A Fish Farmer's Tale

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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."

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Josh Schonwald
Contact: Josh Schonwald

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