VIDEO BY SPENCER MILLSAP
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.
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.