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Taste of heaven in middle of nowhere
Taste of heaven in middle of nowhere

A 90-minute helicopter ride north from Broome across the harsh wilderness of the western Kimberley brings you to the middle of nowhere and to one of the most remarkable farms in WA.

It's a barramundi farm, all but hidden away in the enormity of the tangled, raw coastline of the Buccaneer Archipelago.

It's a hostile and remote environment where there are no roads, only helicopters and the Cone Bay Barramundi company's weekly slow boat from Derby.

The farm's dozen or so circular fish pens - as massive as they are - are but spots on the milky blue seas of the archipelago.

Cone Bay Barramundi is one of the biggest gambles in the Australian primary production sector.

It has swallowed up $50 million of investor funds and repatriated revenue in the seven years since its inception, and according to Cone Bay managing director Justin Clarke, the massive investment is about to turn the corner.

"We were granted environmental approvals earlier this year to move production from 1000 tonnes to 2000 tonnes, following intensive EPA scrutiny and environmental assessments," Mr Clarke said. "Our blue sky is 5000 tonnes per annum.

"The environmental aspect is the single biggest challenge to our business and with these approvals in place we are now moving from a small, almost research-size business, to a significant producer."

On paper, the Cone Bay business case looks good. It wholesales whole fish at $10.50 kg, that's $25 million per annum revenue based on 2000 tonnes.

And although management are coy about operating costs, Clarke says they are aiming for the Tasmanian Atlantic salmon fishery benchmark of $6 kg.

The relatively low production in recent years means Cone Bay barramundi has been a boutique product, mostly unknown to the public but revered in the hospitality trade where it has a legion of fans in the chef community.

Most cite the clean flavours of the fish's salt water upbringing and well-distributed fat as reasons it's so good to cook and eat.

"The flavour is clean, you don't get that muddy taste," chef Peter Manifis said.

Manifis, whose South Perth restaurant, InContro, has Cone Bay barra on the menu says it's a favourite with customers because it defies their preconceptions that barramundi has a mushy flesh and a "dirty" flavour.

"The texture is good and the fat content is spot-on," Manifis said. "The skin crisps up so well we call it the pork belly of the ocean, We serve it up in small 70g cubes with a salsa."

With the backing of some of Australia's top chefs and a growing reputation, the company says it is poised to make a significant push into the retail sector.

"That's our next challenge," Mr Clarke said.

Most of the fish are harvested at about 3-3.5kg after two years growing from fingerlings.

Each of the circular pens can hold up to 40,000 fish at full weight - about 150 to 180 tonnes per pen.

Despite such tonnages, the impact on the immediate environment, particularly the seabed and the waters of the bay, are negligible.

"It's exciting to be in a business with such a light footprint on the environment but with the potential to help feed our region sustainably," Mr Clarke said.

The Cone Bay operation is the only salt water barramundi farm in Australia, which means the managers have had to create their own species-specific science, feeding regimes and husbandry from scratch - no mean achievement.

The fish are fed a precise ration of pelletised fishmeal and grains twice a day.

"The ration changes all the time, depending on their mood," farm manager Jamie Bester said.

"We can tell, for instance, when a crocodile has cruised past the pens, the fish get nervous and eat less," he said.

Every meal time is monitored from the feeder boat by underwater cameras and as soon as the fish appear to have eaten enough the pellet gun is shut down.

"The idea is to feed them just enough. Our gold standard is to not have one pellet go to waste and drop through the bottom of the pen," he said.