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PETERSBURG - There soon may be additional players in the growing farmed black cod industry.
Successful sales of the first pen-reared black cod have salmon farms in Washington state and British Columbia eyeing what they see as an opportunity to diversify their product line and make more money.
Alaska's holders of black cod fishing permits are not happy about the news that black cod farming appears to be working. The oily, rich-tasting bottom feeder is one of few species that remain in demand while other species have taken a nose-dive on the worldwide market.
As a glut of farmed Atlantic salmon from Chile continues to hold down prices for just about all salmon species, fish farms are looking for ways to diversify production. Black cod is one of the few species where, at least for now, demand exceeds supply.
Canada is one of several countries raising black cod in ocean net pens. The first farmed black cod from British Columbia went to market last December. Island Scallops is one company that produces the juvenile fish, which are sent to ocean farm sites when they reach 5 grams.
Marine Finfish Operations Manager Peter Phillips said the first sales went well.
"The buyers from one of the farms came down and had a look at the product. They slaughtered and sold the product right then and there," Phillips said.
The British Columbia Ministry of Fisheries expects to see an increase in the number of applications for black cod operations at farm sites throughout the province.
Ron Ginetz, the former chief of aquaculture for Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, works closely with the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association. Ginetz said companies don't plan to switch from salmon to black cod, but instead to add black cod facilities.
"Some of the existing farms do have small production lots on site," Ginetz said. "Obviously they've been marketing them to determine suitability. But in the near future there is increased interest."
Before large-scale production can begin, Ginetz said the industry needs some technological advances.
"It's very difficult to bring the juvenile through metamorphosis," Ginetz said. "It's not like salmon. You're dealing with an animal that reproduces in the wild, in the ocean in areas where very little research has been conducted.
"So the survival rate from eggs to fry is less than 5 percent. Until you can get a consistent supply of eggs and you have a self-generating brood stock, there's a high risk. I would expect that it would take another few years before the technology will be such that industry will be secure enough to make the change."
Ginetz is concerned that Japan, Taiwan and China will leap to the forefront before Canada has a handle on it. He said those countries are quickly working out the problems.
If the technology can be developed for large-scale production of black cod, farmers will be able to cash in on prices that have reached $4 a pound in recent years.