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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, May 19, 2005

Seawater bottling is booming

By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawai'i's deep-seawater bottling industry is coming to O'ahu.

Desalinated seawater from deep below the ocean's surface has become a hit product in Japan, where it is marketed as a pure and nutrient-rich alternative to tap and spring water.

Until now, the five companies taking advantage of the market, or planning to, have set up shop on the Big Island. They want to be near a pipeline, descending 2,000 feet into the waters off Kailua, Kona, built by the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority.

The newest entrant, Deep Sea Health LLC, plans to pump deep seawater into a boat off O'ahu and bottle it in Kapolei in an agreement with Hawaiian Natural Water Co.

"It's pretty exciting," said Roger Morey, senior vice president of Pearl City-based Hawaiian Natural, which sells Hawaiian Springs drinking water. "You can get deep seawater anyplace, but you can only get Hawai'i deep seawater right here in Hawai'i."

Hawai'i's deep-seawater industry, which sprang up about two years ago, appears to be a boon for the state, creating more than 100 jobs, drawing millions of dollars in capital investments and hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties from a previously untapped natural resource.

While only two Hawai'i companies now sell deep seawater, exports of the product were up 384 percent in the first three months of this year to $1 million, according to the Foreign Trade Zone division of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. For all of last year, water exports rose 130 percent to $3.2 million, making it the state's 20th-most-valuable export commodity.

"This could be our major export within a couple of years," said Ron Baird, chief executive of the energy lab authority.

Koyo USA Corp., the largest of the bottlers operating in Kailua, Kona, produces 300,000 bottles of water a day for export.

This summer, three more companies — Deep Sea Health, Deep Seawater International Inc. and Hawaii Deep Marine — plan to begin bottling deep seawater.

Deep Seawater International, which is at the Kona energy lab authority, plans to start producing 25,000 to 50,000 bottles a day of drinking water brought up from a depth of 3,000 feet. That plant, which will employ 15 people, will be followed by the opening of a 160,000-bottle-a-day plant next spring, said Steve Bretschneider, the company's chief marketing officer.

Three other energy lab authority tenants also are building bottling facilities — Hawaii Deep Marine Inc., Enzamin USA Inc. and Savers Holdings Ltd. Hawaii Deep Marine now exports water to Japan for bottling, said office manager Azusa Akiyama.

Bottling companies at the energy lab authority pay the state royalties for the use of a seal that certifies the product's Hawai'i origin.

Driving the boom is a Japanese thirst for deep seawater that started several years ago. Nearly all the water bottled locally is sent to Japan, where it sells for $3 to $4 a bottle. Coming from deep below the ocean's surface, the water is touted as being thousands of years old and free of modern impurities. The desalinated Hawaiian deep seawater also is marketed as a dietary supplement that helps with weight loss, stress reduction, improved skin tone and digestion, and other benefits that have yet to be proven via scientific study.

Just how long the Japan boom will last remains unknown, though Hawai'i's water companies are eager to expand into other markets including other Asian countries, Europe and the United States.

"We believe this water is for the whole world," said Hiroshi Usami, a special adviser for Koyo USA.

However, deep-sea drinking water must be certified by state and federal regulators before U.S. sales can begin. This week, Koyo cleared all but one hurdle in that process — approval of its labels. That could occur within a few days, said Janice Okubo, a state Department of Health spokeswoman.

Koyo, which employs 90 people, already is working with retailers to begin offering its Ma Ha Lo water in Waikiki. The company also is targeting the Mainland. To meet such demand, Koyo plans to build a third bottling plant that would boost capacity by 800,000 bottles a day early next year, Usami said.

"It's a challenge to meet demand," he said.

Reach Sean Hao at shao@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8093.