The market demand for trout and salmon has wreaked havoc on global aquatic ecosystems, but entrepreneur John Ng is aiming to stem the tide of damage and supply East Coast seafood markets with a sustainable, locally grown salmon alternative: New York Steelhead trout, raised humanely at a facility outside Hudson, NY.
Steelhead is a type of rainbow trout beloved by chefs for the versatility and mouthfeel of its creamy, mild coral-colored meat, which is rich in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B, and minerals. Native to Pacific Northwestern waters, their wild population has dropped dangerously over the past century, part of a global overfishing and habitat crisis. Efforts to replace wild-caught with net-cage farmed fish on the plate have resulted in unforeseen environmental nightmares.
But thanks to a science-minded gentleman farmer named John Ng, Hudson Valley Fisheries in Hudson supplies 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of fresh, local steelhead a week to restaurant kitchens and grocers on the East Coast. In June, at full capacity, that quantity will grow to 40-50,000 pounds weekly.
Ng is the son of Norman Ng, an immigrant from Hong Kong who bought a scrapyard in Brooklyn in the 1980s and caught the rising tide of industrial recycling, building his business into the multinational Fortune Group. Growing up in Jersey, John played racket sports and studied science. “The standard for an Asian kid at the time was law or medicine, so I studied physiological psychology and philosophy at SUNY Binghamton, attempting the pre-med route with an emphasis on how the brain works,” he says. But his own brain, he found, preferred business to medicine.
A discussion with a friend over a sushi dinner turned his thoughts to aquaculture, and in 2014, Ng purchased 120 acres in Greenport and an aquaculture facility from the defunct Local Ocean Seafood, which had been attempting to farm tilapia there. “They had had some strange ideas about operations, and at the end of the day the only thing we kept were the four Caterpillar generators,” says Ng.
The Fortune Group had his back, and Hudson Valley Fish Farm, Inc. is now the largest land-based commercial-scale steelhead farm in North America. Using recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) technology, the facility not only circumvents the many environmental problems of water-based fish farms but provides nutrients for Ng’s other crop: hemp.
Farming fish in a 1,200-metric-ton, 160,000-square-foot biosecure indoor tank system is not a simple task. “We have a series of protocols using technology and personal inspection that are in place 24/7 to keep our fish healthy and happy. That includes every environmental factor, like temperature, current flow, feeding schedule, and more to keep fish free of stress,” says Ng. “It’s basically a life support system—you can keep someone alive on life support, but how do you keep them happy?”
A trained aquaculture team (HVFF works with Cornell Cooperative Extension and SUNY Cobleskill on aquaculture internships) is constantly attending to the fine details of the environment as the fish progress through a series of tanks from egg to hatchling to six-pound maturity and humane harvest.
“We use a humane method of gradual stunning, so the fish are anesthetized first,” says Ng. “A lot of what we do involves reading and understanding fish behavior. Like any livestock farmer, we can tell you if they’re happy, sad. We have all kinds of technological alarms for everything, but the fish give the first sign when anything is amiss, and our staff are learning every nuance.”
A Growing Enterprise
Using the wastewater from the fish tanks to nourish a crop of hemp is going, well, swimmingly. “This is our first year in hemp, and we’re honestly stunned at the yield,” says Ng. “We’ve got a crop with a lot of biomass and a high CBD content. The plant likes the nutrients.”
Ng still lives in New Jersey with his wife and four kids (“Amy’s a city girl, and Edgewater/Fort Lee was about as far as she’d go”), but he’s on-site in Greenport four days a week, 8:30am till 4pm and is a lunch regular at The Cascades. For dinner, he’s a fan of Fish & Game, where his product has featured on menus prepared by rockstar chef Zak Pelaccio. “They’ve done some amazing dishes with our steelhead,” Ng says.
In November, Fish & Game held a prix-fixe dinner just to showcase New York Steelhead, which is raised a mere four miles from the restaurant. The scale-to-tail menu included sashimi, grilled hearts, bruleed belly, a fish head curry, and other extravagant delicacies made with Ng's sustainable salmon alternative.
And in December, The Chefs Collective organized “Winter Kaiseki in the Hudson Valley,” a multi-course winter solstice feast at The Barn on Bushnell in Chatham, NY, featuring traditional Japanese dishes. The dinner featured steelhead sashimi, prepared two ways, as well as a trout main, marinated in sake kasu and grilled over charcoal, along with other locally sourced proteins like mushrooms from Rock City Farm and rose veal from Hawthorne Valley Farm.
Columbia County, he says, is ideal for its proximity to major seafood markets and its growing farm-to-table (think egg-to-plate) scene. Last spring, HVFF became the first-ever aquaculture facility to earn the designation of New York State Grown and Certified and the only seafood producer outside of Suffolk County, Long Island to be included.
In 2018, Bon Apetit magazine’s “Healthy-ish” department featured steelhead as “the sustainable, home cook-friendly seafood we’re loving right now.” Last December, the farm announced the debut of its portion-sized twin fillet packs, adding an attractive convenience to a product that’s already a hit at Kings, Balducci's, and through online grocer FreshDirect. Expect that retail footprint to expand in 2020, along with more farmers’ market presence. Besides Fish & Game, Ng’s New York-raised steelhead trout is on the menu at Gaskin’s in Germantown, 8 North Broadway in Nyack, and 18 restaurants and chains in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Whether you’re planting or hatching, working on a shoestring or backed by the family recycling company, Ng says farming calls for steady nerves. “A few weeks in, working with our first batch of fish eggs, we saw them hatch into little fish and then had a mechanical failure.I felt it deep inside,” he says. “But those moments when you take a beating call for getting back up, doing it again, and doing it right.” A sentiment that any farmer, of any crop, can recognize.
Restaurants Carrying New York Steelhead
Upstate1. Fish & Game, Hudson, NY
2. Gaskin's, Germantown, NY
3. 8 North Broadway, Nyack, NY
4. Charlie Bird, NYC
5. Chez Ma Tante, NYC
6. Electric Lemon, NYC
7. Ferris, NYC
8. Five Leaves, NYC
9. Grape and Grain, NYC
10. Lighthouse, NYC
11. Marc Forgione, NYC
12. Marlow, NYC
13. Mayanoki Sustainable Omakasi Sushi, NYC
14. Seamore's, all NYC locations
15. Mermaid's Garden, Brooklyn
16. Oxalis, Brooklyn
17. Pheasant, Brooklyn
18. Raoul's, Brooklyn
19. Greenpoint Fish & Lobster, Brooklyn
20. The Finch, Brooklyn
21. Wythe Hotel, Brooklyn