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Product Spotlight: Cobia

Sustainable characteristics make the farmed species a fish with a future

Cobia could challenge tilapia as the most popular
    farmed whitefish. - Photo courtesy of Michael Sussman
By April Forristall
January 01, 2008

Cobia is a new fish in terms of public recognition and has very limited distribution in the United States - but don't expect it to stay that way. One industry insider has the whitefish poised to overtake tilapia in popularity within a decade.

"It's been around in other countries but has not been successful [in the United States] on a commercial scale," explains Michael Sussman, who is working with cobia farms in South America and Asia as an aquaculture consultant. He has worked exclusively with the species for the past couple of years. "There are a few players attempting to change that. [Cobia] is really going to emerge over the next five to seven years."

The main reason the mild-flavored whitefish is poised for success is that it exhibits excellent traits for aquaculture. The eco-friendly species has a grow-out rate three times that of salmon (it's ready to harvest in under one year) and adapts well to farming. It also has excellent flesh quality, a low feed-conversion ratio and limited availability from the wild, stimulating aquaculture research.

Snapperfarm, in Puerto Rico, is one company capitalizing on cobia's success. The company started farming cobia in the late 1990s, following R&D leads coming out of Asia and research in the United States supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, explains Brian O'Hanlon, Snapperfarm president and founder. Today, using deep-water submerged cages in the open ocean, Snapperfarm produces 50 tons of cobia annually, and demand has been steady, says O'Hanlon.

"We're really just selectively placing the fish with certain customers," says O'Hanlon, adding that the company is targeting the upper end of the foodservice market exclusively. Sussman says most cobia producers are doing the same, focusing marketing efforts on high-end foodservice accounts in the United States.

"Many chefs are looking for new product [with some species being overfished], and cobia is getting excellent responses," 
says Sussman. "It's versatile and the right price at $7 to $8 a pound, fresh."

O'Hanlon agrees that cobia's green profile makes it a popular substitute for species that are overfished. "It can substitute for a lot of other species that are in short supply," he says.

One chef who has embraced cobia is Mirabelle owner Guy Reuge. He's loved the fish since receiving a sample in August from Snapperfarm at his St. James, N.Y., restaurant. Reuge buys the fish whole and pan-sears fillets with light butter and oil, serving it with sautéed bananas.

Reuge also acknowledges the need for new species in foodservice. "Fish right now is getting scarce," he says. "So it's good to have a new fish in the market."

Since cobia supplies are mostly farmed, it won't face the same supply-versus-demand problems that caused the fall of other popular species such as Chilean sea bass. "There's a lot of opportunity to expand the market quite rapidly," says Sussman. "Chefs want to know more about it. There's a lot of interest in learning more about where they can buy it."

But sustainability isn't the only factor raising interest in cobia.

"It's a very sturdy fish," says Reuge. "It melts in your mouth and doesn't have a hard texture."

Cobia also boasts omega-3 levels that rival that of coho 
salmon, meeting increasing consumer demand for healthful foods, and its versatility will keep it in demand. "It makes a very versatile fish," says O'Hanlon. It can be baked, broiled, barbequed, pan-seared, and served raw as sushi or sashimi, among other preparations.

"It's phenomenal on the grill," says Sussman. "It also holds up really well in terms of yield,[approximately 50 percent for large fish], it doesn't shrink up."

"The demand has been moderate," says Reuge, but "it's going to get more and more popular, I'm sure of that. It's just a matter of time."

With its affinity for aquaculture, great taste and fair price, buyers may consider cobia a fish with a future.

 

Editorial Assistant April Forristall can be e-mailed at aforristall@divcom.com

 

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