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Published April 30, 2014
Brian O’Hanlon has asked to leave the doors off our helicopter. He wants our pilot to fly low over the rain forest of Panama and out over the ocean. But once we get to the other coast of this country that seems barely wider than someone’s finger, the pilot is nearly lost. He turns around, terrifyingly, and asks through our headsets where he should go next. O’Hanlon is sitting in the backseat and keeps saying the same thing while jutting his arm forward. “Todo derecho,” he says, in Spanish. He is telling the pilot to go straight.
Even in the air, O’Hanlon knows the way by heart to a farm that he built from nothing, out in the middle of nowhere. Eight miles off the coast of Panama on the Caribbean side (most people visit the Pacific coast) we start to see net domes peeking out of the water. They’re like icebergs—most of their mass is underwater. Inside the domes are some 600,000 fish living out their days in the warm Caribbean, eating real food, drinking real water, and nudged by real currents. O’Hanlon is next to me, pointing down and grinning. Later that day he will tell me three times that unlike conventional aquaculture farms where fish swim in their own you-know-what, his fish never see the same water twice.
Onward Special Feature: Food
Photographs and videos by Spencer Millsap
Below us happens to be the largest open-ocean fish farm in the world. Aquaculture isn’t new. Since the days of the Chinese Shang dynasty humans have raised fish to supplement the unpredictable yield of the sea. The idea has always been to corral fish in tanks or pools. At some point, people just got tired of taking a boat out right before dinner.
O’Hanlon’s farm, which is part of a company he founded called Open Blue, wants to buck 4,000 years of human innovation and farm fish back in the ocean. He says that raising an animal in its natural habitat means it will be healthier and taste better and, with the right technology, grow far more efficiently. Some have said he’s pioneering a new form of aquaculture. O’Hanlon is on his way to shipping 250 tons of fish each month, a respectable haul for a midsize company under ten years old. Every few days, planes take what once swam in his underwater cages off to Asia, Europe, and North America. He started the operation in Panama in 2009, and last year, for the first time, demand exceeded supply.
Panama might seem a strange place to hatch a global idea. The country is smaller than New Jersey and reliant on the United States government to keep its currency stable. But Panama’s unique geography with easy access to two oceans makes it cheap and convenient to move feed in and fish out. The government of Panama also welcomed O’Hanlon in a way the U.S. wouldn’t. Harsh regulations, stiff environmental opposition, and “not in my backyard” complaints from coastal communities made his idea unworkable off the coast of Florida or South Carolina, both of which are home to large American ports. The U.S. would give him a permit, but only for a few years. Then he’d have to invest in boats, processing facilities, and distribution infrastructure. “What we’re trying to do takes a lot of capital and commitment,” he said. “You need to be able to think long term about this, at least 20 years into the future.”
The other reason he chose Panama is the real hero of the story: cobia, the fish he’s farming. The first time I heard of cobia was in Josh Schonwald’s book The Taste of Tomorrow. Schonwald spent a few years asking people what new ingredients chefs might demand in the future and how farmers would experiment with new crops. Fish we eat now, like salmon and Chilean sea bass, are largely inefficient to produce. With fewer and more expensive resources, Schonwald concluded, farmers would turn to other species that could convert feed to protein faster. Consumers, in turn, would change their tastes.
He arrived at cobia as the holy grail. Unlike salmon, it goes from egg to 11-pound (5-kilogram) fish in about a year (salmon takes three). Unlike tilapia, it is sashimi-grade fish that can be used for high-end sushi. Unlike carp, it doesn’t taste fishy.
Salmon, tilapia, and carp are the world’s top farmed fish. Most aquaculture occurs in Asia, where overfished oceans have pushed fish farming inland, into concrete pools and tanks pumped with oxygen. The feed used is finely crafted to maximize nutrition. The measure of aquaculture efficiency is the feed-conversion ratio, or FCR: How many pounds of food does it take to yield one pound of meat? For tilapia and most carp species, the ratio is 1.6 to 1. Salmon are among the sleekest, coming in at 1.2 to 1.
Cobia has a way to go. Over the past ten years, cobia’s FCR has dropped to around 2 to 1. O’Hanlon is confident it can one day rival salmon’s. But what makes cobia prime for farming now is that it doesn’t mind population density. Confining fish often stunts growth. In a tank the size of a Jacuzzi, Open Blue can raise 15,000 fish, each the size of a paper clip. In three days they’ll double in size. Eventually they’ll be moved to the ocean pens. A year from now each will cover the entire rack of someone’s barbecue.
