PORTLAND (AP) – A Maine company and its Virginia partner are investing $30 million in a project to raise a saltwater game fish called cobia that’s growing in popularity in restaurants and supermarkets.

MariCal Inc. of Portland and Blue Ridge Aquaculture Inc. have teamed up to launch Virginia Cobia Farms LLC. They hope the indoor fish-farming technology will help make cobia the new “chicken of the sea.”

“Cobia is the next salmon in commercial aquaculture,” said William Thomas, MariCal’s senior vice president for marketing and sales.

The joint venture will use MariCal’s proprietary technology to raise cobia at a $600,000 pilot plant in Saltville, Va. Eventually, it will grow into a $30 million investment over the next five years, Thomas said.

The project stems from relationships developed with researchers at Virginia Tech and through the resources of Blue Ridge Aquaculture. Headquartered in Martinsville, Va.,

Blue Ridge bills itself as the country’s largest indoor fish farm for tilapia, a popular freshwater whitefish.

Global overfishing has challenged the world’s aquaculture industry to develop seafood that’s affordable, safe and easier on the environment.

In Maine, the state responded with salmon-farming operations off the coast. But that has led to problems of their own. Those include complaints about the unsightly pens as well as concerns about water being polluted by the operations.

Virginia Cobia Farms seeks to get around some of these problems by raising the fish in a controlled indoor environment. It also plans to capitalize on the salt mineral deposits and lower-cost electricity and natural gas in western Virginia.

Cobia, a warm-water fish that’s prized by sports fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico, is a good candidate for aquaculture because the species grows fast. Within 12 months, cobia grow to the same size as 28-month-old salmon.

Virginia Cobia Farms plans to produce cobia by using MariCal’s technology to adapt the saltwater fish to a freshwater environment.

MariCal discovered a way to control proteins called calcium receptors that allow fish to sense and respond to changes in salinity and nutrients. The company has used the discovery to boost salmon production around the world by licensing the biotechnology.

MariCal has operations in Alaska, Canada, Chile, Norway and the United Kingdom. The company has 26 full-time employees, 16 in Portland.

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