Barramundi (FDA common name 'giant perch') is native to Australia and regions of Southeast Asia. The fish comes from both wild fisheries and aquaculture production. The biggest supply of wild-caught barramundi comes from Indonesia, with fish reaching 5-10lbs. Because barramundi can reach a market size of 1.5- 2lbs. in less than a year, it is well-suited for aquaculture. Farmed barramundi is a cost-effective, sustainable alternative to grouper, snapper, and halibut that is available year round with the leading aquaculture producers based in Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand.
When uncooked, the flesh is pink and turns white when cooked. Barramundi has a sweet, buttery flavor and larger barramundi have a stronger taste profile than smaller fish. The dense meat has large, firm flakes and the fish has a few large bones that are removed easily. The fish's mid-oil content helps to keep the flesh moist while cooking, lending itself to a myriad of preparations. Many times the fish is prepared pan seared with the edible skin left to crisp-up nicely. Barramundi is most commonly available as fresh and frozen in fillets, as well as portions. Buyer Beware: Product quality can vary considerably based on the production system, environmental conditions, and harvest method and fish raised in freshwater can be subject to off-flavor, so discerning buyers may wish to avoid pond-raised product.
Key sustainability notes for barramundi from landings averaged from 2011-2014 based on 2016 Seafood Watch ratings:
Availability of "Best Choice (green)" rated barramundi is farm-raised in Vietnam from Australis Aquaculture
~95% of wild-caught barramundi is rated an "Avoid (red)" and comes from Indonesia
~5% of wild-caught barramundi has no rating, with recent landings in seven countries, with ~2% of global landings from Australia
A part of the sea perch family, barramundi can grow up to seven feet (200 cm) in length and weigh up to 130 pounds (60kg). They are protandrous hermaphrodites, meaning they begin life as males and later turn into females, usually at three to five years old. They have a distinctly pointed head with a large jaw and rounded tail fin. Freshwater populations have a green-blue upper body with brown to black tail fins. Saltwater barramundi have a silver body with yellow tail fins. Based on aboriginal folktales, some say barramundi has special aphrodisiac qualities and is given the name “passion fish.”
Adults migrate from freshwater to coastal estuaries between October and April to spawn, which happens when tidal activities are strongest. Large females can produce up to 40 million eggs in one season; however, more than 90 percent of larvae and juveniles die within the first couple months. Larvae hatch after 24 hours, relying on nutrients from the yolk sac until they are more developed, about two or three days later. Larvae remain in mangrove and tidal habitats until the springtime. Juveniles migrate into rivers if there is one nearby, where they take three to four years to develop into adults. Adults reach sexual maturity between three and five years old, where they migrate back to the saltwater to spawn. Males turn into females at around six years old and three feet (80 cm) in length, requiring saltwater for the sex change.
Barramundi eat almost anything, including other barramundi, and can consume prey up to 60 percent its own length. Larvae eat plankton. Juveniles eat small fish, aquatic insects, and small crustaceans. Adults prey on fish and crustaceans. Predators of barramundi include large fish, birds, and reptiles such as saltwater crocodiles.
Barramundi are native to the Indo-Pacific and are widely distributed throughout the region – ranging from Australia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, northward to the coast of China and Japan, and westward to India and various islands in the Indian Ocean. They inhabit estuaries, lower reaches in rivers, and coastal waters. Barramundi prefer slow-moving rivers, creeks, swamps, and estuaries. They are also capable of tolerating a wide-range of salinities and environmental conditions and can often be found around nearshore islands and reefs. Barramundi are catadromous and migrate from fresh water to salt water to spawn and commonly move between the two throughout their life cycle.
Science & Management
From 2008 through 2014, the Australian Seafood Cooperative Research Centre has developed multiple projects for the sustainability and preservation of Australian Barramundi populations. They were in charge of the development of a genetic management and improvement strategy for Australian cultured barramundi, prevention of muddy taints in farmed barramundi and in recirculating freshwater systems, and stamping quality across the Australian farmed barramundi industry to improve the viability, increase growth, and maintain profitability in the Australian populations.
