News & Events

Finding Local Solutions to National Problems; Perspectives on Aquaculture in Hawaii

Feb 25, 2019

In a beautiful island paradise like Hawaii, one might think that fresh seafood is plentiful in every corner market and restaurant. That all of the famous garlic shrimp and fish plate lunches feature seafood that was harvested locally that week or perhaps that same day. While there are certainly local seafood options available in the markets, the stark reality is that Hawaii imports over 90% of its food, and that includes seafood. 

Aquaculture is a promising way to simultaneously increase food security and decrease the imports of seafood that the United States and its territories have come to rely on. The expansion of aquaculture production, in fact, has helped meet growing demand for edible seafood as capture fisheries output has leveled off. Globally, fish provides more than 3.1 billion people with almost 20 percent of their average per capita intake of animal protein, and 4.3 billion people with 15 percent of such protein. Just to maintain this level of per capita utilization, global aquaculture production will need to increase current output by roughly 48 million tons by 2050. Undoubtedly, aquaculture must expand its contribution to the world’s food supply.

The U.S. aquaculture industry has grown steadily over the past decade with peak production of 607,570 tons in 2004. However, nationwide production in 2016 was 444,369 tons, a nearly 26.86 percent decrease from production in 2004. Meanwhile, the national seafood deficit skyrockets to new heights each year. Further development of U.S. aquaculture continues to grow in importance to the American economy. In his 2018 declaration of June as National Oceans Month, President Trump mentioned “harnessing the vast resources” of the EEZ in the context of aquaculture. He promised to create new opportunities for American products in the global marketplace, including through promotion of domestic aquaculture, and to “streamline regulations and administrative practices to promote economic growth, while protecting our marine environment for current and future generations.”

Unfortunately, regulations are one of the most critical issues inhibiting the growth of aquaculture in Hawaii. A recent article highlighted U.S. regulations and imported seafood as some of the obstacles prospective producers face in the islands.

“The biggest obstacle is permission,” stated Randy Cates, who has been attempting to get the necessary permits to anchor floating cages to grow moi in waters off of the Honolulu airport. “It’s not financing, it’s not high labor costs, it’s not the health standards. I’ve been trying for five years, half a million dollars on the site and I still don’t have permission to do it.”

According to the Hawaii News Now story, “the most significant barrier to new enterprises are choking state and federal regulations ― a bureaucratic structure that largely doesn’t apply to foreign imports. That’s despite safety concerns about those imports.”

“Investigative TV, for example, found that up to 12 percent of foreign frozen seafood may be contaminated with banned antibiotics, chemical dyes, and salmonella. University of Hawaii professor and extension specialist Aurora Saulo said foreign seafood is often farmed in unlined ponds and treated with antibiotics to prevent disease, carbon monoxide gas to hide quality and other chemicals.”

Professor Saulo stressed that our industry can compete if our legislation and regulations require evidence on the safety of any imported seafood products. Asia is the leading continent for aquaculture production, responsible for 89 percent of the global aquaculture production of fish, crustaceans and mollusks, which totals 76.6 million metric tons.

The story also highlighted the production efforts of the Kauai Shrimp Company, which harvests around a million pounds of healthy local shrimp each year. Kauai Shrimp Marketing and Sales Director Mike Turner said the company is dedicated to “clean operations that produce tasty shrimp without any added chemicals, and following the rules, unlike a lot of the foreign competitors.”

“We are under a lot of rules and regulations here that they don’t have abroad and the guys cut corners, and when you taste the shrimp you taste the difference,” Turner said.

Certainly, the taste of fresh island seafood is unique, and we need to do all we can to secure the supply of healthy, local seafood that has been a dietary staple for Pacific Islanders for centuries. For decades, CTSA has been supporting projects that help break through the bottlenecks and barriers inhibiting aquaculture development in the region. For example, nearly a decade of support for the ongoing Bivalves project helped ‘cut the red tape’ and make it legal to grow shellfish in Hawaiian waters once again. Hawaii’s bivalve industry is now one of the more promising areas of aquaculture; not only is oyster farming helping to catalyze restoration of ancient Hawaiian fishponds and cultural traditions, but it’s also having major impacts on west coast oyster farms. Due to increasing ocean acidification and other issues, most major west coast oyster operations now rely on seedstock from hatcheries located in Hawaii. CTSA is also supporting the establishment of a disease diagnostic lab at the University of Hawaii, which is offering critical disease pathology services to local producers. This is important work that helps local farmers, especially shrimp SPF broodstock producers, fulfill the regulations and requirements to sell their products.

In addition to supporting development through its projects, CTSA also gathers industry testimonies on the value and importance of aquaculture and submits them to U.S. Congress each year. CTSA will continue promoting aquaculture as a viable solution to several issues facing the Pacific Islands, from economic and food security to climate change mitigation, and will continue (and expand on) our work with the legislature on the local, regional and national levels to facilitate the growth of this important industry.