A Fish Farmer's Tale

Could this be the next salmon?

For the past 30 years Dan Benetti has been on an obsessive quest that has taken him to the farthest corners of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. He's traveled to the Sea of Japan, the Gulf of Alaska, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, Black Sea, North Sea, and South China Sea. The quest has required, at times, close encounters with sharks and months-long sea voyages. The quest did not please his first wife.

But on a sunny day last month, the tall, handsome 52-year-old University of Miami professor, a master in the obscure science of mating and growing marine fish, sauntered to the back of his Virginia Key laboratory, peered over the edge of a small pool, and excitedly announced he had at last found the fish.

He pointed at roughly a dozen 30-pound creatures that, with their dorsal fins and flat faces, looked eerily like sharks. "This is it," he said with a thick Brazilian accent, his voice lowering as five of them rushed up and instantly devoured several pounds of chilled sardines. "Look at the power of the fish," he marveled, ogling the tank. "They are as close to a perfect species as I've ever seen."

Ian Zink, a UM graduate student, tends to the cobia fingerlings
Ian Zink, a UM graduate student, tends to the cobia fingerlings

Benetti, who wears polo shirts and drives an Audi, seems more like the type of guy you'd meet at a tennis club than on a college campus. He is voluble and charming, talks with his hands, and is prone to unusual analogies (comparing, say, the environmental impact of a Colombian shrimp farm to that of Dadeland Mall).

Ask about this fish, and he will at first talk like the research scientist he is. He will tell you about its freakish biology. It grows ten times faster than an ordinary fish. It has no known relative, but could be a cousin of the remora — the famed shark-sucker. It behaves bizarrely well in captivity — almost like a pet. It boasts a high spawning rate and a low juvenile mortality rate. And it does a great job converting fishmeal to body fat.

But then the talk turns to the real reason Benetti believes this fish is as promising as the Internet was in, say, 1994. It doesn't taste fishy. It's white and firm, like swordfish. It can be grilled, sautéed, or served as sashimi or bouillabaisse. To Benetti it's more flavorful than Chilean sea bass and makes better sushi than even hamachi. Thus he makes the stunning prediction: "Cobia will be the next salmon."

Comparing an obscure fish to salmon is, in the world of fish-farming, the equivalent of saying a five-year-old will become the next Michael Jordan.

But what makes cobia, Rachycentron canadum, even more intriguing is that it's native to South Florida waters and could create an industry, jobs, and food throughout the Gulf Coast states.

In less than four weeks Benetti's research team will begin a test that could revolutionize cobia production. They will attempt to induce breeding by changing temperature and light to trick the fish into believing it's spawning season. If they are successful, the species could be bred all year. "It's not a 99 percent chance that cobia will be sold in Costco in five years," Benetti says, wagging his finger emphatically. "It's more like 99.999 percent."

There is, however, one little obstacle to Benetti's revolution: It's practically illegal to raise cobia in U.S. waters.

They have to be sent to fisheries in the Bahamas and Puerto Rico — out of U.S. waters — after reaching roughly two inches in length, because the maze of American bureaucracy won't permit them to grow here.

But Benetti reveals that his project is about far more than just cobia; it's about saving sea life. "We're breaking the ocean," he says, sitting in his office, and cites dire statistics about the state of fish. Seventy-five percent of the ocean's fisheries, he says, are at risk for serious population decline. Some stocks, like cod and snapper, have already collapsed; many more are in danger of being fished out.

"This is a way to save fisheries," he says, pointing to a DVD image of what looks like a space ship with an umbilical cord. He pushes a button on his computer, and gestures to a human figure swimming outside the space ship. "This is a farmhand," he says, smiling. This is the ranch where Benetti's cobia will grow — two miles off the coast of Culebra, Puerto Rico, 40 feet below sea level.

Benetti and a handful of scientists have argued for the past several years that such open-ocean fish-farming is the environmentally sensitive way of sating the world's seafood demand. "There is no other means of food production that can produce a higher yield with a lower impact," he says.

Now the advocates of raising fish at sea have their chance. Last June the Bush administration introduced a bill called the National Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2005, which is aimed at opening up to 200 miles of federal waters for private harvesting of creatures like cod, halibut, and cobia.

But many environmentalists disagree — profoundly. Nationally dozens of organizations, such as the Ocean Conservancy, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Environmental Defense, are gearing up for a political fight surrounding the Aquaculture Act, fearing that open-ocean farming — particularly of a carnivore like cobia — could be disastrous.

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