News & Events

Challenges and Opportunities in the Development of Offshore Aquaculture in the Pacific Islands

Aug 20, 2018

Written by James McVey

I was asked, as part of our CTSA project on evaluating the feasibility of offshore cage culture of the grouper P. leopardus, to tell the story of how we got to this point in development of larger scale fish culture for the Pacific Islands.  After a nearly 50 year career working in marine science and aquaculture technologies in the Trust Territory, NOAA’s Aquaculture programs in the South East US, and 22 years in the National Sea Grant College Program I realize that these stories are not short term but indeed span decades. Therefore I am going to go back to the beginning.

Marine Aquaculture had been developing in the previous Trust Territory of the Pacific since the middle 1970’s when the Marine Resources Division of the Trust Territory obtained funds for a marine aquaculture hatchery from the Japanese government as a part of the World War II reparations.  I was the Fisheries Biologist working along with Peter Wilson, Chief of Marine Resources at that time and we developed a proposal for $1 million dollars for the construction of a hatchery in Palau that was to be called the Micronesian Mariculture Demonstration Center.  This was in response to the rapidly declining wild fisheries due to over exploitation throughout the Trust Territory. The MMDC and later the Palau Mariculture Demonstration Center was the first laboratory to successfully raise a commercial coral reef species, Siganus fuscescens, for aquaculture or stocking purposes.  The MMDC, under the guidance of Gerald Heslinga in the 1980s also pioneered the culture of all 7 species of giant clams that are now being cultured throughout the Pacific.

In the intervening years, NOAA, through the National Sea Grant College Program, The Department of Interior, Office of Territorial Affairs, and USDA, through the Center for Tropical and Subtropical Aquaculture (CTSA), continued support of aquaculture research and development in the Pacific Islands.  In 1986, when the Trust Territory was discontinued, these agencies still supported development of marine aquaculture in the Pacific Islands.

Sea Grant’s research programs, from the mid 90’s on, supported several programs to evaluate both offshore or open ocean aquaculture and the use of marine recirculating systems on land as the most sustainable technologies for the future.  This focus was established by having many national and international technical symposia focused on these topics. The offshore technology was generally favored by industry because of the high costs of land and electricity in onshore facilities and high risk of disease issues in closed systems.  However, offshore systems have their own costs and problems of cages, boats, storms, trained labor (divers) as well as hatchery costs that are also required in onshore systems.  We were able to develop hatchery systems and protocols for several new marine species such as mutton snapper, cobia, Pacific threadfin (MOI), amberjack, Nassau grouper and pompano among others.  In the meantime Asia, especially China, Japan and Korea, were moving ahead on a broad spectrum of species and technologies for marine aquaculture and Sea Grant, USDA and the NMFS had active Aquaculture technical exchange programs with these countries. 

A highlight of this activity was a critical meeting in 2006 between all the major Asian Countries including China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan,  Viet Nam, the US, Canada, Chile, and Sweden. The theme of the meeting was Aquaculture and Ecosystems: An Integrated Coastal and Ocean Management Approach.  This meeting was significant in helping to identify the role of aquaculture in future ecosystem management that considers the possibility of a balanced approach to ecosystem management and economic development that includes aquaculture.  One paragraph of the report is worth repeating here: “ To manage coastal systems in an ecologically balanced way, we must understand and utilize the natural functions of both cultured and wild species so that energy flow and distribution of nutrients is managed through biological activity, as well as by engineering solutions. Modeling and managing these relationships in the context of hydrographic and environmental conditions found in the different regional contexts is our challenge and obligation.”

The above foundation work resulted in science and technology that allowed us to think about applying this to the Pacific Islands that were in desperate need of sea food supplies for food security and export income from their valuable marine species such as groupers, snappers, amberjacks, while maintaining their environmental appeal to tourists.

After retirement from the National Sea Grant College Program in 2006 I helped co-found Indigo Seafood with a businessman, Dr. James Sanderson, who wanted to form a company that focused on exactly what all these meetings were focused on.  After looking in the Caribbean and Hawaii, we decided to go back to where these ideas all started, which was Palau where the new President Thomas Remengesau was working on setting aside coral reef sanctuaries, had ceased exporting reef fish to international markets, and was looking at aquaculture to develop export markets for Palau products. 

