Rob Parsons

Ocean Sustainability Event

More Fish in the Sea aimed at preserving the ocean's abundance

by Rob Parsons

April 2, 2009

photo: Joylynn Paman.

What we once considered inexhaustible and resilient is, in fact, finite and fragile."  - Pew Ocean Commission report, 2003

Living in Hawaii, we have a deep love, great aloha, for the ocean," says Hannah Bernard, marine biologist, educator and primary organizer of the More Fish in the Sea free event set for Saturday, April 4. "We see every day with our own eyes the connection between the land and the ocean—that everything we do on land affects the sea and the creatures that live in it."

Bernard and a rapidly growing list of groups, volunteers and honorary sponsors are hosting the gala event and "community conversation" aimed at education and strategic planning to help protect and enhance our ocean resources, especially the drastically reduced fish populations throughout the world's seas.

With Maui Community College as a backdrop, Saturday's activities will include live music, poi pounding, children's games and activities, the "digital bus," educational speakers on cultural practices and ocean stewardship, informational booths and exhibits, discussion/action groups and an evening film festival featuring four Hawaii premiere screenings. Activities begin at 2pm and wind down around 10pm.

"What's happening," says Bernard, "is that everyone is saying yes. Whether we are fishermen, divers, snorkelers or just like to enjoy a fish dinner, we all want more fish in the sea. There is a convergence of good energy, and people are embracing it. Its time has come."

Bernard says that things had devolved into finger-pointing but that the momentum created by the Obama Administration has given people a renewed sense that they're part of the solution.

One of the clear solutions is a return to traditional management practices, where community-based sharing of knowledge and resources may work better than top-down, blanket rulemaking and enforcement. Native Hawaiian indigenous resource management has been scientifically studied, and the results validate the success of the Hawaiian system.

"This is our shared heritage," says Bernard, "living among a native culture of nature-based people. The system evolved through careful observation of the natural environment, and it is a framework of deep understanding."

One of those traditional practioners—Kelson "Uncle Mac" Poepoe of Hoolehua, Molokai—will be among the featured speakers on Saturday. Poepoe began the Hui Malama 'o Mo'omomi 15 years ago as a way to teach young people, including his own family, to care for the ocean through proper codes of conduct, understanding tides and moon cycles, and pono practices. He has recently been given a lifetime achievement award through Hawaii's Living Reef Awards Program.

Another keynote speaker is famed long-distance paddler and Kai Makana founder Donna "Kahi" Kahakui of Oahu. A longtime friend and colleague of Bernard, she lent Kai Makana's motto, "E Ola Ke Kai, E Ola Kakou," (As the ocean thrives, so do we) to this event.

Iokepa Naeole rounds out the trio of main speakers; all share a belief that traditional ecological knowledge can serve as a contemporary management tool. Naeole has taught hundreds of youths hands-on ocean knowledge through Hawaiian Canoe Club and the Hui Malama Learning Center. He currently serves as naturalist and cultural specialist at the Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua, via the Jean-Michel Cousteau Ambassadors of the Environment program.

Bernard hopes to make this much more than a one-time event. She envisions it more as an initial sharing of awareness and understanding, a call to support those who are already doing the important conservation, educational, scientific and cultural work both on land and in the ocean.

"What we're doing is real grassroots community work," says Bernard. "It's generated by them, it's about them and it's for them. This really is about empowering livable, sustainable communities. We are actively trying to secure the future that will work for us all."

The genesis of More Fish in the Sea as a community-based planning model came about six years ago, when Bernard and fellow marine biologist Ann Fielding interviewed some 40 Mauians about threats to the near shore waters and coastal lands, and possible strategies to mitigate them. The study, contracted by the Nature Conservancy's marine conservation program, found consensus among a broad spectrum of community members that a rapidly growing human population was dramatically impacting coastal and ocean resources.

Threats to coastal lands and waters included overfishing, stream diversion, land use practices associated with shoreline development, pollution, marine recreation/tourism and inefficient resource management and planning.

The report, "Maui At the Turning Point," also cited key priority objectives from the Pew Ocean Commissions Report, released in the same year. That study and others since have documented an 85-90 percent decline in populations of predatory fish in the world's oceans, an unprecedented and catastrophic shift. 

One of the recommended actions in the Pew Report was endorsing a strategy of local resource councils, a method as viable for protecting Hawaiian waters as the greater oceans of the planet. 

A designer's rendering of large ocean "aquapods."
photo: Food & Water Watch.

