Barramundi (aquaculture)

24.05.17

Overview

Barramundi (Lates calcarifer) is considered an iconic fish of northern Australia. It is a large, majestic silver fish, which can grow to over one metre in length. It is prized by recreational fishers for its fighting spirit, is popular with diners for its mild flavour and tender, white flesh and is an important food source and spiritually important species for many Indigenous Australians. However, Lates calcarifer native fisheries go beyond Australia and the fish is known internationally as Asian sea bass, giant perch or giant sea perch. In addition to northern Australia, barramundi can be found in the Persian Gulf, South East Asia, China, southern Japan and Papua New Guinea.

Barramundi is an Aboriginal word meaning “large scaled silver/river fish” and was adopted as a marketing name in Australia in the 1980s to promote consumption. Demand for barramundi is so high that around 70% of the fish consumed in Australia is imported from countries like Thailand and Vietnam (as at 2013). This demand contributes to its popularity as a choice for aquaculture.

The Australian farmed-barramundi industry started in the mid 1980s and barramundi is now farmed in every state of Australia (except Tasmania) and the annual farm gate value of production is estimated to be AU$45 million (as at 2013).

Barramundi can be farmed in a number of ways, from indoor recirculating aquaculture (tanks) systems, to land-based pond operations and sea cages. As at 2013, there are approximately 100 licensed barramundi farmers in Australia, producing around 5,000 tonnes of fish.

The peak body for barramundi (aquaculture) producers is the Australian Barramundi Farmers Association.

Facts and figures

  • Barramundi is a popular fish in restaurants and home cooking
  • Demand for barramundi in Australia is high and approximately 70% of consumption is from imported Lates calcarifer
  • Barramundi is farmed in all states of Australia except Tasmania
  • Barramundi can be grown in indoor recirculating or flow-through aquaculture (tank) systems, land-based pond operations and sea cages
  • As at 2013, the farm gate value of Australian barramundi production was AU$45 million
  • Aquaculture operations have high infrastructure costs and require significant amounts of daily management
  • Barramundi is sold as whole chilled fish, live fish and fillets

Production status

Barramundi is farmed in all states of Australia, except Tasmania. As at 2013, there were approximately 100 barramundi farmers in Australia and the industry has an estimated value of production of around AU$45 million at the farm gate.

The size and nature of operations varies greatly, from boutique operations, usually based on tank systems, to large-scale pond or sea cage systems.

As at 2012, Australia produced 5,000 tonnes of barramundi from aquaculture and 2,000 tonnes of wild catch barramundi. Australia imported 10,000 tonnes of Lates calcariferfrom countries like Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, mostly as frozen fillet (during 2012).

Map of current and potential growing regions

Uses

Barramundi is eaten as a table fish and is popular in restaurants and home cooking. It has firm, succulent and white-pinkish flesh. Its firm flesh makes it a versatile fish that can be steamed, fried, baked or barbecued.  While normally served as fillets, small barramundi can also be served whole.

Barramundi is low in fat and high in omega-3 fatty acids, making it a healthy choice of protein.

Production Requirements

Growing regions

Wild barramundi live in freshwater, brackish or saltwater, and its native habitats include streams, rivers, lakes, billabongs, estuaries and coastal waters of tropical regions.

The majority of production takes place in north Queensland, the Kimberley region of Western Australia and the Northern Territory, where barramundi are produced in outdoor, fresh or saltwater ponds and/or sea cages. In south east Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and southern Western Australia, barramundi are produced in tanks using thermal spring water or fresh water.

Climate

Barramundi is a tropical species requiring water temperatures of 20–30°C. However, for commercial growth rates, water temperatures above 25°C are recommended because the amount of feed required by barramundi decreases in line with a decrease in water temperature, which slows growth. In Queensland, maximum food consumption occurs at 27–29°C and decreases to almost zero at 20°C.

In the Northern Territory, the optimum temperature for growth is 28–32°C and the optimum salinity range is 0–36 parts per thousand (ppt).

Growth rates of fish produced in outdoor ponds or cages will vary with seasonal changes in temperature. Fish deaths have been observed when water temperatures drops below 13°C in commercial operations. An extended  water temperature drop to below 20°C can result in stress-related deaths and disease outbreaks.

