by Mary Stone
We can’t always pair local wine with local fish, but a new aquaculture business might change that—at least when the fish is coho salmon. Finger Lakes Fish Inc., which does business as Local Coho, produces sushi-grade coho salmon in a recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) facility in Auburn, NY.
Founded in 2017, the firm began building its current location last year after it won a series of investments. “As we developed and needed more space for fish to grow, we wound up in our current facility, which we continue to build out,” says Board Member Phil Gibson, who heads the Auburn operation.
Ultimately, Local Coho wants to serve customers within a 300-mile diameter around the plant to ensure the freshest product, company officials explain. “We believe local distribution leads to fresher fish,” Gibson says. Auburn-based serial entrepreneur Ed Heslop, who has been involved with green technology for the last 30 years, developed Local Coho’s technology, which company officials say is the first of its kind in the U.S.
Heslop’s water treatment system filters particulate impurities and biologically treats dissolved impurities in a similar way that local wastewater treatment plants operate, company officials explain. They then disinfect the water using ultraviolet light and ozone to prevent disease and contamination.
To launch Local Coho, Heslop assembled an all-star board including Science Officer Mike Timmons, Ph.D., an authority on aquaculture technology, and a professor of engineering at Cornell University. The uniqueness of the purification system and the high start-up costs involved have kept other companies from developing similar land-based farms for coho salmon.
“One key barrier to entry is the amount of capital required to start and the long period of time from egg to harvest,” explains Local Coho Strategic Advisor Daphne Mazarakis. Their coho, she says, take approximately 18 months to reach the classic market size of six to seven pounds. “We are finding a market for three-pound and larger fish within the restaurant sector that focuses on sustainable, local, fresh [fish],” she adds.
Currently, the company counts three restaurants as customers: Octane Social House in Auburn, Veraisons Restaurant at Glenora Wine Cellars in Dundee, and Graft Wine + Cider Bar in Watkins Glen. The company is working with Ithaca-based distributor FingerLakes Farms LLC, which sells to foodservice businesses.
“We haven’t produced enough marketable fish to where we can go broad-based yet, but we intend to,” Gibson says. “We will have ramped up our harvest, we’ll be serving both food retail and foodservice. I can’t tell you who it is, but we have a retail launch customer already in.” It’s that quality, freshness, and focus on coho fish that make LocalCoho stand out in the market, Gibson says.
“The reason we’re selling coho salmon instead of Atlantic salmon is that Atlantic salmon is a commodity. Everybody has that. When you have a commodity, price becomes the determining factor in whether you sell or not,” Gibson says. “We’re not in that business. We’re raising a premium product for premium customers.”
Today, Local Coho has approximately 100,000 coho salmon ranging from a few weeks to almost harvest weight. Ultimately, the company plans to produce 2,000 fish a week, totaling 450 tons a year.
Local Coho: 4022 Technology Park Blvd., Auburn; localcoho.com
Mary Stone is a Rochester-based writing professor and journalist who has been covering people and businesses in the region for 15 years.
This article first appeared in the April 2021 print issue of Edible Finger Lakes.