Hawaiian aquaculture’s lessons for New England

Feb 21, 2023 | Plumbing the Depths

By Melissa Sanderson

As I landed in the Kona airport I was curious about what made Hawai’i such a special place for aquaculture, so special that the Builders’ Initiative (an offshoot of the Walton Family Foundation) paid all expenses for two dozen participants to spend four days on an educational visit organized by Meridian Institute and Ocean Strategies. Participants from around the nation represented commercial fishing, recreational fishing, environmental groups, native Hawaiians, and the aquaculture industry.

Besides our investment in the local shellfish hatchery, the Fishermen’s Alliance doesn’t engage much on aquaculture these days, though we have been watching the offshore federal permitting process with trepidation. New England fishermen have wind farms and right whales vying for space – they don’t need fish farms too. But with more aquaculture looming on the horizon, an educational trip seemed like a great opportunity.

Hawai’i is an incubator for cutting edge aquaculture tech while rooted in native Hawaiian fish farming practices that date back more than 1,000 years.  They have prioritized food security and reducing imports. But the heart of what makes aquaculture in Hawai’i unique is a respect for ancient traditions.

Spoiler alert: Hawai’i could be a model for how to expand offshore aquaculture without harming existing fishermen and ocean users.

This country needs a good model, because expanding aquaculture seems inevitable. Growing populations need more food and we should be choosing healthier, lower carbon seafood over cows and pigs. Aquaculture is big business in other countries, so the United States can either increase aquaculture or increase imports. We produce 8.4 billion pounds of seafood, much of it exported, while importing 2.4 billion pounds from other countries[1]. The good news is that technological advances mean that aquaculture doesn’t have to destroy the environment (if consumers demand that businesses embrace this technology). The US government is prioritizing aquaculture development with a new 5 year strategic plan.

But back to Hawai’i.

Where fresh and saltwater meet, communities maintain traditional fish ponds (loko iʻa), cultivating algae in clean flowing water to attract fish that come and go from the ocean until they are too big to pass through gates placed in the mouth of the loko iʻa. Then they are trapped.

Historically loko iʻa served as a community refrigerator. In ancient times there were about 488 loko iʻa across the Hawaiian Islands, but most no longer exist.

There are many loko iʻa restoration efforts and our group spent the afternoon in Hilo volunteering at Kumuola Marine Science Education Center. Kumuola focuses on rehabilitation and stewardship of ʻāina (land), while building a culture of pride for growing fish. With help of students and the community, Kumuola has restored loko iʻa through the practice of kiaʻi loko (fishpond stewardship). The students help reclaim the pond by digging out invasive grasses and mud, building rock walls, and researching fish genetics to distinguish between invasive mullet and native mullet, ʻamaʻama. The 10-acre site produces 300 to 600 pounds annually of ʻamaʻama and āhole. Harvesting and eating the fish only happens with the children, to help them develop a taste for these traditional native species.

Restoration of loko iʻa is backbreaking labor, done by hand with buckets. Students are designing hand-operated dredges to make it a bit easier. We  formed a human train to dig mud out of an area being reclaimed, bucket by bucket. The mud will help stabilize the hillside once it dries hard in the sun.

Historically, there was a loko iʻa near the Kona airport, until a lava flow consumed it. That area is now not only the airport, but also the site for a growing aquaculture industry, including Natural Energy of Hawai’i Authority (NELHA) HOST Park, Keahole Point Hatcheries LLC (dba Blue Ocean Mariculture), and Ocean Era Research Facility.

NELHA is a state-run facility with the goal of developing and diversifying the Hawaiian economy. It serves as an incubator for aquaculture, energy, and other ocean-related research and commercial start-ups. The area has pipelines to deliver deep cold water and sea surface water to shoreside facilities.

We visited EcoHarvest, where they farm yellow tangs for the aquarium market. Farming yellow tangs at scale had been impossible, but recent breakthroughs have allowed EcoHarvest to start up a new business. They grow microalgae to feed their farmed copepods that are just the right size for tangs to eat.

The NELHA site is also home to abalone farms and oyster hatcheries that supply seed stock, shrimp, rainbow trout and octopus research and development systems, and beautiful giant Japanese blue clams. Also on site is Hatch, an aquaculture investment firm that provides business resources, mentorship, and funds for potential new aquaculture companies. They are looking for innovation and talent (particularly business building skills), not necessarily direct aquaculture experience. If you have an aquaculture business idea, check them out.

We visited experimental research projects at Ocean Era, where they are trying to identify the “next best farmed fish”, studying mahi mahi, Nenue, micro and macro algae, and multi-trophic systems that use fish digestion to breakdown seaweed into biofuels. Nenue are a native species of chubs that like tilapia eat algae but taste a lot better, like snapper. We had some of the red macro algae called limu with lunch; it was delicious raw as well as pickled. This is also where almost two decades of research was done by Neil Sims (then called Kampachi Farms) to create large-scale offshore farming with thousands of fish in fully submerged net cages. That research spun off into Blue Ocean Mariculture, the nation’s first commercial farm to raise fish in the open ocean. We met with Dick Jones their CEO who grew up in New England, also a former fish buyer in Boston, to tour their Keahole Point hatchery and snorkel around the net pens.