Housing

Barramundi can be farmed in a number of ways – ponds, sea cages and indoor recirculating or flow through aquacluture systems:

Ponds

Farming barramundi in ponds usually involves housing the fish in floating cages for the first part of their grow-out phase. These cages are usually 1.5m deep and can vary in size from 2m x 2m to 6m x 12m and are accessed from raised walkways.

Barramundi are released from the cages when they are around 300g in weight and raised free-range in the pond to a weight of 2-3kg. Ponds can range from 0.2ha to 1.5ha in size and are 2–3m deep. The ponds are normally aerated mechanically and water is flushed to manage ammonia and algal blooms.

Sea cages

If farming barramundi at sea, fingerlings are transferred to sea cages, where they reach market size at about 18-24 months depending on market requirements. These cages are large and robust to withstand environmental conditions.

Indoor recirculating or flow through aquaculture systems

Intensive heated indoor recirculating aquaculture systems tend to consist of a series of large production tanks in a warehouse or shed, connected to a central filter and waste removal system or external settlement ponds.

The benefit of this system is being able to regulate environmental conditions for optimum growth. Additionally, these systems are more compact than ponds, so they can be established in a range of locations, with the potential to be closer to markets than some outdoor pond operations. However, this is a complex system to operate with a high degree of mechanical automation and will require a greater level of management than pond systems.

If seeking to grow barramundi in a state where barramundi is not endemic, an indoor recirculating aquaculture system may be required under licence conditions, in order to protect native fish species.

Feed requirements

Barramundi are carnivorous. In the wild they eat other fish (including other barramundi), crustaceans like prawns and mussels, and insects.

In aquaculture systems, barramundi are fed speciality pellets available from aquaculture feed suppliers. Fingerlings are fed 5–6 times a day but feeding decreases to 1–2 times a day as they grow to market size. Broodstock barramundi might be fed fresh seafood, like whole mullet and squid, supplemented with a vitamin mix.

Breeds and breeding

In the wild, barramundi mature at 3–4 years as males and then change to females at 6–8 years of age. However under controlled aquaculture conditions this maturation can be achieved in half that time.

Industry hatcheries are able to spawn barramundi in captivity all year round using controlled lighting and temperatures that mimic the spawning season. Females are capable of multiple spawnings and generally produce 3–6 million eggs per season. Spawning can be induced in broodstock barramundi through the injection or implantation of a natural hormone. Fish will spawn 24–36 hours after the hormone injection, while the implant releases hormone more slowly sustained spawning over three to four nights.

The fish spawn in small tanks and the eggs, which float in the water, are harvested and placed in saltwater tanks where larvae are raised until they metamorphose at 8–10mm in length and are called “fry.”

When the fry reach over 20mm in length (2–3 weeks of age), they are referred to as fingerlings. Fingerlings need to be graded regularly (2–3 times a week) to ensure similar size fish are housed together, as larger fish will predate smaller ones. This grading continues until fingerlings are at least 100mm in length. At this size, fish are ready for stocking into housing for grow out.

Breeding barramundi is a complex and intensive process, requiring sophisticated on-farm systems and animal handling techniques. There are a number of professional commercial hatcheries in place.  For more detailed information on the breeding process refer to the Northern Territory Government’s Barramundi Farming Handbook.

Sourcing stock

Barramundi fingerlings can be sourced from a number of specialist hatcheries. Contact the relevant state fisheries department for details of local suppliers. A small number of established barramundi enterprises may breed their own stock.

Health care & pests and diseases

The grow out phase for barramundi is normally defined as the growth of fish from fingerling stage, when they are greater than 100mm in length, to market size. Depending on the final market size, grow out can be as little as three months for a small fish of 300 grams designed to be eaten whole, or up to 18-24 months for a fish of more than 2kg which would be suitable for filleting.

There are three methods for the grow out stage of barramundi: land-based ponds, sea cages and indoor tank systems. While each has different management systems, the basic husbandry that applies to all operations is to raise stress-free fish by ensuring clean, aerated water, appropriate levels of feed and carefully managed water temperature; and monitoring for diseases or sick fish.

