Hawaii’s thriving aquatic farms

From abalone to kampachi to seaweed, Hawaii’s $75.7 million aquaculture industry raises a diverse set of species with equally diverse techniques. 
Banner Aquatic V2 MS

Underneath a series of awnings amid an old lava flow along the Kona Coast, dozens of long troughs are organized in neat rows. Each is constantly refreshed by bubbling streams of water—close your eyes and listen, and you’d think you were standing in front of a soothing fountain. Look closer, and you’ll notice the troughs are filled with mesh baskets resembling McDonald’s fryers. They contain something many argue is even tastier than french fries (and certainly more nutritious): Premium abalone. Hawaii’s Pacific waters are too warm for the cold-water species grown here, but at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA), some three million abalone thrive on land thanks to a huge pump that brings deep, cold, and mineral-rich seawater to the surface. The marine mollusks grow on plastic plates, constantly bathed in chilly seawater inside the fryer baskets and fed sweet, crunchy seaweed grown in vats out back until they are fist-sized and ready for market. Big Island Abalone is the only farm growing the mollusk in Hawaii and it’s one of the largest privately-owned farmed abalone operations on the planet. 

Abalone farms.
Photo: Megan Spelman

Earlier this year, TRAFFIC, an NGO that monitors illegal trade in wildlife worldwide, released a report showing that East Asia’s demand for abalone is so great, it’s fueling poaching syndicates that threaten wild stocks in places like South Africa where they are harvested offshore. As the demand for marine resources puts increasing pressure on aquatic life, aquaculture ventures, like Big Island Abalone, offer another way.  

In Hawaii, the aquaculture industry is pushing the envelope with an entrepreneurial spirit—raising high demand as well as some unusual and hard-to-farm species in creative ways, and it’s proving to be big business. According to the USDA’s most recent 2013 Census of Aquaculture, the state ranked 9th in sales of aquaculture products, pulling in $58.7 million. And, that figure is getting higher. Aquaculture sales in Hawaii hit a record $78.2 million in 2014, though the most recent state data shows a slight decline: aquaculture products were valued at $75.7 million in 2016. According to Liz Xu, acting manager of the state’s Department of Agriculture, Aquaculture & Livestock Support Services, the industry has a lot of room for growth, and if the industry is going to help the state meet its food security and self-sufficiency goals, it also has some work to do. 

According to the Hawaiʻi Department of Agriculture website, a 2013 study found that nearly half of all of the seafood consumed in the state is imported from the U.S. mainland and foreign countries. Of the half that remains, only a fraction of that comes from local aquaculture ventures. One of the companies trying to change that by raising fish, branding them as a premium Hawaii product, and marketing them to popular statewide restaurants, is abalone farm neighbor Blue Ocean Mariculture. The company raises kanpachi (Seriola rivoliana, an almaco jack, also spelled ‘kampachi,’) from the fertilized eggs of local brood fish to the fingerling stage in tanks on land before transferring them to offshore pens, growing them to maturity there, and marketing them as Hawaiian Kanpachi.

Hawaiian kampachi.
Photo: Megan Spelman

“This is one of the most recent successes in aquaculture in the last 20 years,” says Daren Garriques, a research technician with Kampachi Farms, LLC, another Big Island aquaculture neighbor focused solely on research and development production of the same schooling predatory fish. Though Kampachi Farms, LLC doesn’t sell their product in the state, their efforts in Hawai‘i will help the company to grow the same fish in other locations around the world.

“Kampachi has a lot of natural properties for farming. For one, I can bring wild brood stock into this tank and they will start spawning naturally every other day. That’s a key aspect of it, because now, as a farmer … I can plan my year ahead. You don’t get that luxury with a lot of other species of fish.” Kampachi Farms believes that taking farming operations from land to the sea may be the way of the future. “The open ocean has the most real estate,” says Garriques. This type of aquaculture even has its own name: mariculture.   

Kampachi Farms’ research and development efforts strive to make offshore production efforts more efficient: to make better cages resistant to algae and barnacle build-up; collaborating with the University of Nebraska to find different proteins, like soy, that reduce the need for catching wild fish to feed their farmed fish (Garriques calls the collaboration “marrying the blue heart of the ocean with the Heartland of America”); and even to creating the world’s first untethered floating fish farm. Mariculture, Garriques says, avoids some of the pitfalls of inland aquaculture efforts by avoiding interaction with the sediment, which can harbor parasites, and by allowing the natural ocean currents to carry in and remove nutrients from the system. Despite the huge strides that it, and Blue Ocean Mariculture have made in farming fish offshore, mariculture’s holy grail blue-fin tuna, may still be a long way off.

“It’s like if you were going to farm wolves and lions on land,” says Garriques. The mariculture industry is still in its infancy, and the successes it has made thus far haven’t always been easy wins. “The open ocean doesn’t care who you are or what you’re putting out there,” Garriques says. “It will try to destroy it.”

Kampachi Farms researcher Julien Stevens explains the aquaculture project to tour members. 
Photo: Megan Spelman

The state has about 70 aquaculture operations statewide both big and small, but “maybe just a dozen of those companies are making the biggest impacts,” says Xu. In fact, the most important species farmed in Hawaii can be boiled down even further. “We call them the Big 5: Kampachi, abalone, tilapia, Hawaii shrimp, and [two seaweeds] sea asparagus and ogo,” says Xu. The companies that grow the Big 5 have histories and methods as diverse as the products themselves.  

