A Fish Farmer's Tale

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."

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.

"If the bill passes in its current form, and cobia takes off like Benetti predicts," says Becky Goldburg, a senior scientist at Environmental Defense, "it would be a disaster. It would be like if you took the hog farms of North Carolina and dropped them in the ocean. Would you like a giant hog farm off your coastline?"

Cobia's place at the center of a national debate about how America uses its oceans can ultimately be traced to an experiment staged fourteen years ago in small town on the Texas Gulf Coast. One steamy day in July 1992, Refik Orhun, a student at the University of Texas's Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, walked into a laboratory to see the outcome of an experiment that was essentially a race between two species. Orhun, a thin, bespectacled Turk with thick sideburns (who would later become Benetti's partner), had heard about the test from a researcher named Connie Arnold, who was conducting the experiment. Roughly two dozen four-inch fingerlings had been captured the previous summer, dropped in adjacent fifteen-by-six-foot tanks, and held in identical conditions.

The first species was mahi-mahi, the famed dolphin fish, which was widely believed to be an incredibly fast grower. Researchers around the world were trying to breed it. The other, accidentally picked up in a seaweed bed off the Texas coast, had never been tested. Known as "ling" in South Texas argot, it was cobia.

Testing the growth potential of a fish is not unusual. Aquaculture, the farming of sea creatures, is nearly as ancient as agriculture. By the Second Century B.C., the Chinese raised carp in water-filled paddies and ponds. During the biblical era, Egyptians had intensive fish-farming operations. And ever since an eighteenth-century German scientist squeezed sperm from a rainbow trout, researchers have been hunting for the perfect growfish.

In the Twenties, scientists learned that a species native to Africa was not only easy to grow, but also could tolerate environments far outside of its native habitat. Introduced in Taiwan in the Forties, tilapia is widely credited with helping the once-impoverished country become an economic powerhouse.

The phenomenal success of tilapia was, though, only a precursor to what happened in the Seventies and Eighties, when scientists unlocked the code to raising Atlantic salmon. Though it spawns in fresh water, the salmon grows extraordinarily quickly in salt water. By the Nineties, salmon-farming had exploded into a multibillion-dollar industry and sparked a dot-com-like frenzy centered in Chile and Norway.

In 1992, for instance, three Norwegian bankers who knew nil about fish-farming bought a small salmon-farming company for $368,000. Eight years later, the firm, Pan Fish, was valued at $1.2 billion.

Spurred by the wild success of the salmon industry, researchers in the Eighties vastly expanded the hunt for farmable sea life. They turned to the oceans, which provided a seemingly limitless range of diversity. But the saltwater pioneers faced enormous obstacles. First, marine fish were incredibly difficult to spawn because their eggs were a fraction of the size of salmon and tilapia eggs. And second, many saltwater species were accustomed to migrating thousands of miles each year. They simply couldn't be tamed.

During the early Nineties, one of the most exciting ocean species for researchers was the mahi-mahi, known for its taste and phenomenal growth. But when Orhun walked into Arnold's lab that day, he discovered that all the mahi had died. They couldn't cope with confinement. The bulls fought viciously with each other. Some rammed the sides of the tank. One even jumped out. Then Orhun walked to an outdoor greenhouse where Arnold kept another tank for larger fish. He was stunned. The cobia, which looked vaguely like catfish, all survived, and they were huge. Several had grown to ten pounds.

And there was something even more amazing. As Orhun stared at the fish — which are pelagic, meaning they cruise the open ocean — he noticed one of them was motionless at the bottom of the tank. It wasn't dead. "It was sitting. Cats sit, dogs sit. Some flat fish sit. But," Orhun said, "pelagic fish don't sit!" It was freakish, he recalled. The sitting cobia seemed so content. "It would come up and look at you. It was almost like it liked being caged."

One other thing about cobia intrigued Orhun, an expert in fish larvae. "It had one of the largest eggs of any marine fish in the world."

When Orhun arrived in Miami three months later, in September of 1992, as a graduate researcher, one of the first things he did was tell his friend Benetti, who was experimenting with mahi-mahi: "You're studying the wrong fish."

Benetti was something of a fish-farming prodigy. He began his career as an aquaculture researcher for the Brazilian navy, and by age 24 had managed the first spawning of a marine fish, a mullet, in Latin America. By 1992, he had experimented with more than a dozen species — from red drum and amberjack to red snapper and flounder.

When Orhun first mentioned the cobia test, Benetti was unmoved. The UM researcher was interested in a higher-profile fish with market potential that could spawn an industry. "Few people," Benetti says, "had even heard of cobia."

"Dan wouldn't even listen to me," Orhun adds.