Under stressed conditions, barramundi are susceptible to most bacterial, fungal and parasitic infections common to all fish. These include:

  • viral diseases
  • onodavirus
  • lymphocystis
  • bacterial diseases
  • streptococcosis
  • ovibriosis
  • onecrotic enteritis and peritonitis
  • bacterial gill disease
  • epitheliocystis
  • fungal diseases
  • red spot
  • parasitic diseases
  • crypotcaryonosis
  • trypanosomosis

The Northern Territory Government has produced a Barramundi Farming Handbook that outlines the key diseases of barramundi and provides advice on treatments and disease prevention practices. In the event of disease outbreak, producers must contact a veterinarian for assistance and notify the relevant state departmental licensing authority.

In order to limit the risk of disease, new stock should be quarantined for a minimum of two weeks before being released into the larger population.

Cannibalism may also be a problem, as barramundi are an aggressive fish and can either kill or maim each other. Even if not killed, aggression can result in barramundi sustaining skin damage, which can lead to infection and death. Aggressive behaviour can be managed by always ensuring barramundi are well fed and graded in order to be farmed with similarly sized fish.

Infrastructure Requirements

Establishing an aquaculture enterprise will entail large capital costs to meet infrastructure requirements. As at 2014, the Queensland Government estimates the capital cost of an intensive pond aquaculture system for the annual grow out of 50 tonnes of barramundi to be AU$780,000. This example is based on a 15ha farm with 5ha dedicated for grow out ponds. The estimated cost includes land purchase, farm infrastructure and equipment such as buildings, pond construction, vehicles, machinery, tanks, pumps and aerators.

Infrastructure for establishing a barramundi aquaculture enterprise will vary based on the farming method chosen, but may include:

  • land for ponds
  • warehouses for tanks
  • jetties for easy access if planning a large pond
  • pipes for transferring water around the pond systems and for draining the ponds
  • equipment to monitor water quality and feed rations
  • pumps for aeration of the water
  • tanks for growing barramundi in an indoor recirculation system (including pipes and associated mechanised infrastructure)
  • sea cages
  • facilities for trapping (harvesting) including hydraulic cranes
  • a vehicle for transporting barramundi between locations on an outdoor farm
  • a vehicle for transporting harvested barramundi
  • a facility for packing
  • a cool room for storage.

In addition to this infrastructure, the following resources are key for any aquaculture operation

  • a regulatory framework that allows efficient and environmentally sustainable operation
  • access to clean and unpolluted waters
  • adequate and reliable power sources, including back up power
  • access to adequate numbers of skilled labour available 24/7
  • access to logistics for transport, feed, ice, fuel, product etc.

The Queensland Government provides useful guidelines for the establishment and construction of an aquaculture enterprise.

Processing & Selling

Market-ready fish size will vary, depending on market demand and end use, but can range from 300gr to more than 2kg per fish. The main markets are for plate-sized fish weighing 400–800gr and larger fish weighing 2–3kg, which can be filleted. Plate-sized barramundi can be produced in the first year but for larger fish, of 2kg or more, a second grow out season will be required.

Harvesting barramundi involves herding the fish to a point in the pond/tank where they can be caught with nets. Due to the size of the fish, the nets are often lifted using hydraulic cranes. The fish are weighed then placed into an ice slurry which stuns them into unconsciousness.

Apart from some producers selling filleted fish, there is little post-harvest processing or value-adding of fresh barramundi (as at 2014).

Barramundi is sold in most major fish markets. Producers sell their fish to retailers or distributors, or to supermarkets, as whole fish on ice or as filleted fish. Most of the southern grown barramundi is sold live or as plate sized chilled into the Melbourne and Sydney restaurant trade.

Markets & Marketing

Barramundi is a popular eating fish, which has been commercially available for many years (through wild catch and aquaculture) and there are well-established markets within Australia.

Barramundi is sold as fillets, whole live or chilled fish, with the majority sold as whole fish to wholesalers, and fillets to retailers and supermarkets. Most of the southern grown barramundi is sold live (or chilled) into the Melbourne and Sydney restaurant trade.

Market-ready fish size will vary, depending on market demand and end use, but can range from 300g to more than 2kg per fish. The main markets are for plate-sized fish weighing 400–800g and larger fish weighing 2–3kg, which can be filleted.

