Ben Hedderman has turned a disused aquaculture facility in central New South Wales into a successful barramundi farm.

Story By Mary-Jo Tohill

Cool morning mist blends with moist balmy air as Ben Hedderman opens the door to a large shed. He steps inside, pausing in the doorway to adjust the straps on his angling waders, then strides forward purposefully, his rubber boots squelching slightly in the damp.
Barramundi dart around his legs as he wades through a round concrete pond, checking his stocks in the steamy water heated to 28 degrees Celsius, just the way these Australian natives like it.
“Here I am on a fish farm, and I hardly ever get time to go fishing,” Ben says, then adds cheerfully, “But at least it’s warm in here.” His dogs ‘Dozer’ and ‘Spud’, also on permanent fish watch, seem to agree. They often escape a vicious frost indoors.
Ben’s business, Wellington Fisheries, is a natural continuation of a love affair with tropical fish that began when he was just a lad in Sydney, where he kept tanks at home on the Persian carpet – much to his mother’s horror.
“There’s something cool about tropical fish; the electric blues and yellows, the way they move,” Ben says. “They’re very relaxing.” Ben, now 28, also kept a few barramundi and in the process learned some valuable lessons that he’s taken into fish farming, reinforced by his aquaculture course at Richmond TAFE; they don’t deal well with stress and they need nice dark corners to hide in. So farming indoors is ideal, especially in colder regions south of the tropics.
Ben’s operation is taking up a small corner of a disused fish farm near Wellington, where he’s been based for nearly three years, investing close to $170,000 in partnership with his father.
The 300-odd ponds surrounding them, the legacy of a multi-million dollar yabby farm that went bust about 15 years ago are silent testimony to how aquaculture can go horribly wrong. It was a great idea and employed many locals to farm native crayfish. Unfortunately algae, the slime you see inside water tanks, killed off most of the yabbies – and the venture. Local resident Ron Stubberfield, who bought the 240-hectare property nine years ago to run cattle, also had a go using a few covered ponds with some success, moving onto barramundi. But five years ago a power cut wiped out 90 percent of his stock, ironically on that most popular of fish days, Good Friday. Power cuts are only too common in rural areas and this loss of electricity can lead to oxygen depletion.
“I just didn’t have the heart to start all over again,” Ron says. Ron still owns the property, leasing the fish farm to Ben. Ben says fish can cope with a temperature drop – they just don’t feed or grow as well. “But it’s panic stations if your blower, which keeps air circulating goes down,” he says. “That’s the biggest killer in fish farming.” Ben has already had a blackout, in which he lost half his fish. Rats had eaten through the alarm wiring, which would have given warning of power failure.
“I was almost ready to walk away,” he says. “It was such a heartbreak after all that work, but what kept me here was the knowledge that it wasn’t because I’d done anything wrong or been slack, like letting disease get out of control. It was a lesson learned that we needed to upgrade our wiring and look at our back-up systems.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #66

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2009