Tuesday, March 13, 2012

International Boston Seafood Show: Aquaculture & Cobia

With earth’s burgeoning human population to feed we must turn to the sea with understanding and new technology. We need to farm it as we farm the land.
--Jacques Cousteau

What is the role of aquaculture both globally and in the United States? It is very significant and provides approximately 50% of the world's seafood.  Annually, global consumption of seafood is about 115 million tons, half which is acquired through aquaculture. Interestingly, the U.S. only eats about 7 million tons of seafood, and around 84% of that is imported. Value wise, world-wide aquacultural production constitutes about $70 billion dollars and only $1.2 billion is produced within the US. The majority of aquaculture in the U.S. occurs in freshwater and catfish occupies about 40% of that market.

So how sustainable is aquaculture? Though it all depends on the specific species, aquaculture in general often has a poor reputation, whether deserved or not. Some feel that many types of aquaculture sprouted up and spread too quickly, without sufficient concern for potential problems. That led to some significant issues such as environmental damage, pollution, disease and more. For example, Asian shrimp farms bear some responsibility for the destruction of mangrove swamps. Fortunately, there is now a greater awareness of the pitfalls of aquaculture, and more sustainable systems are being devised. But, at the current time, only 2% of aquaculture is eco-certified, as compared to 15% for wild fisheries.

Prior to the Seafood Show, I received an inquiry from an exhibitor, Open Blue, which farms Cobia in Panama. Cobia rang a bell in my mind, as I recalled a recent mention of it on my blog. In the February issue of Food & Wine magazine, Chef Rick Moonen of RM Seafood stated: "One of the best ways to fight overfishing is diversity: People must be willing to cook and eat species besides the familiar ones,..Try cobia on Monday,.." I had never tasted Cobia before, so I was intrigued and made plans to meet up with Brian O’Hanlon, the President and Founder of Open Blue, at the Seafood Show.

Cobia is known by many other names, including Black Kingfish, Black Salmon, Ling, Lemonfish, Crabeaters, Chubby Yew, and Aruan Tasek. They usually inhabit tropical and subtropical waters, including off the coast of Panama. In the wild, Cobia can grow to a maximum length of 72 inches and maximum weight of 100 pounds. Cobia has a mild flavor and is versatile, allowing you to prepare it in any myriad of ways. People feel that Cobia may resemble halibut or sturgeon. Roger Berkowitz of Legal Sea Foods is a fan of Cobia, and just started serving Open Blue Cobia at his Harborside location. That is a positive endorsement of the Open Blue product.

According to Seafood Watch, imported farmed Cobia is listed as an Avoid while U.S. farmed Cobia is listed as a Best Choice. Their information states: "Outside the U.S., cobia is farmed in floating or submerged cages and pens in nearshore and open ocean waters. This creates a risk of disease transfer, escapes and pollution impacts on surrounding ecosystems and species."  But, the Seafood Watch report on farmed Cobia is from May 2009, so it is three years old and probably should be updated to reflect potential new data.

So should consumers be concerned about the sustainability of Open Blue Cobia, which is farmed off the coast of Panama? That was a question I wanted to get answered when I met with Founder Brian O’Hanlon at the Seafood Show. I understand the weaknesses of the Seafood Watch decision on imported farmed Cobia so I didn't automatically assume that Open Blue was not sustainable. Such matters are best evaluated on a case by case basis, especially as the Seafood Watch does generally not address individual fish farms. It makes more general pronouncements, by region and species.

Brian O’Hanlon’s grandfather, John, worked at New York’s Fulton Fish Market and his father continued in the fishing industry as well. Though Brian entered school to study marine biology, he dropped out and began working on raising red snapper. He eventually became involved in a project on Puerto Rico, experimenting with snapper and cobia. Cobia excelled, outperforming all of the other fish, but the region was not as conducive as Brian desired. So he hunted for a new area and around 2007, he selected Panama, and established Open Blue.

By 2009, they began to sell their first Panamanian Cobia. They control nearly the entire process from the hatchery to to sales, though they do have a third party for processing the fish. They believe they have complete traceability, which is very important to them, and they also try to sell as close to the consumer as possible. The feed for the Cobia includes fishmeal, fish oil, plant proteins, vitamins and minerals. It is also supposed to be "all-natural and free of hormones, colorants, pesticides, prophylactic antibiotics and other harmful contaminants." They have recently started nutritional analysis, trying to adjust the feed to make it better for the Cobia. The current FIFO (feed in, feed out) ratio ranges from 1.6 to 2.4, and the ratio has been decreasing with each new crop.

Brian stated that they have had zero escapes from their open seas nets, and the pen density ranges from 10-15 kilos per cubic meter. Because the Cobia are raised in the open seas, they see little illness there, though there is a greater issue at the shore. So, they are trying to find ways to move their shore activities to deeper waters to reduce the chance of disease. They do use antibiotics, under the supervision of a veterinarian when the Cobia are ill and require it. That can be an issue of concern. For example, Berkowitz has stated, "The reality is, there are good aquaculture producers, and there are bad ones…those that refuse to use hormones and antibiotics, and those that do."

Open Blue Cobia is still a relatively new operation and they are working out numerous issues, trying to get certain numbers within the parameters they desire. Changes appear constant, though sometimes they might be incremental. It is still a time when they are learning much. Open Blue currently sells Cobia to a few restaurants, and they are not really in retail at this time. If the Cobia was at retail, it might sell for about $15 or so per pound. They did not have any Cobia to sample, but were giving away $10 discount vouchers for people to visit Legal Harborside and order Cobia entrees.

So is Open Blue Cobia sustainable? The answer is going to depend on your definition of sustainability. My impression is that the Cobia is not yet 100% sustainable, and much of that has to do with the newness of their operation, and the fact they are still working out all of the kinks. For example, the FIFO probably needs to be reduced. But, my impression does not mean you shouldn't support Open Blue. It seems that Open Blue is working towards sustainability, and that time will only lead to improvement. It is a situation to monitor, to assess their forward progress over time. We should support fisheries which are moving towards greater sustainability, rather than shunning them until they reach that goal.

Update (3/15/12):
I am adding a couple Cobia photos.

This is a belly fillet of Cobia.

This is a seared center fillet of Cobia.

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