The executive summary of Bernard and Fielding's study stated: "The need for a sweeping movement toward replenishment and remediation was uniformly established. Interwoven or underlying all recommended strategies for mitigation and remediation is the need for a cohesive education and awareness campaign….Continued community action and...management will be key in determining the fate of Maui's near shore lands and waters."

At the same time Mauians are gathering to discuss traditional, regional management practices to restore balance to our oceans, two large open ocean aquaculture ventures are being proposed off the Big Island. 

Raising fish in ocean cages has been tried in many locations, including Hawaii, with varying degrees of success. Frequently, impacts and costs outweigh benefits or profits. 

Kona Blue Water Farms has an existing operation, raising kahala (yellowtail or amberjack), which they have trademarked as "Kona Kampachi." Two years ago they moved their corporate office from Hawaii to California, to be closer to their markets. (They sell to restaurants and purveyors in more than 30 states). They have also expanded to La Paz, Mexico.

Kona Blue is now seeking to modify its operation by installing larger fish pens, which the company says is necessary to keep the business alive. They have released a draft supplemental environmental assessment after revising a similar request from 2007 that was contested on leasing ceded lands and on grounds of insufficient environmental data.

Kona Blue stated that their existing net pens are prone to algae "biofouling," which they say makes cleaning more difficult and can compromise fish health. A West Hawaii Today article noted that Kona Blue is "also working to engineer a new species, which may increase profits."

The company claims they will have to cease production in Hawaii unless the application is granted. "The investors in Kona Blue cannot continue to put money into an operation that is not profitable, and that offers no potential for future profitability," said the same article, quoting the environmental document.

Concurrently, a new venture proposed by Hawaiian Ocean Technologies seeks to lease 247 acres of ocean off North Kohala to raise ahi (yellowfin and bigeye tuna) in 12 huge, untethered Oceansheres, with production aimed at 6,000 tons annually. That makes the overall production 48 times larger than the Kona Blue operation. It's projected to require 1,000 tons of fish food each month. Target markets are primarily Japan and the Mainland.

Commercial fish food often requires large inputs of fish and fish oil, derived by culling bait fish from the sea. Hawaii Ocean Technolgies anticipates using up to 85 percent non-fish proteins, such as soy meal, but doesn't say whether those would come from genetically modified crops or what the impacts on other sea life may be.

The proposed Oceansphere submerged cages would not require mooring to the ocean floor, but would employ a dynamic positioning system by employing ocean thermal energy conversion, exchanging cooler deep water with warmer surface water. According to the environmental notice, published February 23 by the Hawaii Office of Environmental Quality Control (OEQC), the enormous enclosures would thus be "self-powered."

The posting states that, "Oceanspheres don't present any potential entanglement concerns for marine mammals and sea turtles. Ongoing water quality monitoring, and management plans for marine mammals, sea turtles, and sharks and emergency management will ensure regulatory compliance."

By crowding many fish in one enclosure, there is greater risk of parasites or disease running through the entire population. These diseases could then be spread to wild fish populations through accidental escapes. Additionally, a variety of chemicals may be introduced through feed, including antibiotics, vaccines, growth hormones and algicides and fungicides.

Food & Water Watch (F&WW), an advocacy and watchdog nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., has tracked aquaculture operations and impacts in a variety of locations. While noting a number of unanswered questions about the untested Hawaiian Ocean Technology ahi fish farm proposal, they state that "similar fish farm projects worldwide have caused problems for habitat, wild fish, water quality, and the economies of local communities."

Already contracting work in Hawaii for education and outreach, F&WW is sending a fish campaign organizer to attend the More Fish in the Sea gathering on Saturday. Their goals include spreading greater awareness and encouraging public participation in the process before the deadline for official comments on both proposals, due before April 7.

When asked about the two fish farming proposals and their potential impacts, Bernard said we are "enamored with grandiose schemes to manipulate nature."

"What they are proposing is radically altering the natural ecosystem to maximize profits," she added.

While aquaculture likely will play a part in replenishing fish stocks in our waters, it makes sense to proceed with caution. Native Hawaiians devised an aquaculture system unique among Pacific Islanders, and restoration efforts are underway to revitalize historic fishponds on Maui and Molokai.

Noelani Lee Yamashita, executive director of Ka Honua Momona on Molokai, has been guiding reconstruction work on three ancient fishponds over the past two years on that island's south shore. She also will be present on Saturday to share their experiences, challenges and successes. 

Dedicated efforts like those on Molokai offer a clear example of how establishing a subsistence management zone may be the best way to ensure a prosperous future—by looking to the past.

More Fish in the Sea

Food and Water Watch

Ka Honua Momona