The illusion of virtual reality is both fascinating and inspiring. When does anyone get the chance in "real" life to float weightless in a net enclosure among thousands of fishes? The five to six kilogram fishes seem amazingly calm as they swim their lengths but you jerk back involuntarily when an imposing fish suddenly floats into view just a few centimetres in front of your face. When you look down into the azure depths you begin to realize the dimensions of the net pen. The net is stretched around the central axis, a 26 metre long and about one metre thick steel pipe, which stands vertically in the water to maintain the structure’s buoyancy. It is the shape of two equal-sized cones whose circular bases are positioned against each other like a mirror image. The structure can be submerged completely below the ocean surface to protect it from violent storms and rough waves. This kind of aquaculture provides optimal living conditions for the deep-sea cobia which usually keeps close to the surface in its natural surroundings. The fishes have to swim constantly against the strong current, they get high-quality feed, are not bothered by predators, and the Caribbean sun that penetrates many metres deep into the crystal clear water ensures sufficiently warm water.
The nearly five-minute "dive" into the virtual world, for which a 360° view and 3D display fuse together so that the computer fools our brains into thinking we are actually down there ourselves, gives a very vivid impression of the cobia’s life (Rachycentron canadum) in an offshore enclosure. And to enjoy this rare experience you simply have to put on the special glasses and start the film. Open Blue uses this little gimmick as a better way than with words to show visitors, investors and customers what life is like in floating pens in the open sea, and what differentiates "offshore" fish farms from conventional aquaculture.
Offshore farming requires completely new technologies
The history of Open Blue began already a decade before the official company launch in 2007, company founder Brian O'Hanlon informs us. He comes from a family that has been active in the seafood business for three generations and he dreamed early on of a new farming technology that would offer the fish optimal conditions for their natural growth in an environmentally friendly location. For years he experimented and planned in a small pilot plant and gradually designed and developed the technology in cooperation with institutions and universities. "Right from the beginning it was our goal to carry out aquaculture in harmony with the sea and its natural resources. It was clear that we needed to move the farm to a place far away from the ecologically sensitive coastal ecosystems, and that meant into the open ocean”, Brian told us. In the open sea, however, the conditions were much harder, the supply routes a lot longer than those of traditional farms that are located directly off the coast, often in sheltered bays. "Anyone who wants to produce offshore therefore needs particularly robust technology and a lot of money, because the costs are much higher."
The timing of the company's founding could hardly have been less fortunate because only a few months later, in 2008, came the global economic and financial crisis during which many people had quite other things to think about than an aquaculture startup in the offshore sector. Nevertheless, at that time interest was growing in the idea of more environment- and animal-friendly fish production, with which O'Hanlon, as he himself says, hopes to "revolutionize" aquaculture. Apparently it caused him no major problems to gain financially strong investors for the ambitious project but O’Hanlon didn’t want to say exactly which investors were behind Open Blue. Probably rather prosperous ecological enthusiasts who can afford to spend a few thousand dollars for a good cause. Brian O'Hanlon assured us that he was not under any constraint to generate an attractive return for the investors in the foreseeable future. What was important to all parties was that offshore technology should be further developed and become a model and benchmark for other aquaculture enterprises. The success of Open Blue and the excellent quality of the produced fish that convinces fish lovers wherever cobia is already traded are already arousing growing interest.
Not only among caterers and fishmongers but also among investors and fish farmers. To begin with it was not even certain which fish Open Blue would produce. "Originally we had red snapper in mind," says O'Hanlon. But cobia had proved much better in performance and market tests. "After a year, when the snappers had reached a weight of just 400 grams, cobia already weighed a good 5 kilograms and when the tasting sessions in New York were consistently positive, the decision was made".
Cobia is ideal for aquaculture
Cobia, also known as black kingfish, black salmon, or lemon fish is to be found almost worldwide in tropical and subtropical seas. The species belongs to the order of Carangiformes. It grows to a length of up to two metres and a weight of 70 kg. And it grows extremely fast in its juvenile years, which is naturally of great advantage for production in aquaculture. Its thick white filet can be cooked in many ways, from sushi and sashimi to ceviche, and from grilling and frying to roasting. Cobia flesh has a fine nutty, buttery flavour, a firm texture and does not fall apart when heated. The taste is often described as a cross between swordfish and Chilean seabass. Fat content is about 18% which is at the level of Atlantic salmon, and the share of Omega 3 fatty acids is even much higher.
