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Factory fish farming: A track record of costly, messy failure

By Christina Lizzi

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 02:23 a.m. HST, Nov 16, 2010



It's been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Repeatedly leasing Hawaii's ocean areas for factory fish farming, also known as open-ocean aquaculture (OOA), epitomizes this phrase. Recently, on the same day that Hukilau Foods, one of the two existing OOA companies operating in Hawaii, filed for bankruptcy, another company, Hawaii Oceanic Technology Inc. (HOTI) proudly announced that it was granted a 35-year lease for a new OOA site -- more than four times larger than the bankrupt company's site -- to be located off the Big Island.

OOA is the ocean equivalent of factory farming on land, consisting of thousands of fish eating, excreting and growing in open net pens or cages from which wastes flow freely into the marine environment. And, as researchers who compared the impacts of marine finfish farming around the world announced several weeks ago in the first Global Aquaculture Performance Index, the larger the fish farm, the bigger the problems -- even under the best current management practices.

This is why Hawaii should be wary of massive OOA operations like HOTI, operations that would push Hawaii closer to becoming the "Silicon Valley" of ocean fish farming. While Hawaii's economy could diversify, it is foolish to risk the islands' primary source of income -- tourism -- on an industry that could destroy the state's reputation for pristine oceans and coastlines.

Advancing OOA is especially senseless given that existing OOA operations have failed to live up to their promise of economic gain for the state, despite millions of dollars in assistance to the industry through tax credits and federal funding.

In January, for instance, one of the major OOA operations in Hawaii, Kona Blue Water Farms, sold its grow-out operations to another company when it was unable to turn a profit. Currently, Kona Blue is considering moving its business to Mexico for cheaper transportation costs, since the company actually transports most of its product to the U.S. mainland.

And let's not forget, after finding itself $8.6 million in debt, Hukilau Foods declared bankruptcy earlier this month.

So how will HOTI be any different? The company has already requested that its first year of rental fees be waived, and like Kona Blue Water Farms, plans to export the majority of its production off the islands (about 90 percent). These similarities make it likely that HOTI will face the same fate as Hawaii's other OOA operations.

Furthermore, Hawaii's regulatory agencies are not prepared to oversee expansion of the OOA industry. The state Board of Land and Natural Resources, for instance, approved HOTI's new lease site after turning a blind eye to the fact that the company had submitted alternate, differing OOA plans to another agency for the same lease site.

Instead of deferring the lease until these inconsistencies were cleared up and HOTI updated its documents, the board passed the buck on to other agencies to protect Hawaii's resources, and HOTI was granted the lease.

Rather than recklessly expanding an industry that has proved to be a burden on Hawaii both financially and environmentally, the state should invest in more sustainable forms of aquaculture, like land-based recirculating systems and the revival of traditional coastal fish ponds (loko i'a). Sustainable growth will come from developing local food sources, not using Hawaii's important natural resources to produce products that are exported elsewhere for private profit.

Christina Lizzi is a policy analyst for the Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch, which is a member of the Hawaii-based coalition Pono Aquaculture Alliance that is against industrial offshore fish farming.






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