Despite significant environmental, cultural and economic concerns about open-ocean aquaculture (OOA), permitting and other forms of government support make Hawaii "ground zero" for testing this risky new technology.
The dominant story justifying OOA is part of a larger story about food systems that views highly industrialized, globalized and large-scale production as the only way to feed the world. However, as we are well aware in Hawaii — due partly to the ingenious example of loko i’a, or Hawaiian fishponds — smaller-scale, community-based and localized systems of production may present more environmentally sustainable and socially just alternatives.
Additionally, whether or not marine aquaculture to date has provided food security is highly debated, and many studies have shown that local livelihoods and food systems — especially those of the poor in developing countries — have been severely undermined by aquaculture production for richer nations.
Yet, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other government funding and regulatory bodies continue to privilege a dominant technological path of OOA, primarily because it provides lucrative business opportunities for an increasingly powerful and influential industry.
In the case of OOA in Hawaii, it is not unusual for government scientists to open consulting businesses (and publish environmental assessments for the industry), for objective academic scientists to sit on the boards of directors of companies, and for third-party environmental monitoring to be conducted by company shareholders and founders. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
After some investigation into these overlapping relationships, I believe that the incentives of the marketplace have been woven into the fabric of academia with the support — and even mandate — of government, severely undermining the possibility of truly open scientific and public debate.
Does this mean we should unilaterally reject all new marine aquaculture technologies? Certainly not. However, when the stakes are so high — pollution of critical ocean resources, undermining of local fishing economies, the robbery of food sources from developing countries, interference with native Hawaiian cultural and gathering rights — we should proceed with much greater caution.