The decision in favour of this fish species, as indeed the choice of the farm site in Panama, had been absolutely right, O'Hanlon believes. It had meant that Open Blue was able to get around the complicated and time-consuming approval process in the USA and could produce its cobia in the Caribbean under climatic conditions that were optimal for this species. The investors were greeted with open arms In Panama, especially since they offered jobs and good earning potential in an economically underdeveloped region where tourists are seldom seen and so provided local artisans with welcome orders. About 200 people are currently employed at Open Blue. Although the company was founded only a few years ago it is fully vertically integrated and has all the sensitive process stages from hatching and rearing of fry to processing and marketing of the products under its own control.
Own hatchery guarantees fry supply to the offshore farm
At the core of Open Blue’s cobia farming are the hatchery and the technical base not far from Viento Frio, where a small pier and the material and feed stores are to be found. The hatchery, only built in 2012, is already being rebuilt and extended because demand for cobia is growing so quickly that the farm’s original capacity is no longer sufficient. The water for the farm’s tanks is pumped from the sea through two 1 km long pipes, then elaborately cleaned and disinfected. Recirculating systems are available for particularly sensitive tasks. The current spawning stock in Panama comprises about 100 parent fish from their own offspring that are at least 4 years old and will be used for reproduction for two years. There are also 40 other fishes that are kept in Miami for safety reasons. Open Blue has just launched a family breeding programme for cobia, and the first young generation is at present developing. Before maturation the parent fishes are given a special protein- and vitamin-rich diet. The fishes spawn naturally throughout the year. Mating is in a ratio of one to two males per female that then produces pelagic eggs over a period of several months (fertility is about 75,000 eggs / kg body weight).
Fertilized eggs float on the surface where they are collected using a rotating skimmer and transported to a separate tank. The eggs are thoroughly disinfected before being transferred to the facility’s breeding tank. ("Green Water Technology"). Already 24 to 36 hours after hatching the larvae have consumed their yolk sac and are then given enriched live food: first rotifers (Brachionus), which are replaced after one week by Artemia nauplii. Weaning begins approximately two weeks after hatching with the gradual supplementary feeding of dry feed until after a further week the live feed is stopped altogether. The fry are sorted for the first time after 30 days to limit any emergence of cannibalism, and after about 60 days they are vaccinated. Over the course of their lives the fishes are sorted three to four times by size. "The final sorting takes place immediately before the net pens are stocked. This is particularly important because it spares us the time-consuming sorting of fish stocks in the open sea."
The young cobia grow so rapidly that already 90 to 100 days after hatching they weigh 120 to 150 grams and can be transferred from the hatchery to the farm’s net pens in the open sea. They are taken to the technical base a few kilometres away in insulated, well-ventilated plastic tubs and there transferred to work boats which take them immediately to the offshore farm.
Cobia reared offshore in harmony with nature
Open Blue holds three production licences in Panama, of which however currently only one is used – in the region of Costa Arriba. The farm is located 12 km off the coast about 70 m above the seabed. The water is extremely clean, constantly in motion and particularly rich in oxygen. O’Hanlon had searched long for this ecologically intact location because he wanted to give his fishes perfect living conditions. Around the farm a "commercial no take zone" measuring ten square kilometers was established, a marine reserve as it were. Open Blue is very careful not to unduly impact the natural environment of the farm nor indeed to damage it in any way. The seabed beneath the pens is regularly inspected using an ROV camera (Remote Operated robotic Vehicle) and parallel to this samples were taken from the seabed for laboratory analysis. "So far we have found no significant impact of the farm on the environment, mainly thanks to the currents in the area which ensure rapid and large-scale distribution of sedimenting substances". The farm enclosures are located in a relatively uninteresting "desert area of the sea" with little species variety. Divers report that the underwater structures of the farm act as oases that attract numerous fish and seafood species. Snappers, suckerfish, jacks, tuna and various shark species, including giant whale sharks like to hang around the enclosures and they provide a source of stimulation.