“This is how I look for sharks,” O’Hanlon says. We’re on the deck of his boat, floating a few feet from one of the cobia cages. O’Hanlon drops to his knees, then lies flat on his stomach and dunks his face in the water. He pushes his head deeper and deeper until it looks as though he’ll fall overboard. Then he does. When he comes up, he wipes the water from his eyes. “Yeah, there’s a pretty big bull shark down there,” he announces to the boat. I ask him if he’s serious. He looks at me wondering if I’m serious. He raises his eyebrows as if to say, dude, it’s the open ocean, and there are half a million fatty fish down there. Of course I’m serious.
But we dive anyway. Some 30 feet below the surface we swim through a small zipper in the nets. The opening is big enough for a human but small enough to avoid a mass jailbreak. In the cage, the fish swim in circles around a giant pole, day and night. They’re confined in the sphere, but the current of the water gives the effect of a huge treadmill. Compared with egg-laying hens that remain sedentary their whole lives, this form of protein has to keep moving just to stay still.
Underwater, the fish just inches from my eyes were nearly two feet long—enough to command around $50 wholesale. But O’Hanlon’s scientists want the fish slightly bigger, which will take just a few more months. They’ll eventually reach a size of diminishing return, where new food doesn’t yield much new weight.
Down at the bottom of the net, O’Hanlon is lying on his back, 80 feet deep, staring up through the water column. He looks almost as if he’s fallen asleep underwater, at peace with what he’s created, basking in the silhouettes of his moneymakers. O’Hanlon describes diving with his fish as “my church.” It’s quiet and peaceful, like a luxury swimming pool rather than the open ocean. The water is almost 80 degrees. It’s exactly what someone saw when naming the color Caribbean blue.
One night over beers, O’Hanlon explained to me the mechanics of fish death. The way fishing boats kill fish—letting them flop around in a cooler—is actually the worst way to end a salmon. When a fish is stressed (and what could be more stressful than suffocating with a hook in your mouth?), it releases lactic acid, the same stuff that makes your muscles tight after a hard workout. It makes meat pungent and stiff.
You want to kill the fish without warning. So O’Hanlon’s farm uses a relatively new technique in which—“and I realize this sounds crude,” he says, “but it’s not”—giant pipes suck the fish from the water and a hammer immediately knocks the fish on the head. Then a blade cuts a main artery under its chin. From happy life to oblivious death in about three seconds.
In fact, fish can be too fresh. Most animals go through rigor mortis immediately after they die, which makes their muscles tighten. It takes several hours or even days for tissue to relax again. When the cobia arrives in Miami the day after it was stunned, and then at a grocery store the day after that, the muscles have begun to loosen. By the time you get around to cooking the fish four days after it died, it’s just reaching its prime.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization recorded rising demand for cobia back in 2006. But by 2008, numbers had bottomed out. A high-quality fish wasn’t suited to a global recession. Several years later, in 2012, I started looking for cobia at restaurants and supermarkets. Asking a chef sometimes felt like holding a secret key, as if the name was proof I was discerning about seafood. Cobia’s main problem has been marketing. Few people have heard of the fish, let alone stocked it. This was supposed to be the fish of the future, not the fish of hipsters and elites.
Even if growing methods are sound, cobia’s struggle comes down to market share. The acclaimed International Boston Seafood Show—where business deals are inked in squid blood—is jokingly called the Boston Salmon Show. If fish had a monarchy, salmon would be king. The annual salmon-industrial complex is worth just under $10 billion. The fish has the widest portfolio of ways it’s produced: caught in oceans and rivers, farmed on land, and farmed in the wild. Wild salmon has become the most elusive kind. Farmed salmon produced through selective breeding or by tweaking its genes accounts for two-thirds of the salmon the world eats. A cobia trying to squeeze into the salmon market is like a 12-year-old trying out for the Boston Red Sox. A few years ago marketers had the idea to nickname cobia “black salmon.” Why they came up with black—the fish is mostly silver, and the meat is white—no one seems to know.
Finally one day in February I found a restaurant not far from my house in Washington, D.C., that occasionally served cobia. Like any other restaurant, it depended on the catch and whether the restaurant could stock the fish. So I waited. Finally one day I called; it had just gotten a shipment of cobia—by sheer coincidence, from O’Hanlon’s farm in Panama. I went with my colleague Spencer for lunch. I ordered pan-seared cobia with gnocchi, pine nuts, and roasted cauliflower. Spencer had cobia fish tacos. The meat was thick, almost like cutting through beef. It was lean but juicy and took on the flavor of an accompanying cream sauce. I asked Spencer if he’d order it again. He paused and said yes.
