Fishy Farming: Aquaculture on the Ropes in Hawaii

Dec 6, 2010· 2 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

With wild fish stocks in steep decline (we’ve taken 90 percent of all the fish in the sea, according to the World Wildlife Fund), it's only logical that man would try to come up with a way to create more.

In the marine world, the aquaculture, or fish-farming, industry is increasingly paralleling land-based livestock industries from poultry to cattle. Some fish farms are operated in clean, organic ways; others imitate chemically heavy, questionably sanitized, industrial-sized feedlots.

Cultivating big shrimp is one small part of a big business. (Photo: Reuters Photographer/Reuters)

To judge by recent reports from Hawaii—once regarded as the Silicon Valley of aquaculture due to its offshore lease laws, wealth of fishing and marine science experts, and 200,000-square-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ)—things are not working out quite as hoped. One pioneering OOA operation has declared bankruptcy; another is seeking $5 million in financing.

Fish farming goes back to 6000 B.C., when the Gunditjmara of Australia dug ponds and built earthen dams to raise eels. In modern times, I’ve seen both rudimentary DIY efforts (giant perch kept beneath the front porch of floating houses in Vietnam’s HaLong Bay) and more sophisticated productions (high-tech, near-shore operations in Chilean Patagonia where cookie-cutter salmon roll up the conveyor belt).

Today, aquaculture accounts for about 35 percent of all fish production in the U.S. and is an $86-billion-a-year industry.

As in any domestication of a wild species, there are issues. Questions about aquaculture focus on an all-too-familiar trio of concerns:

1. Chemicals and steroids used on the fish pollute calm waters and are snarfed up by wild species in the area.

2. Domesticated fish escape from pens and nets and comingle with wild species, creating mutant varieties.

3. Giant pens become “reservoirs” for disease. Rather than being eaten by predators, sick fish are able to live longer and spread disease.

Open Ocean Aquaculture (OOA) is a hoped-for solution to the problems generated by fish farms operated in calm waters near shore. The idea is that putting farm nets further out to sea in wilder winds and currents will disperse the impacts of growing fish more quickly.

Governments around the world, including the U.S. and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), have signed on to the idea of OOA, but not without criticism.

Backers see plenty of room for growth; 3.4 million square miles of waters surround the U.S. If everyone eventually agrees on the ground rules and impacts, farms could fourish.

A trio of Hawaiian farms is attempting to raise moi, kahala and ahi in farms as far as three miles off the coast. Some of the huge cages—177 feet in diameter—are capable of containing 20,000 fish, weighing up to 100 pounds each. One of the three companies, Hawaiian Oceanic, predicts it can grow 12 million pounds of ahi a year, at a value of $108 million.

Rearing fish from eggs is hardly an exact science; taking them on to the fingerling stage and actually growing them in cages has yet to be perfected.

Critics, especially the Washington D.C.-based Food & Water Watch, have called Hawaii Oceanic’s efforts “insane” and say the “massive factory fish farm with fish eating and excreting into our local marine environment [is] destroying our oceans and coastlines and killing our tourist industry.”

The fish farmers contend that such pollutions are minimized by the size of their giant ocean cages. The industry is fighting back in force because the demand for fish, especially from Japan, is “voracious.”

Other critics argue that the production of one pound of farmed tuna requires the oil from more than 10 pounds of wild-caught fish, usually anchovies, menhaden and sardines, the so-called cleaners of the sea and dietary staples of humans in many developing countries.

Fighting back, Hawaii Oceanic claims the company operates under existing state laws and that Fish and Food Watch is an activist group, not a scientific body. “FFW is anti-private industry, anti-progress and anti-technology,” says the company. “Do these D.C. activists know what’s good for Hawaii or our oceans?”