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Released April 26, 2004

SOUTHERN MISS GRAD ENTERS RACE TO GROW POPULAR FISH IN CAPTIVITY

OCEAN SPRINGS -- University of Southern Mississippi graduate Jackie Zimmerman is helping tame wild animals, but not of the circus variety.

She is in the process of domesticating cobia, also known as lemonfish or ling. Cobia is fast-growing, hardy and tasty. It is the hot new species on the research and development scene for United States marine aquaculture, and a handful of the nation's universities, agencies and entrepreneurs are competing -- and collaborating -- in the race to develop methods for using cobia as an aquacultural cash crop.

Zimmerman has entered the race as a research scientist for a Houston start-up company, American International Fisheries. She coordinated a trial run on rearing cobia in indoor tanks at the university's Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in a collaborative project between her company and the laboratory. She delivered the last 900 of the successfully reared fish to Virginia Friday for further experimentation.

The Ocean Springs resident is no stranger to the GCRL. She earned her master's degree in May 2003 through the Department of Coastal Sciences at the laboratory, one of the leading centers for marine aquaculture research and development in the nation.

She was back at the GCRL by November for the AIF-GCRL collaboration. The laboratory provided space, tanks and filtration systems, while AIF provided Zimmerman as research staff, the fingerlings, feed and supplies. The 2,000 two- to three-inch fish, offspring of parents caught in the wild, were purchased from a Florida aquaculture center.

Dr. William E. Hawkins, GCRL executive director, said the project is relevant to the lab's research on the utility of indoor aquaculture systems. The lab's systems filter and reuse water rather than discharging the used water into the environment or treatment systems. "We want growth and survival data on this species," he said.

Zimmerman said the cobia grew so rapidly that she cut down on feed for the more crowded tanks. "In a commercial setting, you grow them as big and as fast as you can," she said.

Zimmerman said the primary objective of the company that employs her is to grow cobia in cages in the open ocean, a goal currently constrained by permitting regulations.

"Offshore (reared in cages), their growth is amazing," she said. "The project we are doing never pushed the growth limits of the fish. We were limited with the size of (the experimental) system that we had."

The potential for rapid growth is there, however. GCRL fisheries biologist Jim Franks noted that, in the wild, cobia can grow to about 12 pounds and 25 inches in a year. He said they may live 12 years and can reach more than 100 pounds. Their natural habitat is over the continental shelf and offshore reefs as well as bays and estuaries. They like structures such as pilings, buoys or platforms in open water.

Dr. Reginald Blaylock, GCRL research scientist, helped Zimmerman monitor the health and growth of the hatchery-reared cobia, and the researchers sacrificed and examined several fish a month for disease and growth. The remainder of the 2,000 cobia are now relocated at several new homes of other marine aquaculture programs. AIF donated 700 to the University of Texas at Port Aransas, 320 to Virginia Tech in Blackburg and 50 to the University of Miami.

Zimmerman said Friday the cobia looked good after their arrival at Virginia Tech-Hampton Roads Center, a pit stop for the fish before they go to a private fish farmer to grow to market size in a recirculating system. Zimmerman said if that step is successful, they may be used in market studies with the cobia winding up at restaurants and other markets among the Virginia fish farmer's contacts.

The GCRL is a unit of the Southern Miss College of Science and Technology.

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April 27, 2004 9:19 AM

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