Investors could put University of Miami mahi mahi on menus
Written by Nina Lincoff on February 19, 2014
After two years breeding mahi mahi fingerlings for toxicology research, the University of Miami’s aquaculture program and hatchery on Virginia Key is open to investors looking to bring its fingerlings to grow-out stages for commercial farming.
While that possibility is far off and will require a committed investor, the program is ready and capable.
“It needs a commercial partner that is committed. We know how to do the research, but without money and commitment, doing it will be hard,” said Ron Hoenig, hatchery manager.
What the hatchery needs is someone willing to gamble on mahi mahi, an aggressive and sometimes cannibalistic fish that hasn’t successfully been domesticated.
UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science’s aquaculture program, however, has a history of commercial farming success.
Open Blue, a Panama-based commercial fish farm, has a decade-long relationship with the program that’s mutually beneficial. The hatchery provides fingerlings to the farm and a steady supply of cobia eggs. Combined with UM-provided research and technology, Open Blue grows out cobia to a saleable and tasty size.
For the school, the benefits are just as sweet – if a little less palatable.
“I would say right now, Open Blue is providing more than half of all the funds needed to run the UM aquaculture program. [That’s] funding research, funding students,” Mr. Hoenig said.
The founder of Open Blue, Brian O’Hanlon, is a protégé of Daniel Benneti, director of UM’s program, Mr. Hoenig said. The farm is “family to a certain degree. Our program and their company have been hand in hand for more than about a decade.”
UM’s relationship with Open Blue Sea Farms is ongoing. “Right now we’re looking at nutritional studies to improve the diet to get more of an economically sustainable diet,” he said.
With previous success, a holdup on a mahi mahi partnership seems irrational, especially considering the demand for the fast-growing fish. “There’s demand for it because it has a very high growth rate and it’s a great-tasting fish. From those standpoints it seems to make sense for aquaculture,” Mr. Hoenig said.
Unfortunately, mahi mahi hasn’t been domesticated: the fish is aggressive, cannibalistic, and grown males use their heads to ram each other.
Not to mention, the fish jump. Sometimes, out of tanks. The hatchery tanks have lids, Mr. Hoenig said.
The program has grown 7- to 8-pound fish in seven to eight months, he said. To compare, Open Blue’s cobia reach about 6 to 8 pounds in a year on average.
The grow-out from UM fingerlings to commercially farmed mahi mahi will take a committed, well-funded investor. The hatchery can repeat the fingerling process and grow out tens of thousands of juveniles, but there’s a lot of work to take that to a production standpoint, Mr. Hoenig said.
“It will range for everything from feed management to selective breeding,” he said. One possible tactic would be breeding a less difficult fish in just one gender.
Until then, the mahi mahi on your dinner plate will be wild caught, and happily aggressive.