A 2013 study by the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation and James Cook University looked at the vulnerability of barramundi and the barramundi fishing industry to climate change in Australia. They found that with a 3.6°C increase in ocean temperatures over the next several decades, both wild and aquaculture barramundi populations may become more productive. The distribution of barramundi will expand, providing new opportunities for the fishing and aquaculture industries, and implementation of this knowledge into future management and development planning will ensure quick adaptation of these industries and subpopulations.
Researchers from Charles Darwin University studied the dispersion of barramundi in 2016. The tracking project began in 2015 in conjunction with the university, the Northern Territory’s Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, the Northern Territory’s Fisheries, and the Yugul Mangi Rangers in the Roger River, tagging hundreds of barramundi with acoustic transmitters in the Roper River. The transmitters provide the researchers knowledge about the ideal water flows and levels barramundi need to breed and survive. They found that some of the fish travel over 100 km over several days, while others (typically adult females) were fairly sessile and remain in freshwater even during spawning. The research project is expected to continue until April 2019, with hopes of an extension as more fish, including other species of fish, are identified.
Barramundi aquaculture is regulated in the US by both individual state governments and the federal government. Numerous federal agencies provide some degree of oversight to aquaculture facilities operating in the US. These include:
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) – which is responsible for coordinating national aquaculture policy and providing industry with research, information, and extension services;
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – which regulates waste discharge from aquaculture facilities;
The Fisheries and Wildlife Service (FWS) – which regulates the introduction and transport of fish; and,
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine is responsible for approving and monitoring the use of drugs and medicated feeds used in the aquaculture industry.
US barramundi are farmed in closed recirculating systems – allowing for constant filtration and removal of effluents and solids with low discharge rates. Additionally, US producers have successfully developed and implemented a “Best Management Plan” (BMP). The BMP addresses practices to minimize the amount of discharged pollutants (biological, chemical, medicinal), ensures proper material storage/cleaning, and requires that facilities maintain accurate record keeping. Raising barramundi in closed systems reduces negative interactions with predators and risk of escapement.
The barramundi farming industry in Vietnam currently consists of a single farm operated by Australis Aquaculture Vietnam (AAV) that produces 2,000 tons of barramundi a year. The Vietnam-based facility is responsible for approximately 90 percent of the barramundi imports into the US (as of 2014). AAV’s barramundi are grown in low-density offshore net pens in Van Phong Bay, in central Vietnam. AAV operates a two-phase system, which includes an initial fingerling phase (1/3 of the production cycle) where 10 percent biomass production occurs in land-based tanks and a two-phased stage grow-out system in open pens in Van Phong Bay (2/3 of the production cycle) where the remaining 90 percent of the biomass production takes place. Their land-based nursery operations are required to achieve compliance with the US EPA’s standards for aquaculture. Additionally, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) has conducted an environmental assessment and an independent environmental impact assessment has been conducted (a condition of site permitting). The agreement between AAV and OPIC requires that the company comply with all applicable local environmental, health, and safety laws as well as international standards outlined by the OPIC. AAV has legally committed to meet the International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) Environmental, Health and Safety standards for aquaculture, fish processing, and environment. The company also has a health management plan designed to avoid the introduction of disease, protocols to maintain water quality, and a fish health-monitoring and diagnostic program.
Wild fisheries for barramundi exist in Indonesia where they are primarily targeted using by hook and line, longline, and gillnet gears. The Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries is responsible for fisheries management of barramundi within Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone – with local and regional governments having roles in administrating areas within 12 nautical miles offshore. Local and regional governments are also responsible for conservation and resource utilization. Management objectives for Indonesia’s fisheries are set at 80 percent Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY); however, the specific application of this to the barramundi fisheries is unknown. Management of the barramundi fishery in Indonesia is severely constrained by a lack of resources and information and as such, is considered to be ineffective. Currently there are no bycatch limits in place and no observer coverage exists in the fishery. Recent landings data is scarce and enforcement of fishery regulations is compromised by a lack of resource availability.
Barramundi, also known as giant perch, is a carnivorous fish with a wide distribution that is found in Australia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, India, and the coasts of China and Japan. Despite being hardy and fast-growing, it has high inherent vulnerability, according to a 2013 Seafood Watch report. Very little information is available about the barramundi population in eastern Indonesia, leading Seafood Watch to call the stock status there a high concern.