Consumer demand for barramundi is high which provides indications that the industry will continue to expand. As at 2013, domestic production could not meet consumer demand and as a result 70% of barramundi consumed in Australia was imported, from countries like Thailand and Vietnam.

Barramundi is freely available in the Australian market and imported barramundi is often cheaper than the Australian product, however different products service different market segments. For example, supermarkets may sell frozen barramundi fillets, which are often imported, while restaurants are often seeking fresh, whole Australian grown/caught fish. Therefore it is important to understand the role of imports in the targeted market of a new enterprise.

Risks & Regulations

Risks/challenges

Risk is inherent in all aquaculture industries and barramundi is no different. The risks common to all aquaculture enterprises include:

  • establishment and management risks
  • biological requirements of aquaculture species
  • the physical environment in which the farm operates
  • ·not redeeming the large cost of establishment
  • current and future markets.

Heightened risks for new industry entrants might include high rates of mortality as systems and housing are established, a lack of understanding of market needs resulting in poor returns and not meeting the costs of establishment and production in the early years. In order to mitigate risk it is recommended that new industry entrants start with conservative stocking rates. This enables a new entrant to familiarise themselves with the operation of a barramundi farm and refine their fish husbandry and environmental management systems. Stocking rates can be increased as experience and familiarity with the farm environment is gained.  However, a conservative approach may compromise cash flow requirements due to the fixed costs associated with production regardless of stocking rates, so the correct balance must be reached.

Other production risks include environmental events, like floods or drought that impact on water quality or availability, losing access to markets (particularly due to increased imports), price fluctuations and a pest or disease outbreak.

While demand for barramundi is high, imported Lates calcarifer are freely available (and often cheaper than domestically grown fish). As at 2013, 70% of barramundi consumed in Australia was imported.  A market analysis should be undertaken prior to the establishment of a barramundi enterprise to understand the different products and market segments, and the role (and price) of imports in each market segment. The Fisheries Research and Development Corporation publication Imported Seafood in Australia, provides an overview of Australia’s seafood markets and may provide some context for marketing decisions.

Regulatory considerations

Establishing and operating an aquaculture enterprise requires a licence from the relevant state government authority, usually fisheries. State departments of planning and environment and local government authorities may also need to approve development applications for aquaculture enterprises.

Requirements may differ across states, so contact the relevant fisheries department for advice, but generally potential industry entrants will need to gain approval for:

  • site and species selection that minimises environmental impact
  • relevant safeguards in place to ensure that there is no nutrient input to dams or ponds
  • adequate safeguards to ensure no escape to the surrounding environment of species which are outside their natural range.

Licences are subject to conditions. More specifically, an aquaculture licence may specify:

  • the area within which the aquaculture activity is authorised
  • the species
  • type of equipment or infrastructure
  • environmental management requirements
  • translocation procedures
  • waste management requirements
  • records and reporting requirements
  • biosecurity requirements
  • ·other conditions.

Aquaculture operators may be required to lodge production figures with the state government and accept inspections by fisheries officers to ensure compliance with licence provisions.

If seeking to grow barramundi in a state where it is not endemic, an indoor recirculating aquaculture system may be required under licence conditions, in order to protect native fish species. Movement of live barramundi is also subject to protocols by relevant state governments.

State specific information in relation to the process of applying for an aquaculture licence is available for the following states:

Publications & Resources

Publications/ information products

Barramundi – aquaculture prospects New South Wales Department of Primary Industries (2012)

Barramundi aquaculture – Queensland Government (2013)

Barramundi – Western Australia Department of Fisheries Fact Sheet (2011)

Barramundi Farming Handbook – Northern Territory Government (2007)

Barramundi – South Australia Department of Primary Industries and Regions

Guidelines for aquaculture and pond construction – Queensland Government (2013)

Imported Seafood in Australia – Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (2010)

Other resources

Aquaculture Production Summary Report – Queensland Government (2013)

Aquaculture licensing Queensland

Aquaculture licensing NT

Aquaculture licensing NSW

Aquaculture licensing SA

Aquaculture licensing WA

Aquaculture licensing Victoria