Cobia has been farmed for more than a decade in Taiwan, and is making great strides in mainland China which harvested 25,855 tonnes in 2007, but the fish is being consumed locally or in neighbouring countries. However, that is about to change. IQF cobia loins from fish farmed off the coast of central Vietnam will make their European debut at this year’s seafood show (ESE) in Brussels.
Pelagic species with high fat content
Marine Farms AS, the Bergen, Norway-based international fish farming company which is very active in seabass and seabream in the Mediterranean, and salmon in Scotland, has started two cobia farms, one in Belize in Central America, and the other in Vietnam. Both are producing cobia, based on Norwegian salmon farming technology. The volumes currently being farmed are relatively small, around 1,000 – 1,500 tonnes per year, however, from this year production is set to rapidly increase. Although technically a pelagic species with a high oil content, cobia will compete on the whitefish market where traditional wild-caught species are becoming ever scarcer.
Marine Farms began farming cobia in cages off the coast of central Vietnam in 2005. The early trials proved so successful that the company is now regularly flying consignments of fresh cobia to Taiwan. It has also started to process the fish for Europe where it will be sold as IQF skinless loins, and IQF skinless and boneless cobia fillets and portions will also be exported to the USA from Vietnam. Different product formats can be supplied to both markets if required. Cobia has been called ‘tropical salmon’ because of its versatility. The fish can be eaten raw, cooked in as many different ways as traditional whitefish species, barbecued, and can be hot or cold-smoked. It grows much faster than salmon and reaches a weight of 6-7kg in a single year. Cobia has a firm flesh, which turns bright white on cooking, and a mild flavour. Unlike other whitefish species, it has an oil content of 20%, even higher than that of salmon, so is rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
Five kg fish harvested round the year
Marine Farms Vietnam is based in Van Hong Bay, a sparsely populated area 50km north of Nha Trang. The grow-out cages, anchored in an area of sea 300 metres from Hon Lon Island, are imported from Norway where they are used to farm salmon. The cages, unlike those of other farmers, were strong enough to withstand a typhoon at the end of last year, while locally made wooden cages were severely damaged. There are 10 sites in Van Hong Bay, five of which are used to farm cobia while the remaining five remain fallow until the following year. Each site can contain 24 cages and Marine Farms Vietnam currently has an overall total of 52 cages.
There is also a site for a hatchery, but this won’t be built until it is strategically necessary, according to Carlos Massad, managing director of Marine Farms Vietnam. The company has its own broodstock on site and sends eggs for hatching to selected hatcheries in Vietnam bringing back fry weighing 2g each for ongrowing. The fish are given a guaranteed non-GMO pelleted feed which is imported from Canada or Chile. They are harvested on a year round basis when they have reached 5kg in weight.
Steep increase in production planned
Production, which reached 500 tonnes in 2009, is predicted to hit 1,500 tonnes this year and 2,000 tonnes in 2011. In five years’ time it will be up to 4,000 tonnes, says Massad , who explains that the site has a projected maximum production of 5,000 tonnes. More grow-out sites in Vietnam are being sought, he adds. At present, the cobia are being processed by hand and frozen at a factory about one hour’s drive from the company’s shore-based unit. This has office and storage space, and land where the grow-out cages are constructed from parts imported from Norway. Other processing facilities in central Vietnam are being evaluated.
The loins will be shipped to Scotland where they will be distributed throughout Europe by Sea Products of Scotland Ltd, the sales and marketing arm for the Lakeland Group, the UK subsidiary of Marine Farms ASA.
In the USA, Nordic Seafood, of Boston, Massachusetts, has been appointed to distribute frozen cobia fillets from Vietnam, while AquaGold, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is already distributing fresh cobia fillets from Marine Farms’ operation in Belize.