But a decade later in a San Diego hotel, at the 2002 World Aquaculture Society Conference, everything changed. A Taiwanese professor, I Chiu Liao, approached the podium and began reporting data he'd collected. Benetti and Orhun, who were in the audience, watched in stunned silence as Liao described his cobia findings. They confirmed what Orhun had seen ten years before: Cobia was a freak.

Benetti looked at Orhun, who was glowing.

Capt. Alex Adler was on his boat the Kalex, scouting the blue waters just off Islamorada, when he received a strange phone call from a man with a thick Hispanic accent. Adler, one of the area's best-known sportfishermen, got requests for cobia all the time. But this was odd. The man wanted live cobia, at least ten of them, fifteen pounds or more, as soon as possible.

So the next day Adler, a short, bearded, sun-blasted seaman who has fished the Keys for 35 years, pulled the 48-foot sportfishing boat from its berth at Bud 'n' Mary's marina (Mile Marker 79), revved its diesel engines, and headed out for the usual cobia hot spots: the reefs and wrecks of the Middle Keys. As the Kalex slowed to an idle about three miles offshore, Adler climbed the boat's 27-foot tower and waited. "You've got to have patience for cobia," Adler says.

One of the reasons cobia-fishing is such a challenge to the Keys veteran and other tropical sportfishermen is because they travel solo or in small schools. Thus unlike cod, which move in large groups, cobia could never be commercially fished. To find these loners, you have to follow rays or sharks, or scan the shallow surfaces near reefs and wrecks. They love squid, octopus, and crabs, but they're not picky. They'll hook onto almost anything. If, say, a six-foot-long, 110-pound bull bites, you'll have to wrestle with tremendous strength. It can take hours to bring one in. And after the fight, you still have to be careful; cobia have a row of sharp spines beneath the dorsal and anal fins. "They'll cut you up for sure," says Adler. "When you pull them in, and their tails are flying around, they'll get your legs and shins."

The other reason cobia aren't an easy catch: They're migratory. The main run in South Florida, for instance, lasts only a few months in the winter and early spring. In some parts of the world, nabbing a cobia is so desirable that catching one is cause for celebration. In Belize, for example, fishermen are said to never give them away. In Mexico, they're reserved for banquets and weddings.

But Adler lived up to his reputation as the Keys cobia guru that April afternoon. He picked up fourteen and dumped them, as instructed, in a holding tank.

The next day a white Budget rental truck rolled up to Adler's dock. Two men eagerly approached the tank holding the cobia. One man squirted a few droplets of an oily substance into the water, and the fish were instantly knocked unconscious. The men, wearing surgical gloves, removed the limp creatures, placed them in plastic bags, and rushed them to the truck, which held a 200-gallon tank and several oxygen canisters.

What the hell was going on? Adler thought of the process, which took fifteen minutes.

As the men were leaving hurriedly, Adler was told the fish would be for "breeding."

Adler, who has never farmed a fish, loved the idea. Before the state and feds imposed limits on cobia-fishing, Adler says he was pulling in tens of thousands each year and selling them to restaurants and fish markets. "Everyone loved cobia," he said. "They just couldn't get enough of it."

Less than a month after hearing Liao speak at the convention, Benetti fired off a grant proposal seeking to experiment with cobia. By April 2002, after securing $750,000 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he was on the phone with Keys fishermen trying to obtain a brood stock — the stallions of the aquaculture world — which spawns the eggs that are nursed into fingerlings that become the fish-farmer's crop.

When Benetti received his first breeders in April 2002, he at last had a chance to examine the fabled fish. The cobia were brought to a small fish hatchery on Grassy Key and placed in a 75-degree tank. Within days, as Liao predicted, they spawned more than a million eggs. The infant survival rate also proved to be incredibly high. By July, Benetti had 8000 cobia fingerlings.

The next and most crucial step was to find a place with the right temperature and conditions. But the fingerlings would require an area roughly the size of a football field, and there was no place in the United States where he could send them.

An absurd sequence of events took place early that July: Eight thousand three-inch cobia were packed in eight boxes filled with oxygen and water (cost: $1320), driven two hours in a rental truck (cost: $1000), loaded onto a flight ($13,500 with airport cost), then placed on an eighteen-wheeler for a 45-minute drive, and then loaded onto a boat ($1300). Cost per fingerling, including labor: roughly $3 — or a total of more than $24,000.

The reason for this expensive circus: Marine fish-farming is functionally impossible in Florida. Though no law specifically bans it, raising fish in federal or state waters would have required Benetti, by his own accounting, to apply for permits from more than ten different governmental agencies — among them the Army Corps of Engineers, the Florida Department of Agriculture, and the EPA.

