Group urges fish-farming safeguards
by Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer
A hui of local environmental groups has partnered with a powerful Mainland organization to call for major changes in open-ocean fish farming in the state, including a moratorium on expansion.
The alliance seeks to halt what it said is a near-term 900 percent potential expansion of local ocean aquaculture production until greater safeguards can be put in place to better ensure the protection of Hawai'i's ocean waters.
"Hawai'i is being the guinea pig for open-ocean aquaculture," said Rob Parsons, former environmental coordinator for Maui County who has been working for the past two years to help Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch research the industry here.
Two ocean farms operate in the state — Hukilau Foods, which began in 2001 as Cates International raising moi off 'Ewa Beach on O'ahu; and Kona Blue Water Farms, which since 2005 has produced amberjack off the Kona Coast of the Big Island.
Food & Water Watch produced a 20-page report, "The Empty Promise of Ocean Aquaculture in Hawai'i: Lessons on Factory Fish Farming From an Industrial Testing Ground."
Supporters of ocean aquaculture, which involves raising fish in submerged cages, claim that the Mainland group is trying to keep the federal government from adopting Hawai'i industry regulations as a national standard.
Local fish farm operators also say the report isn't based on scientific study, and unfairly highlights individual incidents to discredit broad industry and regulatory practices.
"These are outsiders that have manipulated local activists to achieve a national agenda," said Bill Spencer, co-founder of Hawaii Oceanic Technology Inc., a 4-year-old company trying to start an ocean farm off the Big Island raising bigeye and yellowfin tuna.
Spencer, whose start-up has produced an environmental impact statement and cultural impact statement, said the state Department of Land and Natural Resources has set very high regulatory standards that continue to be improved.
Parsons contends that very little analysis has been done on industry practices outside of what fish farm operators report.
"We've been given the sales pitch on this, and now we've taken a deeper look and find there are many troublesome issues," he said.
"We are being sold a bad bag of goods," added Miwa Tamanaha, executive director of Kahea, The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance.
Kahea, along with the Kanaka Council and 'Apono Hawai'i, partnered with Food & Water Watch to form Pono Aquaculture Alliance, which the groups hope will be joined by others.
The alliance held a press conference yesterday to present the report, and later lobbied state lawmakers to support initiatives that would restrain industry growth, including bills that would create a moratorium on ocean farm leases and require an EIS for all such farms. Those two measures stalled in the Legislature this year.
Another still pending bill, opposed by the alliance would extend the length of ocean leases from 35 years to 45 years.
Parts of the report say that DLNR, which issues ocean leases, does a poor job overseeing the industry and lacks enough resources to conduct investigation and enforcement actions.
"Hawai'i's agencies are not prepared to effectively regulate any expansion of the industry and have struggled to regulate the two existing operations," the report said.
DLNR said it couldn't respond to details of the report yesterday, but agency director Laura H. Thielen said exploring whether ocean fish farms in Hawai'i are operating in an environmentally responsible manner is a legitimate question.
Thielen said the industry is managed by self reporting, public complaints and agency actions — though she noted that the agency's Division of Aquatic Resources could be shut down under the most recent budget proposal in the state Senate.
"That is going to be devastating," she said.
Much of the report was based on Kona Blue actions, including what the report said has been inadequate environmental testing and use of antibiotics that could have an impact on the marine ecosystem and consumers.
Neil Sims, Kona Blue president and chief executive officer, said the company closely monitors the ocean floor, water quality and wild fish populations for negative effects including ecological damage and disease.
Sims said antibiotics are tightly regulated by federal agencies, and that two antibiotics have been approved for use by Kona Blue to treat fish ailments. Antibiotics intended to prevent conditions from developing, so-called preventative antibiotics, are prohibited under DLNR leases.
Sims also said that representatives of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Ocean Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund have observed Kona Blue operations and not raised alarms with the company's practices.
Sims acknowledged that some past issues have been a concern, such as when the company killed a tiger shark five years ago. Last year, a Galapagos shark broke into a cage, but was safely removed after many fish escaped.
"It's part of the learning curve," he said. "We are pioneering something that is very hard, but is really necessary."
Sims said some environmentalists should realize that ocean aquaculture is a solution to overfishing, which is depleting global wild fish populations.
"We know there's a lot of concern," he said. "We want to make sure things are done responsibly."
The report is full of other criticisms, including four workplace safety lawsuits filed against Kona Blue, the amount of farmed fish exported from Hawai'i and the industry's lack of profits.. The report recommends that consumers don't eat fish farmed in offshore cages.
Spencer said the report is trying to call the industry a failure before it has a chance to develop.
"They're telling us not to do something that could be good for the local economy," he said. "They don't care about us."
Kona Blue, which mostly exports its fish, has suffered losses that in part have led the company to shift much of its production to Mexico, though it is maintaining some operations in Hawai'i.
Randy Cates of Hukilau Foods could not be reached for comment yesterday. He has said that 99 percent of the moi he raises is for the local market.
Isaac Harp, a local fisherman supporting Pono Aquaculture, said he's not against ocean fish farms, but would like to see a better model that avoids importing feed and one that uses animals like filter feeders and crustaceans to mitigate impacts from excess waste and food around cages.
Added Christina Lizzi, fish program organizer for Food & Water Watch: "Hawai'i needs fish farms, but it needs to be pono."