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Special Feature: Cobia

Can a prized recreational fish get in the commercial side of the game?

By Melissa Wood
April 03, 2012

Cobia. It may be a fast-growing, white meat, farmed fish with a small-but-building name recognition among U.S. consumers, but it’s not the next tilapia. 

And nor should it be, says Brian O’Hanlon, president of Open Blue, a cobia producer in Panama. 

“We’re not trying to compete with tilapia. We’re trying to compete with more premium whitefish on the market like halibut, grouper, Chilean sea bass,” says O’Hanlon. “When you look at that end of the market, there’s not a lot of options that are farm raised. It’s a premium whitefish, and to get that off a farm consistently and supply that stability to the market, I think it is exciting to see where cobia can go over the next year.”

Sport fishermen prize cobia not only for its flavor but also for its feistiness. Though wild cobia is too wide-ranging and solitary to support a viable commercial fishery, cobia farms have appeared in warm waters around the globe in the last decade. 

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, worldwide farmed cobia production was less than 2,500 metric tons 10 years ago. In 2009, production surpassed 30,000 metric tons, with more than 80 percent in China, the world’s largest producer, and Taiwan. There are no statistics for U.S. cobia imports yet, but in a likely response to its increasing popularity the U.S. International Trade Commission gave cobia an import code on Feb. 3 (it was previously lumped in with unspecified finfish). Cobia import numbers are expected to be available this month. 

Open Blue, one of the major operators targeting the U.S. market, leases about 2,500 acres off Panama’s Caribbean coast and is positioning itself for major growth within the next couple years. 

“We harvested 300 tons of fish in 2011; we’re on target for 500 tons in 2012, and our stocking plan is so far looking good for 1,000 tons in 2013,” says O’Hanlon, who adds that 2012 will be the first year that Open Blue, or any supplier he knows of, will have cobia available on the U.S. market for 52 weeks of the year. “It’s growing pretty quickly, but we have the capacity to do a lot more.”

Legal Sea Foods restaurants in Boston put Open Blue cobia on special during the International Boston Seafood Show last month. The chain’s Harborside flagship location planned to keep it on the menu. 

Part of Open Blue’s focus is to fully integrate its operation. The company has its own hatchery and is building a second one by 2013. It’s also looking to build its own processing facility near the farm. O’Hanlon says recent growth belies a long road in perfecting the process of farming cobia. Open Blue raises the fish in 10 underwater pens connected by a grid system, about 30 feet below the surface and 12 kilometers from shore.

“Traditional approaches are not going to work well with these fish,” says O’Hanlon, who explains the offshore pens help create a more stable environment for the fish with less fluctuation in oxygen. “They require a very complex feeding program for the first 15 days of their lives. From a nutritional point of view, they’re very demanding fish and they require very high quality diets. That’s the great advantage of being in Panama. We can bring anything in at very low cost from anywhere in the world.”

Another supplier, Marine Farms Vietnam, a division of Marine Farms headquartered in Bergen, Norway, also plans to increase its long-term production though its supply will be a little tight for the coming year. 

Last year “was a bad year in terms of juvenile availability in Vietnam so we will have limited production of cobia in 2012,” says Technical Director Jorge Alarcon. Production of Marine Farms’ sashimi-grade cobia peaked at around 1,000 metric tons last year. “We are currently focused on improving biological and economic results in the grow-out, conducting feed trials, exploring alternative species (pompano) and planning to build a hatchery to ensure reliable juvenile supply in the future. Once the improvements in production materialize we will be ready to steadily increase production to a long-term goal of 5,000 metric tons annually (combined cobia/pompano).”

Overseas producers also have to overcome questions about sustainability. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide ranks U.S. farmed cobia as a “best choice” but tells consumers to avoid the imported farmed product.

“That whole rating process is very favorable toward recirculating systems and unfavorable to open-net pens. It’s far more challenging for a net-pen farm to get a good rating to that [Seafood Watch] system,” says O’Hanlon. In the next year, the company will be focusing more on getting the message out about deep-water farming away from sensitive ecosystems; Open Blue will also be fully traceable when integrated. 

Alarcon says Marine Farms Vietnam has reduced the feed conversion ratio from an excess of 3:1 to less than 2:1 by harvesting the fish at 3.5 kilograms (7.7 pounds) each.

“Cobia has always been raised in low-density conditions with widely spaced cages,” says Alarcon. “Our aim has been to minimize the impacts of the operation by choosing locations with certain depth and water currents so as to avoid settlement of any waste matter in the surrounding area.”

With a name that’s unfamiliar to most U.S. consumers, cobia’s wholesale price of $4 to $6 per pound doesn’t allow it to springboard into the American market as easily as low-cost whitefish workhorses like tilapia and pangasius. 

“There is definitely demand for white-meat fish. The market is under-supplied and cobia meets that requirement. But there is also definitely a demand for a fish that falls into a certain price point,” says Harvey Lipman, who for two years (ending in January) was the cobia project manager for Nordic Group in Boston, Marine Farms Vietnam’s North American sales and marketing organization. The companies ran a marketing campaign to push cobia in the U.S. and Canadian markets in 2011.  

On the higher end of the market, cobia is hurt by its low recognition, says Lipman, who spoke as an expert in introducing new species to markets but not on behalf of Marine Farms Vietnam or Nordic Group. “With the economy, people want to buy familiar things,” says Lipman. “Cobia cannot compete on a menu with 20 or 30 other fish items. Cobia cannot compete in a Red Lobster, cobia cannot compete in a Joe’s Crab Shack and it cannot compete in a King’s Seafood in Southern California. It’s lost.”

Lipman says cobia’s entrance into the minds — and stomachs — of U.S. consumers needs to be in a place where people expect the unexpected, like on cruise lines, casinos and resorts. 

Cobia sales got a boost in the last couple years at Fortune Fish Co. in Bensenville, Ill., which sells about 600 pounds a week, mostly to high-end restaurants. “It’s very versatile. It doesn’t have a strong fish flavor so for people who don’t like fish, it’s a really great, ‘steaky’ fish that most people can eat,” says Mark Palicki, VP-marketing, who has personally witnessed cobia’s slow rise to recognition.

“The more menus it goes on the more people recognize it,” says Palicki, whose company sources from Open Blue. But at a recent dinner party where he served cobia, not one person had heard of it before. Even worse, Palicki remembers being on a chartered recreational fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico, when the captain began screaming at the fishermen to get their poles out of water because of sharks. Palicki looked in the water and saw cobia. Though cobia is a popular sportsmen’s target in warm waters like the Gulf of Mexico for its taste and its fighting spirit, the captain had never heard of it.

“And I looked at the guy and said, ‘What are you talking about? That’s cobia, and I want to catch one of those,’” says Palicki.  

Find other SeaFood Business articles with cobia here.

April 2012 - SeaFood Business

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