Thursday, July 30, 2015

30/07/2015: Cobia: The next big thing? Panama

First published in International Aquafeed, May-June 2015
You cannot mention cobia without involving the name of Brian O’Hanlon.

Some regard Brian O'Hanlon as an overnight success story with his Open Blue cobia from Panama hitting menus in the USA. Typically of such success stories, though, it has taken many long, hard years tackling obstacles head-on to achieve such ‘overnight’ status.

Originally from Long Island, O’Hanlon knew from an early stage in his life that he wanted to be in aquaculture. His father was wholesaling fish, the family had a long history in the industry and the business got into his blood. Even in the early stages of his career he was experimenting with a 2000-gallon tank in his parents' basement, endeavoring to grow red snapper.
Some 17 years ago O’Hanlon met up with Daniel Benetti from the University of Miami and managed to secure a position on one of Benetti’s courses. This helped focus his intentions, but many years of frustration due to prohibitive US regulations that made growth impossible ensured that he would have to work outside the USA if he was to achieve his dream.

It was not until 2009 that O’Hanlon finally moved to Panama where he acquired Pristine Oceans, another deep-ocean cobia farming venture, and created Open Blue. 

Benetti is a believer in cobia in that he has often said that they are as close to a perfect species as he has ever seen. This has been a long quest by Benetti and he has been the reason many people have got excited about this species.

Having finally started production in 2012, offshore cobia producer Open Blue has been ramping up its volumes and promoting and marketing the product since then and has been offering product every week of the year. From small beginnings, production is now very commercial, with one seafood wholesaler in New York reportedly selling fillets direct to the public at US$16.95 per pound.

Over the years O’Hanlon has always been strong about not being caught in the commodity business, so he has invested heavily in ensuring that his fish is getting to high-end markets. Logistically, harvesting is organised to link to air transport and ensuring that the quality is consistent.

To further add value, the group have recently completed a brand new hatchery in Panama and are hoping to expand production through value-adding in their new factory. Additionally, they have secured Global GAP certification, and are now considering ISO 90001 and BRC standards.

Open Blue is ambitious: the fish is farmed eight miles from the coast, in cages of 6,400 cubic meters. The cages are submerged 30 feet under the sea surface, and are each anchored to a submerged mooring grid with 40 anchors of 1.5 metric tons each. The anchors reach 220 feet deep. To alert boats of the cages’ presence, the buoys are fitted with lights and transponders which will alert any approaching ships. Each cage can take 50,000 fish, or 130-150t, creating a pen density of 20 kilos per cubic meter.

Benetti and O’Hanlon are to be congratulated for their work on cobia to date, and both of them would rather that they were able to do this in the USA, but due to regulations and bureaucracy this is not allowed. It is a dilemma facing many so-called developed countries, and whilst many of them talk the talk at various world conventions they have failed to see the opportunity that is being missed. So whilst mining and drilling are seemingly allowed carte blanche, opportunities in the quest for sustainable quality seafood are cast aside.
Benetti and many scientists have argued for the past several years that such open-ocean fish-farming is the environmentally sensitive way of saving the world's seafood demand, because from a food production angle it creates a higher yield with a lower impact.
Feed is an important research element as, like salmon, cobia are predators that need fishmeal in their diet and with cobia being big fish-eating fish there is a need to have a limited impact on the ecosystem. Benetti is experimenting with a fishmeal that is part soy mix part protein. A fact which is often forgotten when people complain about fish feed ratios is that it takes ten pounds of wild fish to produce a pound of large fish in nature, hence aquaculture is many times more sustainable than nature itself. 

This is why we are seeing feed organisations like the BioMar Group recently signing a Memorandum of Understanding with leading Chinese feed producer Tongwei Co. Ltd to establish a Joint Venture dedicated to producing and selling high performance feed for aquaculture in China. The product range for the new Joint Venture factory will include starter and grower feeds for marine and fresh water species such as sea bass, sea bream, cobia, turbot, bass, grouper, trout, sturgeon, tilapia, eel, and shrimp. 

The simple question that fish farmers will always ask is about the speed of turning their investment from an output of dollars to an input of dollars, and clearly if you were starting a fish farm and you could raise ten-pound fish in one year, or another fish species that takes two years to grow one pound, the decision is obvious.

Marketing is still the key as the fish is not well known but surely it is the dream of any good chef to find something that’s reliably sourced year-round and grows quickly and sustainably and tastes delicious! So hopefully it is just a timing issue before it becomes a staple in all restaurants.

One major word of caution - not every venture is going to be successful. In the USA a freshwater facility in Virginia which was producing farmed cobia had to close. Research efforts were not enough to enhance commercial aquaculture of freshwater cobia and demonstrate its technical and economic feasibility. The fish simply did not grow as fast as it should have and the partnership involved closed down the operations.

Read the magazine HERE.

The Aquaculturists
This blog is maintained by The Aquaculturists staff and is supported by the
magazine International Aquafeed which is published by
Perendale Publishers Ltd

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