The Pono Aquaculture Association
Some advocates believe traditional Hawaiian fishponds make for more sustainable aquaculture.
Image: paepae o he‘eia

Watchdog group releases report criticizing open aquaculture in Hawai‘i

The Pono Aquaculture Association / The Pono Aquaculture Association (PAA) held a rally at the State Capitol last week to express concerns over the practice of open aquaculture in Hawaii. The group also sought to promote its new report, “The Empty Promise of Ocean Aquaculture in Hawaii,” which alleges open aquaculture causes detrimental effects on the environment and local cultural practices.

Open Aquaculture is the practice of harvesting fish in deep-water sea cages off the coasts of Oahu and Kona. There are currently two companies, Kona Blue Water Farms and Hukilau Farms, which according PAA, produce nearly 2 million pounds of fish a year. The group estimates the industry could grow by more than 900 percent by 2015.

“It’s really mimicking this industrial agricultural model that we’ve seen on land with concentrated animal feeding operations,” said Christina Lizzi, an organizer at Food & Water Watch and a PAA participant. “We have a lot of the same concerns when you put a lot of animals in a confined space. You have fecal matter going directly into the water, and a lot of excess feed going into the water.”

PAA’s report raised multiple concerns including the use of antibiotics to treat diseases among fish stocks and the farm’s interactions with wild fish, dolphin and shark populations. The report sites an incident in September 2009 where a Galapagos shark bit through one of the farm’s cages, releasing farmed fish into the surrounding ocean.

As an alternative, PAA is promoting what it describes as pono aquaculture, including the reestablishment of loko ia, traditional coastal fishponds, as well as the development of recirculating aquaculture systems and aquaponics.

“Hawaiian aquaculture solved some of the problems [of aquaculture],” said UH professor L. Neil Frazer, who became involved in the movement after researching farm fishing in Canada.

“They cultured mostly herbivorous fish and they cultured them in these fish ponds where there was sub-marine ground water discharge that allowed the fish to swim into water of lower salinity which would cause parasites to leave them,” said Frazer. “They also had multiple species in these ponds, including a few predators. The predators are much better at sensing a diseased fish than any farmer is and that’s nature’s disease control.”

Frazer says of the local fish farms, “their engineering is very advanced, but their scientific and ecological model is garbage.”

Kona Blue Water Farms says open aquaculture does not have a significant environmental impact, citing internal monitoring reports and support from other environmental groups.

“We have had scientists diving at our sites from Monterey Bay Aquarium, Ocean Conservancy and Environmental Defense Fund,” said Neil Sims, Kona Blue’s president and CEO. “We worked with those groups and the World Wildlife Fund in developing sustainability standards for responsible open ocean aquaculture. We recognize this a new industry that has to have transparency and accountability, and we welcome the opportunity to work with rational environmental groups.”

Sims sees open aquaculture not only as budding industry for Hawaii, but also as a sustainable solution to addressing high demand for seafood in an increasingly over-fished world.

“In the U.S., we are exporting our ecological footprint,” said Sims. “80 percent of the seafood that we eat is imported and half of that is farmed. We don’t care how it’s farmed, what standards they used for environmental management, or what product quality standards are used, we just want our seafood. That’s morally reprehensible; we should be accepting responsibility for what we eat.” According to the company, around 80 percent of Kona Blue Water Farm’s production is exported to the mainland.

The public relations battle is likely to wage on as important legislation determines the fate of the open aquaculture industry. House Bill 2409 would extend the length of leases for ocean fish farm sites and has passed both the House and Senate with amendments. The bill now goes to conference committee, where if lawmakers can agree to amendments, it’s likely to become law. An opposing resolution, HR245 would have placed a moratorium on new open-water farming permits, but will not be heard this legislative session.

Ultimately, both sides agree some form of aquaculture is needed to address global and local fish markets. Whether the two philosophies can find a middle ground remains to be seen.

“I don’t think we have to duplicate Hawaiian engineering, we don’t need stone walls,” said Frazer. “But we have to pay attention to the ecological principles they discovered by trial and error over hundreds of years.”

Read the full Food & Water Watch report at [] See environmental monitoring reports from Kona Blue Water Farms at []