There’s Hawaii Fish Company, the state’s oldest continual commercial operation: While Hawaii has a centuries-long tradition of aquaculture in fishponds, this farm celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Founder Ron Weidenbach, a fisheries biologist, helped the state establish a giant freshwater prawn industry in the 1970s, developed a Chinese catfish spawning and culture in the early 1980s, and started his spring-fed tilapia farm on Oahu’s North Shore in 1992 with his wife Lita, a former social worker who grew up working on her family’s pioneering Pasalo Anthurium Farm on Hawaii Island. 

hawaii fish company
Ron and Lita Weidenbach   of Hawaii Fish Company. 
Photo courtesy: Ron and Lita Weidenbach

Then there’s Sunrise Capital, Inc. Three decades ago, a previous shellfish supplier closed for financial reasons. All clams and oysters consumed in Hawaii were imported until Sunrise began raising littleneck clams under the Brand Kauai Clams in 2013.  Today the farm grows and sells clams as well as Pacific White shrimp—raised together in 44 acres of ponds—on a west coast farm that runs using hydroelectric power generated by Kauai’s abundant rainwater.  The clams are sold statewide, while its sashimi-grade shrimp—bred, hatched, and grown to market size using seaweed also grown onsite—are one of the state’s handful of aquaculture exports to Japan. 

And, there’s Olakai, Inc., which farms both sea asparagus and ogo (limu) in renewable energy aquaponics systems on Oahu’s North Shore. Since the company first began in 2006, it has been able to utilize preexisting salt waterways: Shrimp farms, fishponds, and clean effluent ditches to grow their increasingly popular sea vegetables without the addition of other freshwater inputs. Olakai’s sea vegetables are sold both state- and nationwide. 

Despite the large number of commercial operations on Oahu, Kauai and the Big Island, “there’s not much aquaculture happening on Maui, Molokai, or Lanai,” says Xu. “The companies form because of a certain reason or convenience, and there just hasn’t been anybody on Maui in the recent past.” But as the industry grows and changes, she expects more operations to come online. Xu says a new aquaponics company has recently applied for permits to start farming fish on Maui, and there will be more companies that start operations statewide if new species are allowed in the state. 

Currently, over thirty aquatic plant and animal species are being raised for research or commercial production for food, but bringing in new species, even species popularly and successfully cultivated elsewhere in the United States, can be challenging in Hawaii with our particular environmental protections. One such species that could help grow the aquaculture industry here, says Xu, is Nile Tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus).  

“We’d like to allow people to bring Nile Tilapia to Hawaii for large scale commercial production because it grows twice as fast as other tilapia,” says Xu. “The whole industry has been working on [allowing Nile Tilapia to be commercially farmed in Hawaii] for more than 20 years. Some people believe that it’s invasive, or could be dangerous for the environment—they don’t want to let it in. But the [Nile Tilapia] have tiny mouths and huge bodies like a pig…they can’t survive in salt water, if they go into salt water they will die in 24 hours… They’re not going to go in the wild and kill all the local fish,” says Xu. In fact, she adds: “I believe Nile Tilapia are already on all Islands. Research has brought them in before and they were distributed to [small farm] users.”  

Last September, the Hawaii Aquaculture and Aquaponics Association voted to lift the regulations that keep Nile Tilapia from being farmed commercially. The industry is now waiting for the Hawaii Administrative Rules’ restricted species list to be rewritten and sent to the governor for his signature. But Xu says, even that is a waiting game. “That process has not been completed yet because of the bundling of Nile Tilapia with circus animals. It’s kind of a technical issue,” says Xu. Currently the fish’s removal from a dangerous species list is attached to an amendment that would also prohibit wild animals such as lions and tigers from entering the state as part of circuses or carnivals. “But the farmers have been waiting for this moment to come so that they can bring pure niloticus to their farms, lower their production costs, [and] have a chance to compete with the cheap imports… if we can have this fish raised legally in Hawaii, I know of three more farms that will come online to raise tilapia.” 

Tourists visit tanks at Kampachi Farms on the NELHA tour. 
Photo: Megan Spelman

Concern over which species can be farmed is not the only hurdle to farmers wishing to start new aquaculture ventures in the state, however. “We don’t have the training programs available to train entrepreneurs and upcoming farmers to even learn how to keep the most common species alive,” says Xu. “We have aquaculture programs for young students who pursue a four-year degree or a master’s degree, but … we don’t have basic training programs to train adult students and allow them to get their hands wet.” She also mentions that the state lacks aquaculture extension specialists to assist with fish health and species prevention for existing farmers. This is a particular hurdle for small and new farms that can’t afford their own on-staff experts. “The farmers are left on their own to deal with all the challenging situations in aquaculture,” she says.  

If those hurdles can be overcome, then the state has a good chance of not only creating a locally farmed product that can compete with imports to feed Hawaii’s residents and visitors, but it can also begin to brand Hawaii farmed seafood as a premium product, which will help it to reach larger markets outside the state.  

Back at Big Island Abalone, a group walks beyond the neat rows of troughs where the abalone are farmed and stop in front of a field of water-filled pens growing algae in the Kona sun. A Matson shipping crate blocks the view and a backhoe is removing pallets of bags from the crate. The bags contain compressed algae from southern Africa, a supplement to the vats of algae grown onsite when the farm can’t produce enough to feed its hungry mollusks. Making way for the delivery, a handful of the farm’s 30 staff scurry about, tromping through mud puddles in galoshes. A company biologist named Amanda sums up the scene succinctly: “This mess is the mess of real farming.”  

Categories: Hawaiʻi Farm and Food