Rob Parsons

Something's Fishy With Big Island "Tuna Farm"

Who benefits, who profits?

by Rob Parsons

November 5 , 2009

The average Hawaii citizen has to go to great lengths to influence the outcome of big business proposals, especially when those seeking permits and approvals hold expectations of multi-million dollar returns. So it was that I found myself on a sunrise flight to Honolulu, ready to ask the State Board of Land and Natural Resources to rule on the side of reason and against a big-bucks scheme.

For a decade, Hawaii has given a push to the ocean aquaculture industry, bolstered with research, funding and legislation that enables state waters to be leased for private "fish farms"—a distinction unique among all 23 states bordering the ocean. Two ocean aquaculture businesses currently operate in Hawaii: Kona Blue Water Farms off the Keahole-Kona airport, raising amberjack branded as "Kona Kampachi," and Hukilau Foods, a Grove Farm subsidiary cultivating moi in cages two miles off Ewa Beach.

On this Friday morning, the BLNR would hear a request to permit a third facility, Hawaii Oceanic Technology's (HOT) ambitious, high-tech plan to raise 6,000 tons of ahi (skipjack and bigeye tuna) in 12 untethered, submerged Oceanspheres three miles off the Big Island's Kohala Coast. The projected output is four times the amount of ahi consumed yearly in all of Hawaii. HOT expects 90 percent of its finished product to be flown to markets in Japan and the Mainland.

HOT's CEO Bill Spencer, a self-described "serial entrepreneur," is also President of the Hawaii Venture Capital Association. "We want Hawaii to be the Silicon Valley of open ocean aquaculture," Spencer told the board. With a growing human population and rapidly declining fish stocks in the world's oceans from industrial over-fishing, there is a great need for more aquaculture, said Spencer.

Scientists think we need to double the $20 billion worldwide industry in the next 20 years, Spencer said, adding, "This is more pressing than global warming."

But the lack of data on the immense 165' x 165' Oceanspheres—to be self-propelled through an Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) system—drew concerns from Board members and testifiers alike.

Life of the Land's Henry Curtis, one of Hawaii's most eminent renewable energy advocates, told the board about his experience evaluating OTEC systems. "Frankly," said Curtis, "I can't make head or tails of this technology. How can you describe the impacts if it is theoretical and has not been discussed?"

Board member Sam Gon III of The Nature Conservancy asked if there is a working prototype of the Oceansphere. Spencer replied that similar technology is used by the oil industry and the military.

Two testifiers revealed intricate details of the complex ecosystem design of traditional Hawaiian coastal fishponds. To mitigate disease, cleaner fish such as wrasses were brought in, said cultural practioner Michael K. Lee, who held up a photocopied document of a lease for a coastal loko I'a (fishpond) held by his great, great grandfather. Lee emphasized that Hawaiians developed their systems over the course of 2,500 years, through careful observation of nature and its processes. "But this is a science fair project to them," chided Lee.

Kale Gumapac related his experience restoring a Big Island fishpond built by family member David Malo. "The technological understanding handed down from our kupuna is amazing," said Gumapac. He said kaku (barracuda) were placed in the pond to discourage theft and to cull out diseased fish. Honu (turtles) were placed in the pond to eat one kind of limu (seaweed) and to fertilize another variety that the fish ate. "But they have not sought our advice on aquaculture," Gumapac said. "Whose technology should we be using?"

Gumapac also produced a 1904 U.S. Supreme Court decision written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, stating that Native Hawaiians have vested fishing rights. The ocean should not be privatized for personal gain, said Gumapac. "These vested rights still exist today."

In written testimony to the BLNR, UH professor Dr. Neil Frazer stated: "Among scientists that do not have financial ties to aquaculture there is now general agreement that a sea-cage is a pathogen culture facility and that wild fish have declined everywhere industrial sea-cage farming has taken hold. The epidemiological reasons for this are clear: fish in cages are protected from the macro-predators needed for disease control, but not from pathogens.

"The important difference between sea cage culture and terrestrial animal culture is that, in the ocean, animal wastes and pathogens can travel for many miles to infect other animals, whereas on land wastes fall to the ground."

Frazer also stated that tuna, as top level predators, have high demands for fish oil and fish meal in pelletized food, a practice that is depleting stocks of baitfish (herring, menhaden, anchovies, etc.) across the world's oceans. Land-based proteins like soy are not suitable, said Frazer, because the digestive systems of tuna are not adapted to an herbivorous diet.

Big Island residents and testifiers claimed HOT had not made good-faith efforts to meet with the community and hear their concerns. Spencer replied that their final Environmental Impact Statement was over 900 pages long, "with more than 500 pages of comments and responses."

"I would rather work with them than oppose them," testified Rocky Jensen, "but they didn't come to us."

When my turn came, I shared with the Board that two existing aquaculture operations pay a yearly total of $3,500 for their ocean leases. "What portion of the $120 million in HOT's expected revenues would be paid to the state for their exclusive 247-acre lease?" I asked.

Moreover, as a beneficiary of Act 221 high tech credits, HOT would avoid paying more revenues. Twenty-two jobs could be created, according to the EIS, with half of those going to scuba divers and laborers.

The Board's decision came around 3:30pm: a 4-1 vote to approve an incremental approach to deploy three cages initially, then to report back with their results before nine more net pens could be launched. Gumapac and Lee stood and announced their intentions to file a contested case hearing, and the meeting recessed, the audience spilling outside like a collective exhale.

My route back to Honolulu airport took me past the state Capitol, where nearly a thousand people were gathered to protest the first Furlough Friday, as Hawaii's children got an unfortunate day off to pay for budgetary shortfalls. Influencing our decision-makers is seldom an easy task. But it's the price we must pay to achieve an outcome we all can live with.