Indigo Seafood, working with the Palau Aquaculture Cooperative Association (PACA), a non profit organization of giant clam farmers and others with an interest in aquaculture, received funding from the UN’s South Pacific Communities Directorate for two offshore, submersible cages for testing the feasibility of grouper culture in Palau.  This resulted in two 212 m3 cages installed in 100 feet of water two miles offshore of Airai bay on the big Island of Babelthuap in Palau in 2016.

This accomplishment was only possible because of 6 years of preparation and work on obtainment of all the government permits and leases to do business in Palau.  Here is the timeline of what was required for all the various permits:

    Incorporation:  Time to acquire: 1 year Foreign Investment Certificate:  2 years Contract with small hatchery:  3 years to acquire.  Hatchery turned out to be very limited because of misrepresentation by owners who planned on selling to a hotel developer, forcing us out. Ocean lease for cages:  This took over 3 years to acquire. Environmental Assessment and approvals in order to utilize ocean lease: an additional 2 years Ocean lease area had to be reclassified to commercial purposes:  Took an additional 2 years.

Doing business in Island communities is not easy and it is essential to become a welcome component of the community. Many smaller set backs occurred that were difficult to plan for: this included: Theft of materials in storage,  night time vandalism of cages, 2 sunken boats with expensive repairs, difficulty obtaining fingerlings from local and international hatcheries.  Difficulty with reproduction and also with transportation.  Very expensive testing and transportation costs, disease of fingerlings from local hatchery, causing over 70% mortality in first 75 grouper fingerlings. 

Present status
During 2017 PACA/ Indigo received a small grant from CTSA to test the culture of the grouper P. Leopardus, the leopard Grouper, in our cages on the ocean lease. We were to test the effects of density on growth rate of this valuable species.  The juveniles were to come from either the Palau Community College Hatchery in Palau or from the Oceanic Institute in Hawaii. We hired divers, outfitted two boats, bought feeds, purchased nursery nets but we were only able to get 75 juvenile grouper from the PCC hatchery.  We stocked the nursery net in only one cage to see how this limited number of grouper would adapt to the offshore conditions.  We also had access to a few thousand rabbitfish, that we planned to use to help clean the cages clear of fouling and we stocked them outside of the nursery net in the grouper cage.  The rabbitfish did a great job keeping the cage clean and adapting to the feeds we provided to round out their nutrition.  The grouper exhibited lesions on their skin that apparently came with them from the Palau hatchery and they did not adapt well to the high protein feed we had obtained from Taiwanese supplier.  Grouper suffered a constant level of mortality until there were only 17 left.  They attained a maximum size of only 15 cm and 100 grams in the time period from July 2017 to March 22, 2018 with the average size of 62 grams in that time period.  Average water temperature during this time was 82 degrees F.

However, we did learn that both the grouper and rabbitfish had no trouble coping with the currents, waves, and temperatures in the commercial cages.

About 3,000, certified disease free grouper juveniles were received from the Oceanic Institute hatchery in Hawaii over the last two weeks of July 2018. The fingerlings were placed in our new nursery net within cage number 1. The plan was to split them into two cages to have 2,000 in cage 1 and 1,000 in cage two for density studies; however, our nursery net was recently compromised and we lost fish.

The cost of producing the juvenile groupers in Hawaii, obtaining all the disease free certifications, paying the air freight and having the uncertainty of shipping survival (We lost the first shipment in July because of flight cancellations) make obtaining juveniles from Hawaii not commercially sustainable in the long run. At this time our average cost is at least $6 a fingerling.  It is imperative that Palau has a fully operating marine fish hatchery and certified supply of grouper fingerlings if high value coral reef species are to be produced through aquaculture.

We are hoping to obtain additional funding to operate our testing of density on grouper growth under commercial level production in 2018/19. Our funds for operation have been exhausted during our operation in 2017/18. We are continuing to work with Oceanic Institute for any additional grouper fingerlings as the new Palau Mariculture upgrade is being finished. 

Our long term goal remains to develop a multi-trophic aquaculture system that produces high value coral reef species of fish, algae and filter feeding species that results in a balanced ecosystem approach to coastal management on Pacific Islands. This fits exactly with the Republic of Palau’s Coastal Zone Management plan and CTSA’s vision of bringing grouper culture to Palau.  This proof of concept can only be done on a scale large enough to prove commercial viability and the partnership of PACA and Indigo are the only players in the Pacific Islands that can demonstrate this offshore system at this time.

It is critical that the private sector be involved with the production side of this technology for the future.  This will require clear guidelines and designated aquaculture zones that fit in with the present marine sanctuary areas and expanding tourist facilities of Pacific Islands.