The Byzantine set of rules, permits, and prohibitions has a pretty obvious origin. Many Americans fear a disaster — like the farmed-salmon industry. By far the largest segment of U.S. aquaculture today, the salmon industry is blamed by environmentalists for a litany of ecological problems caused by escapees — from threatening wild salmon populations to infecting endangered species with sea lice to polluting coastal waters with feces. Salmon farms, critics charge, are ugly, dirty, and, worst, environmentally unsustainable. Every pound of salmon raised eats three pounds of smaller fish, such as anchovies and sardines.

"The farmed-salmon industry has decimated fisheries off the coasts of South America and Africa," says Elizabeth Babcock, a fish biologist at the Pew Institute for Ocean Science.

Even Benetti concedes, "Traditional aquaculture has done incredible damage to the world."

So several years ago Benetti and other scientists, seizing on new technological advances, hatched the idea for the undersea ranch. The concept: Move fish farms at least 40 feet under the sea's surface and miles off the coastline. They are virtually invisible except for a single buoy marking the spot, and swift offshore currents disperse and eliminate waste. Plus species would be farmed in their native habitats.

The problem with Benetti's underwater panacea was the cost. Undersea cages are more than five times more expensive than traditional cages because they have complex engineering and sturdier construction. Additionally the eco-friendly way requires environmental monitoring, scuba-equipped farmhands, and transportation to reach the offshore sites.

The research scientist wanted to prove his idea applied to the real world. But who would attempt this plan? He needed a risk-taker.

Brian O'Hanlon isn't an ordinary college dropout; the Long Island native is the Shawn Fanning of aquaculture. His father is a fish wholesaler, and at the age of fourteen, he knew his life's ambition was aquaculture. By the time he was nineteen years old, O'Hanlon had set up a 2000-gallon tank in his parents' basement and transported a brood stock of red snapper from the Alabama coast to Greenlawn, New York.

Like so many young aquaculturists, O'Hanlon had heard of Benetti. In the summer of 1998, O'Hanlon, then a student at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, took a three-week summer course with the UM professor at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce. During the class, he offhandedly mentioned the Long Island red snapper experiment to his instructor.

Benetti was intrigued. He had to see it for himself, so he flew to New York. When he walked through the O'Hanlon basement and surveyed the eighteen-year-old's operation, he recalls thinking, "This guy is crazy." They became fast friends.

After the summer, O'Hanlon became hooked on the open-ocean farm idea and decided not to return to Eckerd. Benetti agreed to guide, train, and help him in selecting a site, securing permits, winning government grants, and planning the facility. Soon O'Hanlon had some financial support from his family and Joe Ayvazian, a Long Island friend, dry-cleaning tycoon, and heavy-metal drummer.

Then in 2000, O'Hanlon, with Benetti's guidance, found a site two miles off Culebra, Puerto Rico. It was perfect for Benetti's eco-sensitive farm — strong undersea currents, clean water, stable temperature. O'Hanlon spent two years obtaining permits and building what he called "Snapperfarm." Opening in 2003, it was Puerto Rico's first open-ocean fish farm.

But it wasn't long before Snapperfarm ceased to be a snapper farm. In June 2003, O'Hanlon received his first shipment of fingerlings. He had two underwater cages — one reserved for mutton snapper, the other for cobia. "This is no joke," O'Hanlon says. "You could see the cobia grow in one day, from morning to evening." In one month, the fish weighed more than 20 grams. By contrast, the mutton snapper, at one month, had grown to two or three grams. "It was a no-brainer," O'Hanlon says.

O'Hanlon's open-ocean farming received attention from trade papers, such as GrowFish, and mainstream papers, including the Virgin Island Daily News, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the UK's Guardian. Preliminary testing was proving Benetti's thesis: Snapperfarm had virtually no environmental impact. Even aquaculture skeptics such as the Pew Institute's Babcock were impressed. "It was very encouraging," she says. "It could be a green solution." National Geographic dispatched photographers to Culebra. The college dropout received invitations to lecture the world's top aquaculture researchers. Recalls O'Hanlon: "We had the new technology and had the hot fish."

The American cobia industry hasn't exactly exploded like Internet dating. These days you'd be hard-pressed to find a South Florida grocery that carries cobia, or a store manager who even knows what it is. And the pioneers Benetti inspired with his vision of open-ocean cobia haven't profited.

One person who invested in hatching cobia, Loyal Eldridge, gave up after several years of financial hemorrhage. Another guy who caught the cobia bug, Johan Scheidt, set up, with Benetti's guidance, a facility in Eleuthera. After one harvest, sharks took him out. He's still offline. And O'Hanlon's Snapperfarm has had its fair share of rough times. A shark attack left a gaping hole in one of the cages, costing the company hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost fish.

South Florida's cobia king, the only person to actually specialize in importing the perfect species, isn't exactly raking in the cobia gold. Jimmy O'Hanlon, Brian's uncle and the owner of Miami's JC Seafood, shakes his head when he's asked about the cobia business plan. It's been a popular fish with local sushi places, he says (try Las Olas Boulevard), but it hasn't caught on with midlevel restaurants.

