ABU DHABI // Food experts looking to reduce the strain on the Gulf's overfished waters believe they may have found the perfect catch for fish farms: a little-known species called the cobia.
Sometimes called the tropical salmon, the white fish grows three times faster than salmon and is lower in fat.
Cobia are mostly reared in offshore cages in other parts of the world, but Dr Jean-Yves Mevel, professor of aquaculture at UAE University's food and agriculture department in Al Ain, proposes setting up a large aquaculture system in the desert.
"We need a big aquaculture production system in Al Ain for fish," said Dr Mevel.
"We have to control what we do, and cages pollute the sea so we must produce inland."
Cobia can reach a weight of six to 10 kilograms in the first year of growth, compared with up to 2kg for salmon, 500 grams for catfish and just 250 grams for trout.
Dr Thabit Zahran Al Abdessalaam, the director of marine biodiversity at the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi, believes it is a promising species for aquaculture in the UAE.
"It is also high in omega-3 fatty acids, compared to cod or halibut; its texture is good; and it can be good for filleting because it's large," he said.
Cobia is cheaper to raise than salmon and contains 4.5g of fat per 100g against salmon's 5.5g. Further, cobia is not prone to disease, spawns in half the time of other species and behaves very well in captivity.
"I think it will flourish," Dr Al Abdessalaam said.
Cobia do live in the Gulf, but as they do not school they can be hard to catch.
"In Abu Dhabi we catch only between 30 and 70 tonnes a year, which is not a lot," Dr Al Abdessalaam said.
Dr Mevel foresees huge demand for cobia, which he says would be ideal for aquaculture in the UAE given the lack of freshwater. "The only technical food production that doesn't use freshwater is marine food," he explained.
He said aquaculture systems were best operated in big empty spaces away from the coastal areas. "The UAE has tremendous potential in aquaculture because it has a lot of land," he said.
Most of the world's cobia production - more than 80 per cent in 2004 - is in Taiwan and China, although it is also farmed elsewhere in Asia and in Panama, Mexico and the United States.
Europe too is grasping the potential of cobia. Last year, Dr Mevel said, a French company requested 3,000 tonnes of the fish a year, "but no one can furnish it because there is not enough production".
Companies are being encouraged to get into cobia farming to help the world meet the growing demand for food created by population growth.
"The population versus food production is going straight through the wall," Dr Mevel said.