The bi-conical net enclosures are rather like icebergs in that the largest part of their structure is hidden beneath the water. Mostly only the tip of the central float projects from the water. When the nets have to be cleaned or during harvesting the structure can be raised up almost half out of the water. "This enables us to check and clean the mesh more easily. We simply dry the algae and other growths in the sun," says Brian O'Hanlon. Such tasks are otherwise particularly troublesome in the offshore sector, as well as costly and dangerous. Up to now Open Blue has not succeeded in developing a platform that can be anchored close to the enclosures as a permanent base. That is why the company’s workboats travel 12 km daily to feed the fish, and check and maintain the net pens. Open Blue employs more than 20 professional divers who are trained for such work. Nevertheless, this work is not without risk, especially in the rainy season, when severe weather and violent storms hit the area. The design of the farm had proven itself, says Brian O'Hanlon, but the offshore technology was still far from perfected and more research and development work was needed in almost all areas. From the fishes’ diet, to their reproduction, transport and logistics.
Feeding is a priority area because feed, its correct portioning, and the daily boat trips to the enclosures constitute the largest cost item of the farm. "We use a feed that is as close as possible to cobia’s natural diet. It contains a lot of fish meal and fish oil and vegetable proteins, vitamins and minerals and is relatively expensive. In addition, the FCR is at 2.5 still very high, but we are working to improve this. Research results have shown that an FCR of 1.5 is possible for cobia ". O'Hanlon assured us that the feed contains no hormones, growth promoters or colourants. Like almost everything at Open Blue the farm and the farming technique are constantly being further developed, optimized and improved. The current net pens have a volume of 6,400 cubic metres, with fish density usually below 20 kg/m³. Altogether there are 600,000 fish in the whole farming facility, allowing a monthly harvest of 250 t. Because Open Blue expects a significant increase in demand for cobia the old net pens are now being replaced by new ones that are more than twice as big with 14,500 cubic metres.
Fresh cobia products now regularly available in Europe
Harvesting takes place on the farm four to five times a week, always in the late afternoon. The fish are killed at sea after harvesting by inserting a spike into the brain (iki-jime), then the gill artery is cut to allow bleeding, and the fishes are layered in tubs with slurry ice. A truck is already waiting at the harbour to take the cargo overnight from the Caribbean side of Panama about a hundred kilometers overland to the processing plant in Juan Diaz on the outskirts of Panama City on the Pacific side. The company meets the highest international standards, and Production Director Fernando Oyarzun proudly points to HACCP, BRC, GlobalGAP, QCS and Friend of the Sea certificates. Processing – mainly be hand – starts early in the morning at around 5.30 a.m. Because the fish species is still relatively new to the processing sector there is as yet no suitable machinery available. After its arrival each fish is weighed separately, headed, gutted and then sorted by weight. At this point each fish is given an individual stamp with QR code that allows full traceability of the life history of the fish from the egg to the finished product. Processing is normally complete with the "headed & gutted" fish because this product currently registers the highest demand. But Open Blue also offers fillets, loins and steaks, all in sashimi-grade quality. "Fillets usually have trim grade C," said Oyarzun, also pointing out that cobia trims are not comparable with those of salmon. "Trim C means that the shoulder bone has been removed together with the pectoral and ventral fins, the rib bones and pin bones.” But because the pin bones of cobia are very difficult to remove this is usually done using a V-cut. Depending on orders, about 1,500 fishes with an average weight of 5 to 6 kg are processed every day and mostly delivered fresh. They can also be frozen on request.
Open Blue has large reserves in the processing sector. The processing depth is relatively low, a lot of products from the head and trimmings to the large liver of the fish and its roe are not yet marketed although they are of excellent quality and would certainly find buyers.
Around noon, the production batch is then packaged ready for shipment and taken to the airport which is just a few kilometers away, so that after completion of the customs and other formalities the fish can begin its flight on the evening machines to customers in the US and throughout the world. One of the increasingly important destinations is Amsterdam, where on account of the time difference the cobia arrives at 13.00 after a flight of about eleven hours. Plans exist to deliver soon to the Perishable Center Frankfurt. The company’s sophisticated logistics aim at getting the fresh fish to the customers no later than 72 hours after harvesting. "With an average shelf life of the fresh fish of 15 to 17 days we have reasonable commercial reserves," promises Remco de Waard, who takes care of cobia marketing in Europe from his base in Holland. "We are convinced that this wonderful fish has a great future ahead. It is available fresh practically 365 days a year in excellent quality, it tastes delicious and can be prepared in every conceivable way. In many countries, including Germany, the first retail chains have already listed cobia products. "