Cobia at a crossroads

Open Blue cobia farming
Open Blue cobia farming
Cobia cannon feeding at the former Marine Farms Vietnam operation. Credit: Jorge Alarcon
Cobia cannon feeding at the former Marine Farms Vietnam operation. Credit: Jorge Alarcon
Industry Database

Andrew Martin reports on the future potential for farmed cobia.

With new ownership of the former Marine Farms’ cobia operations in Vietnam and Belize, plus an aggressively expanding company farming cobia in Panama, 2014 could be a milestone year for this fast growing fish.

By all accounts, cobia (Rachycentron canadum), a tropical white-fleshed marine species which can grow to 5kg in weight in just under 12 months, has vast potential as an alternative to wild caught whitefish. As yet, however, this potential has not been realised.

First attempt
The first attempts at growing cobia in captivity were probably carried out in Taiwan in the early 1980s, but it was not until 1995 that any serious production was registered. In 2007 almost 30,000 tonnes of cobia were farmed, mostly in mainland China.

However, production then plummeted as Asian farmers switched to other species such as pompano (Trachinotus blochii), and in 2012 was thought to have been less than 5000 tonnes. According to fish farming specialist Bjørn Myrseth who set up cobia farming operations in Belize and Vietnam when CEO of Marine Farms – this company was taken over by Morpol in 2010 which in turn was bought by Marine Harvest in 2013 – there were production problems.

“Cobia is a beautiful fish with a firm, white flesh, so we had great hopes for it,” he says, “but we did have some production problems. It seemed to eat a lot, but at a certain size it stopped growing, or it grew too slowly.”

Cobia produced by Marine Farms Vietnam were aimed at the European market, while the fish produced in Belize were flown to southern USA. “[Marine Farms] Belize used to be the largest supplier of fresh cobia into the US for several years (2007-2010) until Hurricane Richard hit us,” says CEO Jorge Alarcon. Production then ceased, but the hatchery continues to produce cobia fingerlings for sale to other companies.

Marine Farms started to harvest cobia in Vietnam in 2006-7. At the time it was said to be the world’s largest cobia farm with the potential to produce 5000 tonnes annually. However, production peaked at 1200 tonnes in 2010 then steadily declined. The actual harvest of cobia in 2012 was just over 300 tonnes, although the company also produced 700 tonnes of pompano that year.

The original intention had been to produce fish for the European and US markets, and frozen farmed cobia fillet portions and loins were introduced at the European Seafood Exposition in 2010. Reaction was said to have been favourable and the product was subsequently stocked by various distributors.

However, despite the introduction of value-added cobia products, sales in Europe didn’t fulfil expectations and Mr Alarcon has now changed the marketing strategy.

In 2012, the bulk of the cobia produced in Vietnam was sold fresh ex-farm to the local market, with a small amount of fresh fish exported to Australia, and some frozen products sent to Taiwan, Japan and Korea. A very small amount of fresh cobia was exported to Europe.

Unknown species
Mr Alarcon believes the reason that cobia sales in Europe were poor is that it is an unknown species competing in a diverse market with plenty of cheaper fish available. “Cobia certainly is never going to compete on price with the likes of pangasius, tilapia, or Alaska pollock.

“It is a premium product that deserves a better price,” he says. “I guess it all goes back to educating consumers about its qualities and properties.”

Meanwhile Open Blue Sea Farms, which farms cobia in submerged cages in the open sea off Panama, is now the largest exporter of cobia to the USA, and also has plans to export it to Europe and Asia as well.  “We don’t know the potential [for cobia] yet,” says Brian O’Hanlon, founder and CEO. “What I can tell you is that nobody to date has developed a more aggressive approach to marketing the species.”

Open Blue Sea Farms was only founded in 2007 but was expected to harvest 1100-1200 tonnes of cobia in 2013. “We are on track to hit 2000 tonnes of harvest biomass in 2014,” Mr O’Hanlon says. “All of the fish are already stocked.”

The company is flying fresh HGT (headed, gutted, tail-off) fish to the USA. The fish are going to distributors who sell it on to individual restaurants. However, Open Blue is investing in additional processing capacity so that it can begin to target restaurant and retail chains with both fresh and frozen products.

These products won’t be cheap. “The product we have to offer at the price point we are offering it will be more suitable for the chains that want the absolute best fish on the market,” Mr O’Hanlon says.

“Cobia is a great, high quality white fish. The upscale segments of the market desperately need a high quality white fish that is farmed consistently. We are not competing with the other white meat [fish] like tilapia and catfish.”

Mr O’Hanlon believes that Open Blue will succeed in selling frozen cobia into Europe where Morpol, which bought Marine Farms, failed. “We have an amazing product and a great story. It is simply going to take a lot of persistence, hard work and feet on the ground work with the customers and get the general public to realise how amazing and versatile our fish is.’

Mr Alarcon believes that cobia production will cycle into larger volumes in the coming years as the limited supply in the last couple of years has increased its price and attracted some producers to stock some juveniles again. “Similarly I think the production of pompano, to which many cobia farmers switched, will drop some given current prices.”

The former Marine Farms’ plans for cobia have been on hold. Jerzey Malek who founded Morpol, has now taken over the two operations and it remains to be seen what programme he will put in place. Meanwhile it seems as though Open Blue’s aggressive expansion will continue, although the company has yet to target Europe and Asia, and it may be that the USA will continue to be its major market.

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