Habitat impacts (Wild)
The gear types used to catch barramundi in eastern Indonesia include gillnets, hook and line gear, and pelagic longlines. These fishing methods do not have contact with the sea floor so Seafood Watch gave them a green rating.
Information about bycatch in the eastern Indonesia barramundi fishery is lacking. When evaluating this fishery, Seafood Watch took scientific literature into account and also focused on the known risks from the gear types used. Gillnets pose the most risk of inadvertently catching finfish and seabirds. Pelagic longlines carry a moderate bycatch concern, and hook and line gear has the lowest risk of the three types.
Barramundi in eastern Indonesia are mainly the responsibility of Indonesia’s Ministry for Marine Affairs and Fisheries although local and regional governments also have administrative roles. A Seafood Watch report from 2013 noted that lack of resources in the area has had a negative impact on management. There is little scientific monitoring, assessment, enforcement of fisheries measures, or information about bycatch in this fishery. Overall, Seafood Watch called the management ineffective.
Conservation Criteria - Farmed
Seafood Watch gave the Australis Aquaculture Vietnam barramundi farm a green rating for the high quality and transparency of data. Data quality and availability for most of the recirculating aquaculture systems that farm barramundi also tends to be good, and Seafood Watch gave it a green rating in 2014.
Barramundi, also known as giant perch, are farmed around the world in closed-containment, land-based recirculating aquaculture systems. They are also produced in net pens in Central Vietnam. Recirculating aquaculture systems allow for a high degree of control over inputs and outputs, minimizing effluent, Seafood Watch reported in 2014. These systems remove fish wastes from the water and use them for other purposes such as fertilizer. Clean water is recirculated through the tanks. Net pens are open, allowing more waste discharge. As a result, Seafood Watch gave the net pen farm operated by Australis Aquaculture Vietnam a yellow rating for effluent.
A series of filters and pumps treat water in the recirculating aquaculture systems used to farm barramundi, minimizing environmental impacts in the traditional sense. However, these systems can be energy-intensive to operate, which is an environmental impact Seafood Watch noted in its 2014 report. Floating net pens like the ones used to farm barramundi in Vietnam have little direct habitat impacts, according to Seafood Watch, but discharges can affect water quality and biodiversity.
The recirculating aquaculture systems used to farm barramundi rely on food that contains some animal ingredients. Seafood Watch gave this farming type a low-moderate score for feed, noting that it does vary by species. However, these enclosed systems also allow farmers to optimize conditions for the fish, including feeding efficiencies. Australis Aquaculture Vietnam uses a moderate amount of wild fish to feed barramundi although the wild fish used for the feed received a good sustainability score from Seafood Watch. Overall, the net pen farm there was given a yellow score for feed.
Source of Stock
Barramundi are hardy, fast-growing, and have a high reproductive rate, making them ideal for aquaculture. In Vietnam, the net pen farm cultures a native species of barramundi using domesticated broodstock that have low escape numbers, Seafood Watch reported. Most recirculating aquaculture systems around the world rely on hatchery-reared broodstock instead of wild-caught fish, resulting in a green score for barramundi.
Disease, Pathogen and Parasite Interaction
If they are stressed, poorly handled, poorly fed, or experience extreme conditions, Barramundi can become diseased. Open net pen barramundi farms in Southeast Asia have experienced several outbreaks of infectious diseases in the past. The low density of barramundi grown by Australis Aquaculture Vietnam in Central Vietnam reduces the risk of impacts from disease and chemical use, Seafood Watch reported. Although diseases can occur in recirculating aquaculture systems, Seafood Watch reported little risk of transferring these diseases to wild fish given that the systems are closed and land-based.
Escapes and Introduced Species
Escapes from recirculating aquaculture systems are highly unlikely given how many screens and filters the fish would have to pass through first, and the fact that they’re land-based also minimizes survival outside the building. Seafood Watch gives this farming system a green score for escapes. Net pen systems have an inherently moderate to high risk of escapes, although Australis Aquaculture Vietnam has measures such as cleaning the nets in situ, daily inspections, and construction to prevent overtopping that combine to lower the risk. The farm received a yellow score from Seafood Watch for this criterion.