Program looks at industrial aquaculture

LIHUE — Right now, anyone can throw a cage into the open ocean within the Economic Enterprise Zone and begin an aquaculture operation, said Joshua DeMello, of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council.

But with “gray area rules” on things like permits, species and reporting requirements, large-scale companies are hesitant to take advantage of the open ocean just yet.

“No one is doing that,” DeMello said. “We’ve gotten calls in the past about folks that are interested, but a lot of them are waiting to see what type of management plan comes out.”

The beginning of that aquaculture management program for the Pacific Islands Region is in the works, under the eye of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service and in conjunction with Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council.

The entities are preparing a programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) analyzing the possible environmental impacts of the proposed management program and alternatives.

“The purpose of it is to develop a management program to support sustainable, economically sound aquaculture in the Pacific Island Region,” DeMello said.

The PEIS process looks at options for permit duration, whether cages should be metal or net pens, and allowable species.

“The push is to have something in place so if someone does come in and do (large-scale aquaculture), there would be rules set up to ensure the wild stocks and environment are protected, and the rights of other fishermen and ocean users are preserved,” DeMello said.

But ushering industrial aquaculture into the EEZ is anything but sustainable, poses a threat to the environment and could impact commercial fishing, according to a biologist.

“For example, that would pose a navigational hazard to commercial fishermen, and they are important,” said aquatic biologist Don Heacock. “Not everyone fishes for themselves today.”

In addition to interrupting commercial fishing, Heacock said the idea of large-scale aquaculture isn’t sustainable.

“We found that out with large-scale pineapple and sugar,” he said. “The EEZ was established to protect our resources and our fisheries and they’d be using up public trust resources to export products to other countries.”

The counterbalance to the industrial scale aquaculture operations is the ahupua’a land management system and its hundreds of fishponds, Heacock said, established by the Hawaiians more than 500 years ago.

“The ahupua’a system was (created) by a chief on Oahu because he had to — they were running out of food because the population had grown so big,” Heacock said. “They had to decide how to produce more food and do it sustainably, and that’s when the fishponds were built.”

Those fishponds were integrated with taro fields and other types of agriculture, Heacock explained, to work with the watersheds and produce food sustainably.

“Right now, they’re looking at large-scale corporate aquaculture facilities where they will be bringing in all the (starter) fish,” Heacock said. “Large-scale aquaculture is not sustainable and doesn’t contribute to food security.”

NOAA says aquaculture is a way to increase marine food production.

“It’s increased a lot in the past, I would say 20 years or so, to the point now where they say aquaculture production is above that of wild capture fisheries,” DeMello said. “That includes all types — land based and open ocean.”

The comment period for the public scoping process to help identify alternatives ends Oct. 31, but DeMello said it won’t be the last time the public has opportunity to comment on the PEIS.

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