Okinawa cobia finding wider distribution in Japan

Published on
April 29, 2022
Cobia is beginning to find wider distribution in Japan, with Okinawa-based production companies starting to make inroads into local markets.

Cobia is beginning to find wider distribution in Japan, with Okinawa-based production companies starting to make inroads into local markets.

Farmed production of the species started in the early 1990s in Taiwan – where it is a popular, indigenous species – and it is now a major aquaculture species there. Its fast growth – it reaches four to eight kilograms in one to 1.5 years – makes it ready quickly.

However, the species also has a high protein requirement and a worse feed conversion ration, according to an article in the Journal of the World Aquaculture Society, “A review on cobia, Rachycentron canadum, aquaculture." The feed conversion ratio for the species ranges from 2:1 to 3:1, compared to just 1.2:1 for salmon. Yellowtail kingfish, which is a similar species to cobia, has a similar protein requirement but a better FCR, meaning on the whole cobia is more expensive to produce.

While the production began in Taiwan, mainland China overtook Taiwan in 2003 and currently accounts for four-fifths of total production of the species worldwide. Companies in other countries tried to make forays into land-based or near-shore cobia production systems, but they have often had poor results. That, and the high-cost of cobia farming have slowed expansion of its production, and now production has plateaued at 50,000 metric tons a year.

Japan, meanwhile, has been working on some form of cultivation of cobia since 1997, when Okinawa began using fry from Taiwan. Hatchery production of the species begin at the Okinawa Prefectural Sea Farming Center in 2001 at the request of local aqua culturists – a process which has since grown. In 2019, the center produced 23,200 fingerlings that were stocked to local farms for grow-out. The resulting farmed production is generally consumed locally by tourists as a local specialty, while the modest amount of cobia sold elsewhere in Japan is mostly from Taiwan.

The species began to make inroads at seafood shows in Osaka and Tokyo by 2009, but was rarely featured at sushi restaurants or in supermarkets. A fish dealer displaying cobia at a show at the time said that his company supplied the fish, imported from Taiwan, on request, but did not stock it, as demand was low.

Fast forward to the 19th Seafood Show Osaka, held 13 to 14 April, 2022, and domestically produced cobia is on display again – but this time, companies are reporting more success selling it. The Taishin Corporation was featuring and offering samples of its new cobia products – in addition to other products like Spanish mackerel, yellowtail, sea bream, kingfish, amberjack, pufferfish, red squid, and more.

Cobia is a recent venture for Taishin, with its first fish harvested in 2021. The company sold around 100,000 fish in 2021 and will seek to sell 150,000 in 2022 and 400,000 by 2026, Taishin Board Chairman Yoko Tabata said. 

Yoko founded the company 1996 with her husband, Shinya Tabata, Tiashin's president and CEO. Yoko mainly deals with finance, while Shinya handles the sales and operations. The company now has 40 employees, a head office in Tokyo, and a processing facility in Okinawa.

The company doesn’t farm the fish, but imports the fingerlings from China for sale to contracted farmers in Okinawa. The company then buys back the mature fish according to contracted prices and processes them into loins, fillets, and other cuts at the company’s processing plant.  

Yoko said Taishin is aiming for a year-round fresh supply by timing the harvest schedules, but that it isn’t easy to get the fish to come to harvest weight exactly at the time needed. Taishin has been able to make sales directly to supermarket chains and to major rotary sushi chains, including Kura Sushi and Kappa Sushi, rather than going through the public auction system or intermediaries. Kura Sushi has lately been holding “fairs,” which are limited-time promotions of lesser known regional fish.

“In the future, we hope to create a semi-monopoly by involving all the producers in a unified effort,” Yoko said. “We want to form a regional group involving JF [the regional fisheries cooperative association] and the local co-ops to tie up the production and run the marketing through Taishin.”  

Photo by Chris Loew/SeafoodSource

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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