And nor should it be, says Brian O’Hanlon, president of Open Blue, a cobia producer in Panama.
“We’re not trying to compete with tilapia. We’re trying to compete with more premium whitefish on the market like halibut, grouper, Chilean sea bass,” says O’Hanlon. “When you look at that end of the market, there’s not a lot of options that are farm raised. It’s a premium whitefish, and to get that off a farm consistently and supply that stability to the market, I think it is exciting to see where cobia can go over the next year.”
Sport fishermen prize cobia not only for its flavor but also for its feistiness. Though wild cobia is too wide-ranging and solitary to support a viable commercial fishery, cobia farms have appeared in warm waters around the globe in the last decade.
According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, worldwide farmed cobia production was less than 2,500 metric tons 10 years ago. In 2009, production surpassed 30,000 metric tons, with more than 80 percent in China, the world’s largest producer, and Taiwan. There are no statistics for U.S. cobia imports yet, but in a likely response to its increasing popularity the U.S. International Trade Commission gave cobia an import code on Feb. 3 (it was previously lumped in with unspecified finfish). Cobia import numbers are expected to be available this month.
Open Blue, one of the major operators targeting the U.S. market, leases about 2,500 acres off Panama’s Caribbean coast and is positioning itself for major growth within the next couple years.