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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, April 19, 2001

Makapu'u institute takes aquaculture lead

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

The Oceanic Institute at Makapu'u is helping the nation develop priorities in the use of biotechnology in aquaculture.

"To be competitive in the future, the United States has to use the tools of biotechnology," said institute director Thomas Farewell.

But that does not mean scientists will be sticking strange genes into the 'ahi in your poke or the breaded mahimahi on your plate — at least not yet.

Farewell said the major challenge for aquaculture science is to use biotechnology to better understand marine species' diseases, the genetic diversity of remaining wild stocks, what makes some of them fat and tasty, and the like.

"In the next wave of exploration, we need to find things not by trial and error, but with the use of modern tools. These are the major steps that need to occur in the aquaculture/seafood area," Farewell said.

The federal Agriculture Research Service called on the Oceanic Institute last month to lead the development of a set of national priorities in the use of biotech in aquaculture. A paper on the subject, the result of a conference in early March in West Virginia, should be available in about six weeks, he said.

One major topic of conversation was the concern of the public about dangers in the use of biotechnology or, more specifically, of genetic engineering. The issues are serious, and are being addressed by the aquacultural scientific community, Farewell said.

"The scientific community as a whole takes the societal issues very seriously. They were a major component of the discussions in the March workshop," he said.

The issue of improving the health of the aquaculture industry is critical for the nation and the industry, Farewell said.

"Seafood is the second largest trade deficit the nation has" after oil, he said. Some of the seafood being imported is caught in the open sea and may be resulting in declines in target species. Some is from aquaculture development done in ways that may not be sustainable.

"It is very important that we have an industry that responds to the need, that has the best technology in the work and also protects the environment," Farewell said. "We're trying to convince the rest of the world to be concerned about environmental sustainability."

He said aquaculture is a growing figure among food commodities.

"It's the new commodity, after beef, pork, poultry and plants. The others are more mature, but aquaculture is emerging," he said.

Many investors leaped into aquaculture during the past three decades and suffered disappointing results, largely because the kind of technological expertise that supports the other commodities did not exist for the production of finned food.

Today, businesses are beginning to realize the technology is catching up. The Oceanic Institute, for instance, developed a disease-free saltwater Pacific white shrimp that can be grown in aquaculture ponds at high densities. Another strain that has been developed is resistant to a shrimp disease that has devastated aquaculture farms elsewhere.

They are genetically like their marine relatives, but researchers used traditional selective breeding techniques to select ones that don't carry disease, and have resistance to specific diseases.

They are grown commercially on the Mana plain of West Kaua'i and in ponds on the Big Island, Moloka'i and O'ahu.

The kind of research that developed the Oceanic Institute's Pacific white shrimp is the kind of research needed in other parts of the agricultural industry as well, he said.

"The future of the U.S. aquaculture industry is dependent on this nation's ability to apply biotechnology to food production efforts in aquaculture," Farewell said.