste. Smoked Gigha halibut, which has kept popping up on menus since its launch 18 months ago, is worth the trip. Sliced thin, with a little lemon, its sweet, gently oaky taste (Gigha’s smoke-recipe using whisky-barrel chips was designed by the acknowledged master, Allan MacDougall, late of the Loch Fyne smokery) has high-end chefs queueing up for some of the strictly limited production.
As the tiny ferry pushed through the waves and mist, marketing officer Amanda Anderson was busy on the phone to Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, which has added it to its daily breakfast menu.
This is the latest in a line of extraordinary fish-production enterprises in the west of Scotland, born, like so much in that part of the world, of hard work, original thinking and a sizeable heap of taxpayers’ money. EU cash originally built the network of huge tanks and seawater pumps for a salmon farm on this stretch of rocky coast. Now it hosts 6,000 halibut until they are at marketable size. Gigha’s community wind turbine provides the power to run the machinery.
Alastair Barge, managing director of Gigha Halibut, was one of the original salmon farming entrepreneurs but, having spent 20 years working out how to raise halibut from microscopic to “car bonnet” size, he now concentrates on techniques that cause less environmental damage. Since 2007, Gigha has provided award-winning halibut to the wholesale fish trade, easing the pressure on a wild stock that has almost collapsed.
Many environmentalists hate fish farming because of the damage it can do. “Salmon farmers will reach straight for the medicine bottle if there’s a problem,” one former fish farm worker told me. “Salmon farming is all about chemicals, pollution, a ruined seabed and burning diesel.”
But, with most wild stocks of fish under extreme pressure, “aquaculture” is the only way most of us will be able to eat fish in future; half the world’s seafood is already farmed, most of it for people in Asia. Keeping farmed fish out of the sea bypasses some of its key problems. (That’s why, in order to get a licence from US authorities, the new GM super-salmon will be farmed in the hills of Panama). On-shore farms mean no escapes that can contaminate wild stock, and less risk of disease.
“Our veterinarian and medical bill is zero, because we keep densities so low,” says Barge as he shows off the darkened tanks where the halibut eggs hatch, in temperatures that mirror the depths of the Arctic ocean. “The feed is offcuts from a certified sustainable fishery, with a vegetable component.” Seals can’t get at the fish in their tanks, so they’re not shot, a sadly common practice in sea fish-farming. And the farmed halibut die more happily too. They are stunned beside their tank, a few seconds out of the water, rather than hauled out of the sea by net to die on a trawler deck.
So why aren’t all fish farms like this? A key reason is cost. Salmon-farming moved into the ocean 30 years ago because water-born cages were cheaper; what was once a luxury fish is now as cheap as chicken. Three years ago, a Shetland enterprise developed excellent organic farmed cod – much better than wild cod that may lie on ice in a trawler’s hold for 10 days. But though it went into supermarkets as “no-catch cod”, the premium price put consumers off and the business quickly folded.
Gigha halibut isn’t cheap either, at £12 a kilo for the fresh fish. But, says Anderson, the chefs who buy it welcome consistent quality. Barge thinks there has also been a moral change. “Twenty years ago, drink-driving was OK and eating wild halibut was OK. Now eating wild is becoming something people raise their eyebrows at – and we know what’s happened with drink-driving.”
Back at the tanks, Wilkieson says farming halibut is worth it because it tastes so good. “I do a mean ceviche with it – coconut milk, lime juice and chilli. Grilled is great. I never eat salmon now.”
• Buy smoked Gigha halibut online at gighahalibut.co.uk