Freshwater-raised Cobia The Next Chicken of the Sea?

US farmer sets sights on 200 million pounds a year production
April 5, 2007

Freshwater-raised Cobia The Next Chicken of the Sea?
A Virginia company using patented technology to produce a fast-growing, high-yielding marine fish some 300 miles from the nearest ocean made its debut at the International Boston Seafood Show, turning heads and luring hundreds of inquiries from potential buyers.

"We believe that freshwater-raised cobia is the next chicken of the sea - one that will fill growing consumer demand for marine fish high in Omega 3 fatty acids without burdening the ocean's already depleted fish stocks," says Bill Martin, chairman, Virginia Cobia Farms, LLC, Saltville.

There's one other plus. Virginia cobia are raised in tanks and its feed components are carefully monitored, so there's no risk of mercury content - a growing concern in some marine species.

Martin eventually plans to produce up to 200 million pounds of cobia a year at his farm in Saltville, Virginia, a small town in an economically depressed area of the state that stands to gain lots of jobs from the upstart company. Last fall, Governor Timothy Kaine estimated that Virginia Cobia Farms would create 60 new jobs for the region.

Virginia Cobia Farms is a joint venture by Martin's fish farm, Blue Ridge Aquaculture, Inc., of Martinsville, the nation's largest tilapia producer, and MariCal, Inc., of Portland, Maine.

MariCal is a privately held animal health and nutrition biotechnology firm that discovered a way to raise saltwater species in low-salinity fresh water - without compromising taste, texture or nutritional content.

Dr. William Harris, a co-founder, president and chief scientific officer of MariCal, notes that many marine fish naturally adapt to variations in salinity and that some species, including salmon, spend part of their lives in fresh water. MariCal's patented technology involves a protein that serves as a calcium-sensing receptor (CaSR), which Harris describes as a "molecular thermostat."

"We don't do anything to the fish. There are no genetic modifications, no antibiotics, no hormones," Harris says. "We're simply signaling this natural sensor. It's sort of like putting your hand over a thermostat to raise the temperature reading. You're not doing anything to the thermostat. You're simply triggering a response."

Established last October, Virginia Cobia Farms will harvest its first crop of cobia this May. "We'll have about 100,000 pounds of fish, but I wish we had three times that much," says William Thomas, MariCal's chief operating officer.