The restaurant’s fishmonger, a man dressed in black and named MJ Gimbar, described cobia as a “good eating fish” that has potential for market growth. “It’s a chef’s dream to find something that’s reliably sourced year-round and grows quickly and sustainably,” he said. “The only thing now is to get people to eat it.” The bigger questions may be whether cobia can overcome people’s emotional attachment to salmon and Chilean sea bass, even if those fish are more costly and environmentally demanding to produce.
Our final night in Panama, O’Hanlon offered another opportunity to try cobia, this time cooked on a barbecue on the beach. Someone brought a bucket with two fish, each the length of a man’s torso. We laid one down on a picnic table and stared at it together. I asked O’Hanlon if he could ever imagine these guys swimming in suspended cages off the coast of California.
“That’s the dream, man,” he said, nodding. He said he had to show that the model worked before he’d be able to scale up with cobia and other fish. Success would also invite competition. “You work and work at something, and then one day, somehow it’ll happen.” Then he looked up and asked no one in particular how to say “knife” in Spanish.
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I wonder how often and how they clean the cage and also if there are not other species they could put in the cage to eat the waste of the fish as well.
From where is the food derived and what is it. If it contains sea fish, the food is finite. I can see farms like these will put more strain on the natural school fish and of course the keill. After many years of depleting the krill stocks for hungry fish farms (not to mention chicken and pig food) , we will see whales , seals, penguins and many sea birds disappear from our oceans. Without growing land based food for these fish, this farming is not sustainable. Food for these farms needs to be based on aldie , grown on the waste from cattle farming and many other sources , to feed small fish and crustaceans, on up to a point where the result could be made into food for these fish. If that is not being done already, it should be. Then this farming technique WOULD be sustainable. I support trully sustainable fish farming.
what about the impact to the ocean? imagine thousands using up oxygen, increasing water temperatures meant for a few hundred.
i would rather go with lab cultured meat than with this .
i wonder what other kind of edible marine species can be raised and farmed with this method. they still need to find a way to reduce transfer mortality rate then make the system affordable for non companies usage / small independent farmers around the world.
Very interesting. I't's necessary that we develop more the Aquaculture sector through farming new species ...
"Some have said he’s pioneering a new form of aquaculture"
Without saying who has said this and what makes it new this is a meaningless statement. In fact the whole piece reads like promotional material for Open Blue.
It's hard to believe that such an article could be written and nowhere mention what the fish are fed. Almost certainly this will be other fish, largely caught in the ocean, half of whose biomass will be lost by feeding them to Cobia. So worse than just catching and eating wild fish. Which is devastating ocean ecosystems globally.
And the choice of musical backdrop to the video? Just like a corporate promotional video that normally one would expect a company like Open Blue to have paid for. Rather dissuades me from reading the rest of this 'special issue'
These fish migtht save men from polluted fish farms in Asia and other fisheries around the world. Great alternative and problem solving for world´s hunger.
In India, we face the problem of diminishing fish catch due to overfishing...This could be an excellent solution to this problem...!!
Rubio's Costal Grill has looked at this fish extensively. Buttery, white with firm flesh excellent qualithy with a great background story.
Very interesting article and business plan! I hope that O'Hanlon is successful and is able to "get it done" with minimal side effects to the environment.
Based on the photo of O'Hanlon inside the cage, I only hope he is over a feeding tray. Otherwise it looks like the feed management could be improved.
Negative comments 25, positive attitude 3
Sure looks less cruel than gill-netting live salmon
Now I have to find a monger who sells the product so I can try it.
ThanX natGEO !
I am surprised about this uncritical article: NG lets itself be used as a forum adveritizing the use of cobia to promote business for Mr O´Hamlon.
No word is said about the environmental burden that this kind of farming of millions of fish means for the environment: Huge profits go into the pockets of Mr. O´Hamlon, the toll is paid by all of us and our environment in terms "toll-free" use of sea water use and pollution.
Does Mr. O´Hamlon use any antibiotics? What food does he use for his fish? How much of that do we find in the fish and in the water?
Mr.O´Hamlon can promote his products referring to your uncritical article - this cannot be your or your readers´ intention. I would expect more balanced articles on your highly esteemed website.
I am a little surprised that National Geographic is touting this as a new idea. This has been going on for over 15 years in other places. I do think off shore aquaculture has great potential and these cages are amazing to dive on. It would have been nice, however, to see something in the article about the potential environmental impacts on marine benthic communities and water quality issues even if it is "down stream". Those too have been studied for years.
