By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer
A Big Island company wants to build Hawaiis first commercial black pearl oyster farm in waters off the Honolulu airport reef runway.
Black Pearls Inc. is seeking a Department of Land and Natural Resources permit to raise the oysters in a 75-acre area about 100 yards off the eastern end of the runway. The project site is 45 to 50 feet deep and is designated by the state as a recreational thrill craft zone.
A public hearing on the companys conservation district use application is set for 6 p.m. Jan. 25 in the Kalanimoku Building, 1151 Punchbowl St., Room 132.
Company vice president Neil Sims said the project would serve two purposes.
The first would be to supply black pearls to local jewelers. Sims, a biologist, said most of the pearls used here are imported from Tahiti.
The farms second benefit would be to help restock Hawaiian waters with the native black-lip pearl oyster that at one time was common here. Sims firm has been experimenting with hatchery techniques at the Natural Energy Laboratory in Kona since 1992.
"At the moment out there, the animals are so rare and so sparsely scattered along the reef that they dont reproduce very effectively," he said.
Sims said he looked at 25 sites around the state for the farm and chose the Reef Runway because of its minimal public use. Many preferred locations, such as in Kaneohe Bay and Kealakekua Bay, are heavily used and "out of the question."
"Were really excited about the potential for this site, about what it could mean for the animal and what it could mean for the idea of how it can be a demonstration site for how aquaculture can work," Sims said.
The oysters will be raised in net panels that will be secured to the bottom of a pit, which was dug during the construction of the runway. Pontoon rafts and marker buoys will be the only objects out of the water, he said.
The area would remain off limits to the public, although Sims said an easement likely would be placed on either side of the project to allow fishermen and others access to a reef flat adjacent to the runway.
The plan has drawn criticism from some in the personal water craft industry who said the project would eliminate one of the few Jet Ski areas in the state.
Nick Lohr, director of the Hawaiian Island Jet Sport Association, said he would support the pearl farm if the state provides an alternate site for use of personal water craft. He said his group represents about 200 private personal water craft users.
"If (the state) gave us equal or better place in trade, wed be willing to listen," Lohr said. "Its the only site you have out there."
If the permit is approved, Sims said work could begin as early as this summer.
He said between 20,000 and 30,000 oysters would be grown in the farm and produce 10,000 to 15,000 pearls a year. At auctions in Tahiti, Sims said, the pearls sell for about $50 a piece.
Sims said it takes at least two years for an oyster to be mature enough to be implanted with a nuclei that becomes a pearl. It takes another two years before the pearl is ready for harvesting.
Black Pearls Inc. has a similar venture in the Marshall Islands and does consulting work with other firms in the Philippines, Australia and the Cook Islands, Sims said.
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