Cobia slow to catch on in Japan

Published on
October 14, 2009

Cobia (Rachycentron canadum), also known as lemonfish or crabeater in the United States, holds a lot of promise worldwide. But the farmed whitefish has been slow to catch on in the Japanese market.

Among cobia’s attributes are its fast growth rate; the species reaches a harvestable weight in less than one year, as opposed to approximately three years for salmon and amberjack. It has a better feed conversion ratio, too, and may therefore be considered more sustainable in terms of using less wild fish for feed. Cobia has also done well in open-ocean pens, which help to prevent concentration of wastes, and they may get a big boost from the recent opening of the Gulf of Mexico to offshore aquaculture.

The cobia-farming industry started in earnest in Taiwan in 1993, after some small-scale operations beginning in the 1970s. Taiwan remains a leading cobia exporter, though China is now the leading volume producer and many projects are being undertaken in Vietnam aimed at the export market.

According to a report by SINTEF, a Trondheim, Norway-based research and consulting organization, current production volumes are 20,000 to 30,000 metric tons for China; 3,000 to 4,000 metric tons for Taiwan; and 1,500 metric tons for Vietnam. Russian-, Norwegian- and Taiwanese-owned farms are operated in Vietnam, which is seen as an advantageous location, as there are many export-approved processing plants there. To expand Vietnam’s industry, new hatchery operations have already been licensed.

What’s more, Open Blue Sea Farms in August acquired Pristine Oceans, forming the world’s largest open-ocean aquaculture operation. Both companies raise cobia in Panamanian waters; there are now 43,000 fish in submerged net pens, and 10,000 fish are due to be harvested between December and April.

In the Japanese market, Taiwan is the favored cobia supplier, though the fish is not well known here to consumers or fish dealers.

Osamu Ashida, a section chief in the sales department of Yamaharu, a leading fish dealer in Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, told SeafoodSource that the company only occasionally sells cobia, called “sugi” in Japanese. They don’t stock it, but do supply Taiwanese cobia on request.

The Japanese prefecture of Okinawa also produces cobia on a small scale, and Japanese familiar with the fish have often tried it there. Asked whether the Okinawan- or Taiwanese-produced cobia were more popular, Ashida replied, “I don’t think we could call either one popular, though the price is not so high, and it has plenty of fat.”

In Taiwan, a one of the top cobia producers is Tan Hou Ocean Development Co. Ltd. Incorporated in 2003, the company uses an online traceability system incorporating identifying barcodes, has routine inspections for chemical traces by the Swiss inspection firm SGS, and is ISO 22000, HACCP and GAP certified. The fish are cultured in net pens off the Pescadore Islands.

The Taiwanese industry is fairly self-sufficient in feed, research, disease prevention and treatment, and net manufacture. Novia Ling, a saleswoman for Tan Hou, said the company uses open-ocean pens produced in Taiwan, as they prefer a product designed specifically for Taiwanese conditions.

Ling promoted Tan Hou’s cobia, king grouper (Epinephelus lanceolatus) and greasy grouper (Epinephelus malabaricus) at this year’s Japan International Seafood and Technology Expo in Tokyo. Tan Hou offers cobia in Japan in a wide variety of forms: skin-on and skin-off fillets, steaks, smoked and deboned, horizontal cut loins and bellies.

Taiwanese cobia’s first export success was in South Korea, followed by Europe. Japan and the United States are current targets. From 6 to 8 kilograms is the favored harvest weight for the Japanese market.

In Japan, cobia has been nicknamed “kuro-kampachi” or “black amberjack,” just as it is sometimes called “black salmon” in the United States. The fish’s white flesh looks similar to amberjack and has a similar firm texture, but is fattier. While discoloration is always a concern for yellowtail and amberjack sashimi, cobia retains its color better.

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Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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