The eco-sensitivity and high quality of the product are great. But Jimmy needs more. "I want to sell fish," says the straight-talking New Yorker. "Bottom line: To sell fish, we need more quantity."

The problem, he says, is production. "We got the customers going last year," he says. "They loved the stuff. But right now, it's a seasonal thing.... You can't get them going six months out of the year then cut them off. They forget about it."

Brian knows the importance of all-year production. But he adds, "We need more cages. We can't do it for another year with just two cages." Uncle Jimmy is more direct. "Put this in the paper," he says. "We need five million dollars."

Benetti understands the need for profit. Back at Virginia Key, the UM professor and Orhun, who directs the cobia hatchery, are preparing for at least three experiments that could help the O'Hanlons: They're testing ways to reduce transportation costs by packing more cobia in each box, testing different fishmeal mixes to cut feed expenses, and attempting a winter spawning, which would enable year-round production. "It takes time to figure this out," Benetti says. "The salmon industry took ten years to develop."

Benetti is supremely confident about cobia's inevitability, but there is one thing he fears: that foreign investors will take over the cobia industry and revert to the practices of traditional fish-farming.

An inkling of this trend is already evident less than 200 miles south of Virginia Key, on Grass Key, across from the Jolly Roger trailer park in Marathon. The two-story Aquaculture Center of the Keys, the only commercial cobia hatchery in the United States and the place where Benetti first hatched fingerlings in 2002, has a For Sale sign staked in front.

Owen Stevens, a Benetti protégé and the center's long-time director, recently left for Asia. He's scouting out the cobia farms that have popped up from Vietnam to Taiwan to Indonesia. In March, Stevens will open a brand-new multimillion-dollar cobia hatchery and farm — much larger than O'Hanlon's — in Belize. He'll be working for a multibillion-dollar Norway-based company.

But there may be a way to keep the United States competitive: the Aquaculture Act of 2005, which aims to quintuple the nation's fish-farming by 2035. It would expand aquaculture into federal waters — up to 200 miles offshore. Farmers could lease plots in U.S. waters for ten-year increments. The bill would not eliminate regulations, according to proponents, but rather make a "more coherent process."

During the past year, Benetti has worked aggressively for the cause — he has testified before Congress, presented findings on the environmental impact of Snapperfarm, and been called a hero by Jim McVey, one of the Bush administration's chief aquaculture advocates. "Without this bill," Benetti says, "marine aquaculture is dead in the U.S."

But environmentalists are rapidly mobilizing to fight the act as well as state plans to encourage fish-farming in their jurisdiction. Benetti's former student Marianne Cufone, a Tampa-based lawyer and environmental consultant, is assembling an unusual alliance of state environmental organizations, the Florida sportfishing industry, and wild fisheries — all of which, she says, have concerns about offshore aquaculture's possible impact in Florida.

Cufone contends that far too little is known about this practice. She still fears that when big business gets access to the oceans, "We'll have another salmon industry off Florida's coast."

Responds Benetti: "They don't seem to understand. Open-ocean aquaculture is preventing another salmon industry."

But Babcock is still unconvinced cobia won't become Salmon II. Like salmon, cobia are predators that need small fish in their fishmeal. "And cobia are big fish-eating fish. Who knows what kind of impact a cobia industry would have on the ecosystem?"

Benetti is experimenting with a fishmeal that is part soy mix, part protein. One pound of farmed cobia will require less than two pounds of smaller fish. But he's exasperated by the environmentalists. "It's ridiculous. It takes ten pounds of wild fish to produce a pound of large fish in nature," he says, "so aquaculture is at least three times more sustainable than nature itself."

Standing next to the hatchery, the Quonset-hut-like building that holds hundreds of cobia fingerlings, Benetti gestures to a neighboring yellow structure about twenty yards away. If a cage were as large as the space between here and there, he explains, it could contain about 50 percent of the annual cobia production in the United States. The cobia industry produces roughly 1000 tons of cobia annually, a grand total of about .07 percent of the salmon take.

But Benetti believes that the cobia hurricane is imminent: "Taiwan, Vietnam, Mexico, Cuba, Belize, the Dominican Republic."

"Iran," adds Orhun.

Benetti continues. "If you were starting a fish farm, and you could raise ten-pound fish in one year, or another fish that takes two years to grow one pound," he says, "what would you do?"

Then Orhun jumps in: "After we prove this can work with cobia, then we move on to others."

Benetti smiles and looks at Orhun. The pair is already thinking about the next fish. "Bluefin tuna," Benetti says hungrily.

"It's the ultimate. Just think about the size," Orhun later adds, eyes widening. "It's the Holy Grail."

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Josh Schonwald
Contact: Josh Schonwald

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