For the past 10 years, Hawai`i’s state-controlled waters have been a testing ground for the industrial ocean fish farming industry. After a decade, and an investment of millions in taxpayers’ dollars, it is clear that the industry has not lived up to its promises of both economic and environmental sustainability. Instead, industrial fish farming damaged ocean ecosystems, infuriated Native Hawaiian rights groups and contributed little to the local economy.
These factory fish farms can pose real threats to the environment as well as human health. They can cause damage to fragile habitats through use of heavy anchors; spread of disease and parasites from farmed fish to wild fish; entangle or alter behavior in whales, dolphins, sharks, monk seals and other ocean wildlife; release concentrated amounts of fish food, wastes, and any chemicals or antibiotics used in the farms directly into ocean waters; and more. The use of antibiotics may lead to the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and residues from chemical treatments may remain in the fish and be consumed by unknowing diners.
Hawai`i currently hosts two commercial factory fish farms in its oceans, and the industry is on course to expand production by 900 percent in the next five years.1,2 Before the state allows such a drastic increase, it should take time to evaluate whether existing operators have been good stewards of the public’s natural resources. Government documents recently obtained through a public information request suggest that this is not at all the case. Especially troubling are the business and environmental practices at Kona Blue Water Farms Inc. (KBWF), an open-water aquaculture site. The company touts itself as sustainable, but has had many documented problems, including interference with marine mammals, use of antibiotics and failure to provide complete and accurate information to the state in a timely manner. The company has also been sued for alleged unsafe working conditions and challenged by Native Hawaiians as being disrespectful of their cultural and traditional practices. As the federal government promotes this industrial experiment, Hawai`i is bearing the burden of the environmental, economic and social impacts.
Thankfully, viable alternatives to ocean fish cages exist which can both meet the need for seafood production and increase food independence in Hawai`i in an environmentally responsible and culturally appropriate way. Traditional coastal fish ponds (loko i`a) and land-based recirculating aquaculture systems are two examples already in practice across the islands. The state should focus its aquaculture efforts on promoting these more responsible methods. The results from the past decade’s experimentation with factory fish farms in the ocean clearly show that the state should move swiftly to protect its waters and citizens from future harm. Hawai’i should prohibit the expansion of factory fish farms in its oceans to conserve state resources and protect them for sustainable use and enjoyment of future generations.