If it is going to work it can't just be about the consumer demand, the business model and the money. The fact that it was so hard for him to get permits in the US may actually be a good sign. It seems to say, let's think this through on all sides, including long term environmental impacts, before we jump right in. Taking it to other countries that have less stringent environmental regulations isn't necessarily a long term solution although it is a short term solution to make money and seems to show an unwillingness to at least consider environmental concerns. Again, I like to think there is a sustainable way to do this but confronting all the important issues has to be part of the plan.
@Paulo Simoes They are housed in the sea.... they dont bathe in their own feces like many farmed fish that is one of the advantages. (cages have holes)
@agata ka and where is your source come from ?
Three quarters of the world's surface is covered by ocean; does cutting down trees and clearing the land for yet more agriculture really make sense, to feed land produced proteins to fish?
Sustainably caught, short lifecycle, rapidly reproducing "bait" fish are one of the greatest renewable resources on the planet.
Which ever way you care to measure it, methane production, water use or feed conversion, O'Hanlon's cobia are far more sustainable than beef, pork or chicken.
Environmental awareness is a good thing, and fish farms like Open Blue should be pushed to achieve efficiency and sustainability. But emotive, uneducated opinions that seek to misinform and mislead do little to help the cause.
@Alby Hall I'm from Australia and the CSIRO has just finished work on a prawn food that is entirely environmentally friendly and improves the health and size of the animals which is not actually what they were aiming for. All profit from the production of this, is now going into developing a fish food along the same lines, give it about 10 years and you'll have your sustainable farming.
@Harshita Shrinagesh I don't think you've study any science related subject/courses before.
@Harshita Shrinagesh The sea use to have way more fish.. we have nearly depleted the oceans, this is actually a great idea.
@Harshita Shrinagesh so you think these fish wouldnt be in a school if it wasnt for the "cage"? that they wouldn't use up the oxygen anyways?
you would rather eat meat that has been cramped, manipulated, eating, breathing and swimming in its's on waste it's whole life than having fish in constant currents, with fresh water 24/7?
your comment is ignorant at best....
@Phil Chapman the fish they are feed are not consumed by humans generally
The scientific name of cobia is Rachycentron canadum
@Alberto Gonzalez Sada It makes more sense to eat the good fish that is fed to these cobia. anchovies, sardines , pilchards and many more are caught to become fish and animal food.
@Juergen Hueting If you are looking for balance try searching farmed salmon on the NatGeo site. There you will see an overwhelmingly negative portrayal of an industry that operates much the same as the ' open blue' Cobia farming touted here in this article. Why do they do this? Because it is easier to attract readers with sensational stories containing half-truth and activist spew than to present balanced and un-biased information based on science. This is the new path for NatGeo. Keep readership up at any cost. Highly esteemed website? not if you love science.
@Juergen Hueting You have no idea what you are talking about. Go get some education on this topic.
@Juergen Hueting It is pathetic that NG would promote this considering what other attempted efforts of a similar nature are doing all over the world. Having been in Port Lincoln, Australia, the open ocean tuna farms are causing great problems, not just for the tuna, but also for other local species. This includes several large sharks, whom get caught in the nets, as well as giant cuttlefish, leafy sea dragons, etc. It is a poor practice and should not be advertised as some kind of "messiah" for fish farming that will save us all.
Publish the article where someone proposes an idea on how to quell population growth.
@Cynthia Carlson Quite the reverse.
@Cynthia Carlson What do you eat?
Site selection is critical for open ocean aquaculture. Much can be learned from this moderate sized operation and future operations can modify the operations and management to further reduce environmental impacts. Does the American public really know the environmental impact of terrestrial agriculture? It has huge negative impacts on the environment. All forms of food production will. Lets try to improve the methods all food production. O'Hanlon is a pioneer, and we can learn from is efforts.
Yes, the impacts of these offshore cages have been studied and reported in the scientific literature. The results of millions of dollars in studies show no measurable impacts on either the benthic community or down stream.
You can't get permits in the US when scientific evidence takes second place to activists "beliefs" and the activist have more money that a non-existant offshore aquaculture industry.
@Paulo Simoes @Phil Chapman Well if they were it would be energetically more efficient than feeding them to Cobia! And if you're suggesting that opening up new unexploited marine resources to capture fisheries to feed them to other fish (with necessary inefficiencies) is the way forward I'd suggest you haven't grasped the problem.