Marine Cobia growing fast in freshwater farm

The Fish Site
by The Fish Site
22 March 2007, at 12:00am

US - A Virginia company using patented technology has managed to produce a fast-growing, high-yielding marine fish some 300 miles from the nearest ocean.

"We believe that freshwater-raised cobia is the next chicken of the sea - one that will fill growing consumer demand for marine fish high in Omega 3 fatty acids without burdening the ocean's already depleted fish stocks," says Bill Martin, chairman Virginia Cobia Farms, LLC, Saltville.

There's one other plus. Virginia cobia are raised in tanks and its feed components are carefully monitored, so there's no risk of mercury content - a growing concern in some marine species.

Martin eventually plans to produce up to 200 millions pounds of cobia a year at his southwestern Virginia farm. That may not sound like a lot when compared to the 600 million pounds of catfish produced in the Delta and other southern states. "But 200 million pounds is a heck of a lot of fish coming from one spot," Martin says.

Virginia Cobia Farms is a joint venture by Martin's fish farm, Blue Ridge Aquaculture, Inc., of Martinsville, the nation's largest tilapia producer, and MariCal, Inc., of Portland, Maine. MariCal is a privately held animal health and nutrition biotechnology firm that discovered a way to raise saltwater species in low-salinity fresh water - without compromising taste, texture or nutritional content.

"MariCal's patented process is the magic that the seafood industry needed," Martin says.

But there is no magic to the process, insists Dr. William Harris, a co-founder, president and chief scientific officer of MariCal.

He notes that many marine fish naturally adapt to variations in salinity and that some species, including salmon, spend part of their lives in fresh water. MariCal's patented technology involves a protein that serves as a calcium-sensing receptor (CaSR), which Harris describes as a "molecular thermostat."

"The receptor is what allows our bodies, as well as fish, to sense various concentrations of ions, which are salts dissolved in water," he says. "Just as a thermostat continuously senses temperature and makes adjustments, the calcium receptor in fish serves as a salinity sensor. We've discovered a way to modulate this natural sensor so that marine fish can thrive in water with very low salinity."

Harris adds, "We don't do anything to the fish. There are no genetic modifications, no antibiotics, no hormones. We're simply signaling this natural sensor. It's sort of like putting your hand over a thermostat to raise the temperature reading. You're not doing anything to the thermostat. You're simply triggering a response."

MariCal's chief operating officer, William Thomas, thinks production of cobia and other marine fish in tanks using the company's patented process could help reduce fish imports.

"Today there is no reliable, sustainable supply of a marine white fish species that's produced on a large scale domestically in the United States," he observes. "Other than wild catch, which has a variety of challenges to produce a constant supply, any other source of marine fish has to come from outside the United States. Cobia gives us the opportunity to produce a dependable domestic source of marine fish and guarantee a level of freshness and quality that just isn't possible from overseas suppliers."

Established last October, Virginia Cobia Farms will harvest its first crop of cobia this May. "We'll have about 100,000 pounds of fish, but I wish we had three times that much," Thomas says, adding that demand for the white fish, which has been compared to Mahi Mahi or halibut in taste and texture, is already far exceeding supply.