Aggressive marketing paying off for cobia
"We don't know the potential [for cobia] yet," says Brian O'Hanlon, founder and CEO of Open Blue Sea Farms, which is farming the white-fleshed species in submerged cages in the open sea off Panama. "What I can tell you is that nobody to date has developed a more aggressive approach to marketing the species."
Open Blue is currently selling cobia into the foodservice market in the United States, but has plans to sell it into Europe and Asia as well. Says O'Hanlon: "We are waiting for our third party processor's plant to be certified to ship into Europe. The updated target date for this is early November. Once we get the plant certified we will begin shipping samples to customers that are waiting. We expect our first shipments to Asia in 2014."
O'Hanlon began working with cobia in 1999 at the University of Miami in Florida. He then founded a company called Snapperfarm in Puerto Rico which produced cobia on a small scale for the U.S. market. "It was more of a demonstration project to prove the species, farming concept and market," he says.
Open Blue Sea Farms was only founded in 2007 but expects to harvest 1100-1200 metric tons (MT) of cobia this year. "We are on track to hit 2000 MT of harvest biomass in 2014," O'Hanlon says. "All of the fish are already stocked."
Ocean Blue farms cobia in what O'Hanlon claims is an ideal location 12 km off the Panamanian coast. "Our sites in Panama are the only sites that meet FAO's 'theoretical' criteria for open-ocean farming of cobia," he says. "The fish thrive offshore in a stable, clean environment that is always rich in oxygen. They struggle in near shore environments where the energy is lower, water quality is impacted from land run off and oxygen availability is variable."
The company is flying fresh HGT (headed, gutted, tail-off) fish from Panama to the U.S. The fish are going to distributors who sell it on to individual restaurants. However, Open Blue is investing in additional processing capacity so that it can begin to target restaurant and retail chains with both fresh and frozen products. These products won't be cheap. "The product we have to offer at the price point we are offering it will be more suitable for the chains that want the absolute best fish on the market," says O'Hanlon.
O'Hanlon also believes that key selling points for such chains will be that Open Blue's cobia comes from a farm "that is fully integrated and traceable from egg to market, and that is highly responsible from a social and environmental perspective."
"We have everything under one roof, from broodstock to hatcheries, laboratory, nurseries, farms, harvesting, processing, sales and marketing, fish health experts, performance analytics, R&D, etc. Think of the power of this integration in bringing a new species like this along. We are very fortunate to have this infrastructure and expertise, and we will make the most of it.
"Cobia is a great, high quality white fish. The upscale segments of the market desperately need a high quality white fish that is farmed consistently. We are not competing with the other white meat [fish] like tilapia and catfish."
O'Hanlon believes that Open Blue will succeed in selling frozen cobia into Europe where Morpol, which bought Marine Farms, failed. "We have an amazing product and a great story. It is simply going to take a lot of persistence, hard work and feet on the ground work with the customers and get the general public to realize how amazing and versatile our fish is."
He also believes that Open Blue will have a definite edge in Asia. "Most other attempts [apart from Marine Farms] are small farms or family owned which typically means lower tech, more traditional methods, etc. The scale and vertical integration at which we are operating now has opened up so much more potential for the species than has ever existed before."
Bold words, and time will tell whether Open Blue will be able fulfill the massive potential that has been predicted for farmed cobia so many times in the past. At least the early signs are encouraging.