Mike Urch, SeafoodSource contributing editor

Is the time ripe for cobia to make its mark in the European market? It seems to have everything going for it. Extremely fast-growing, it has a firm white flesh with few bones and a mild taste. Furthermore it is easy to farm and Europe is increasingly looking to aquaculture to fill the gap left by diminishing stocks of traditional wild-caught species.

Although a “new” species for Europe, cobia (Rachycentron canadus) is well known in other parts of the world. In Australia it is known as black kingfish, while in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico it is commonly referred to as ling.

However, it is in Asia where the fish is best known; cobia, a tropical species, has been farmed in Asian waters for some years. Taiwan has been the pioneer in farming it, but annual production there has stabilized at about 3,000 metric tons. Today, China is the main producer harvesting 25,855 metric tons in 2007.

But now, a combination of Norwegian know-how, coupled with Vietnamese expertise, has resulted in a cobia farming operation that aims to target the European market.

Norwegian aquaculture specialist Marine Farms ASA has been farming cobia off the coast of central Vietnam since 2005. The company is routinely selling fresh cobia to Taiwan, but has now also started to fillet and freeze the fish for Europe; Sea Products of Scotland, Marine Farm’s UK subsidiary, will be exhibiting the products at this year’s European Seafood Exposition in Brussels to gauge reaction.

Not only is cobia a tremendously fast growing fish — it reaches a weight of 6 to 7 kilograms one year after hatching — it also extremely versatile and can be served in many different ways. It can be eaten raw as sushi or sashimi, cooked by all the usual methods and hot or cold smoked.

Although cobia is a pelagic species with a high oil content, it also has a white flesh so is expected to compete with other whitefish.

There is reported to be the potential to farm 1 million metric tons of cobia annually around the world, so Marine Farms’ production in Vietnam, which is predicted to grow from 1,500 metric tons this year to up to 4,000 metric tons in 2014, is but the figurative drop in the ocean. However, since the species isn’t yet known in Europe, there is little point in flooding the market and hoping for the best.

Instead, Marine Farms is intending to use a “kitchen door” approach to introduce cobia gradually to consumers via white tablecloth restaurants and then more mainstream eating establishments before it starts to appear on supermarket shelves. By this time production should have been ramped up to cope with the expected surge in demand. More grow-out sites are already being sought in Vietnam.

Only time will tell whether this strategy will work, but at least Marine Farms has a strategy, unlike the early days of fish farming when production and marketing were regarded as two separate operations.

Marine Farms in Vietnam will also produce frozen fillets for the U.S. market, where they will be distributed by Nordic Group of Boston. Fresh cobia fillets are already being imported into the USA from Marine Farms’ subsidiary operation in Belize, by AquaGold in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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