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Hopes Are High For Farm-Raised Cobia

Fish Headed To Miami, Compete With Salmon


April 3, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 

Coming soon to a fine seafood restaurant near you: farm-raised cobia.

Daniel Benetti, associate professor at University of Miami's Rosenstiel School and head of the aquaculture program, teamed with fish farmers in Puerto Rico to produce nearly 10,000 cobia -- tasty brown and white fish resembling sharks with no teeth. Samples of those cobia, averaging five to six pounds, will arrive at JC Seafood in Miami in the next couple of weeks.

''It's going to give salmon a run for the money,'' Benetti said.

The eternal quest of aquaculturists is to spawn, raise and grow out a species on a large scale, then sell it at a profit without crossing any environmental laws. Benetti and his partners, Brian O'Hanlon and Joe Ayvazian of Snapperfarm, Inc. claim they have found ways to do that.

''The cobia outperforms all others in terms of aquaculture,'' Benetti declared. ``The profitability of the business is higher than others.''

Cobia grow much faster than salmon, according to Benetti -- up to 16 pounds in one year, or one pound for every pound of enriched pellets they consume. Salmon take up to three years to reach similar size.

''[Cobia] have incredible capability to transform what they eat to flesh,'' Benetti said.

But the biggest breakthrough, according to Benetti, is that cobia are raised from four-inch fingerlings to dinner-table entrees in offshore cages which don't harm the environment. In previous efforts by other countries, the fish were crowded into ponds and cages in coastal areas where they polluted the inshore waters and soil.

The cobia coming to Miami have spent the past seven months in two 3,000-cubic-meter galvanized steel-and-net holding pens 90-feet deep off Puerto Rico's Culebra Island.

''You don't need pumps and filters because the ocean does everything for you,'' Benetti said. ``In deep water, with the current ripping through the cages, parasites pass through the mesh. The offshore environment is pristine.''

Benetti started growing his cobias in 2001 -- literally from scratch. First, he obtained brood stock from nine to 25 pounds from fishermen at Marathon. He quarantined the fish in a hatchery he built on Grassy Key, carefully controlling light and water temperature to make them think it was spring and time to spawn. They did this with a vengeance -- producing millions of eggs which were placed in an incubator and hatched in one day.

Benetti fed the tiny fish zooplankton for a few weeks until they were ready to eat pellets. At that point, they also began to eat one another, causing about 90 percent mortality. But the scientist still had thousands of fingerlings, which he shipped in huge styrofoam boxes to Snapperfarm in Puerto Rico. O'Hanlon and Ayvazian loaded the fish into a boat and took them to the offshore cages about two miles off Culebra, where they have flourished.

''We feed them every day, twice a day and clean the nets. There's no impact by what we're doing,'' O'Hanlon said.

The partners were assisted by the Culebra Association of Fishermen and the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Corp. Soon, they will harvest some of the choicest fish and ship them to JC Seafood.

''The more people who find out about it and taste it, it will be distributed all over the world,'' Ayvazian said.

Jimmy O'Hanlon, Brian's uncle and operator of JC Seafood, can't wait for the fish to arrive. He's going to hand out samples to top customers, such as Miami Beach's Nobu restaurant. He expects to sell the fish wholesale for $4 to $5 per pound.

''It's not just sushi. We're going to give it to other restaurants where it can be grilled or broiled,'' Jimmy O'Hanlon said. ``I think it's going to do well.''

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