I expected a lot of tension among native Hawaiians and the aquaculture activities, but I was wrong. Local fishermen like the net pens; they fish around them and the community is glad kanpachi is back on the menu. Our group included Brenda, the Hui Mālama Loko iʻa Coordinator, and Lehua, a steward with Hui Aloha Kīholo whose family used to care for the loko iʻa that is now under the airport, and still cares for the surrounding waters. It was inspiring to hear them thank Dick and Neil for what has been created.

So how did they build that relationship?

They accomplished this through close communication with local fishermen and native Hawaiians to select species and farm location. After trying 14 species, they settled on Hawaiian Kanpachi, also known as Almaco Jack (Seriola rivoliana). Kanpachi were a culturally important food source but are no longer harvested from wild populations because of ciguatera toxins from a parasite they catch as babies. Growing in the hatchery bypasses exposure at this critical stage and farmed adults are safe to eat. Once large enough, the kanpachi move from shoreside nursery to offshore net pens.

The offshore net pens cover 90 acres in 200 feet of water just off the Kona coast; the seafloor drops quickly, allowing for open ocean conditions with 2 to 3 knot currents close to shore. This makes it easy for recreational and commercial fishermen to fish around them. Each pen is 8,000 cubic meters and acts as an aggregating device, attracting everything from baitfish to crevalle jacks to sharks. Each net pen can be lowered 20 feet below the surface to provide maximum space for the fish, minimize interactions with vessels, and protect pens during storms.

The pens are raised each day for several hours to let the sun bake off algal growth: they never need chemical cleaning. The lower half of the pens are made of a copper alloy mesh, anti-fouling and strong. The nets don’t need to be opened while there are fish in them: feeding and harvesting happens through a hollow 14-inch center spar and hoses that connect the boat to the spar. When it’s time to feed, nets are lowered and feed is pumped off the boat into the center spar, released into the pen. Divers monitor fish behavior and feeding is stopped when the fish are no longer eating, preventing waste.

When the 150,000 fish in each pen are harvestable, they are sucked up the central spar and travel through the hose to the harvest boat, where they are de-watered and counted. The crew of four can fill an order to within two to three fish. They recently invested in cameras for biomass and pellet detection and real-time environmental sensors. On the rare occasion that a fish escapes, it is not impacting the wild population with invasive genes, since the hatchery broodstock comes from the wild.

As we headed out to snorkel around the net pens, I was thinking that 90 acres, a bit bigger than the bare minimum necessary to be profitable, was a lot of space. But when we arrived, within swimming distance of the coastline, it felt like a very small area in a vast ocean. We saw sharks, dolphins, crevalle jacks, and other fish schooling around the pens. The kanpachi were bright-eyed and healthy, swimming up to our fingers when we held on to the net. The net was clean, the water clear, and apparently there is a thriving coral reef within a few hundred yards.

What did I learn, besides that limu is my new favorite vegetable?

If aquaculture must happen, it should be done in a way that reflects the values of local communities. If I could mandate four requirements for the inevitable expansion, they would be:

  1.   Communicate: fishermen, local communities, and aquaculture start-ups need to discuss options, identify shared values for the ocean and working waterfronts, and create respectful relationships.
  2.  Help, Don’t Compete: Aquaculture should work with local fishermen to select mutually agreeable species and locations. Farms should be in locations that don’t take away important fishing grounds (or other culturally important areas). Farmed species should complement wild harvest. Commercial and recreational fishermen should fish around the net pens, benefiting from wild fish aggregations. Other assistance to be considered are co-marketing for domestic seafood, shared shoreside infrastructure, and economies of scale for processing and distribution.
  3.  Be Green: Embrace technology and design that creates low environmental impact. This could be copper mesh, controlled feeding using primarily waste from fish processing and plant oils (don’t catch to fish to grow fish), subsurface nets, wild broodstock or sterile babies so escaped fish won’t impact the wild population, plenty of space and water circulation without antibiotics, and farm designs that prevent protected species interactions.
  4.  Model, Monitor, and Manage: Complete a pilot study to ensure the chosen site can absorb effluent. Monitor to measure success or failure. Continue to monitor, even after transition from pilot to full scale farm. Practice management with commitment to values and respect for the local community.

We’re already doing it wrong in New England. The two offshore aquaculture farms going through federal permitting have not engaged stakeholders and have dubious plans. But they haven’t been permitted yet, so there is time for New England to get it right. If offshore aquaculture is inevitable, we must demand a better process, more communication, and high standards of accountability.

Additional reading about offshore aquaculture in New England:

NOTE: this was an educational trip to help ocean stakeholders contextualize offshore aquaculture and understand the needs of the industry. CCCFA did not commit to any policy positions or recommendations as a result. This article reflects Melissa’s findings and opinions.

See more photos HERE


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