Organic Consumers Association


Previous Page

Click here to print this page

Make a Donation!


"Guilt-Free" Fish Farming Arrives?


'Guilt-free' fish farming arrives

Bainbridge Island company has stake in Hawaiian venture

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


KONA, Hawaii -- The locals call it kahala. It is a lowly native fish that in
the wild is prone to a reef toxin called ciguatera. Commercial fishermen,
who throw kahala back in the ocean if they catch it, scoff at the suggestion
of cultivating the species for profit. Why would anyone want to waste time
on a fish that could poison the person who eats it?

But a groundbreaking enterprise here on the Big Island has transformed
kahala from trash to the "it" fish on menus at celebrated restaurants and,
in the process, challenged the belief that marine aquaculture is detrimental
to the environment. Thanks to Kona Blue Water Farms and Bainbridge
Island-based Net Systems, the future of virtually "guilt-free" fish farming
has arrived -- and in sashimi-grade style.

The premium product is called Kona Kampachi, the trademarked name of the
cultivated version of kahala (also known as Hawaiian yellowtail and almaco
jack), or Seriola rivoliana. The clean, unfishy taste of Kona Kampachi and
its crisp-yet-unctuous texture have delighted chefs from top restaurants as
diverse as Roy's in Hawaii, the venerable Chez Panisse, The French Laundry,
even Seattle's own Canlis and The Oceanaire. (It retails at Uwajimaya for
about $20 per pound.)

Other attributes of the fish include high levels of Omega-3s, up to a
two-week shelf life, more than 30 percent fat content (wild Seriola
rivoliana contain about 3 percent fat), which for chefs equates to flavor
and moisture, and, according to Kona Blue, no detectable levels of mercury
or PCBs.

What excites environmentally conscious chefs is the idea that they can get a
farm-raised fish, which provides consistency of product, that is also
sustainable and tastes like it came from the wild. What excites
environmentally conscious Kona Blue, is the idea that the company can
combine its commitment to sustainability with a venture-capital-worthy
business plan.

So, is this fish too good to be true?

Critics of aquaculture say yes, because any cultivated fish that is a
carnivore, such as salmon or Kona Kampachi, consume pellets made of fish
meal and fish oil, which come from wild sources. If wild fish are processed
to feed farmed fish, critics say it's impossible for a farm to be considered

It's also easy to be skeptical, considering the generally negative response
to fish farms. Salmon farms, in particular, draw the ire of fishermen,
because of the competition for consumer dollars. Environmentalists wave a
laundry list of concerns over salmon farms, which tend to be located in
protected bays: accumulation of disease, waste, chemicals and other
contaminants in the ecosystem; and escaped farmed fish, which compete with
wild fish for resources or interbreed.

Ocean science park

Kona Blue is a different kind of marine farm. It prides itself on how it
uses nurture, nature and cutting-edge aquaculture technology in the most
sustainable manner possible to produce a clean, non-genetically modified

The company was established in 2001 by marine biologists and Hawaii
residents, Dale Sarver and Neil Anthony Sims, who had been leasing space at
the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority, with hopes of innovating
a business.

NELHA is an ocean science and technology park, located at Keahole Point in
Kona, that offers space for research and commercial endeavors. Part of the
uniqueness of the site is filtered seawater pumped to all tenants, which
produce everything from microalgae to neutraceuticals to seahorses.
(Shelton-based Taylor Shellfish Farms has a clam and oyster hatchery there.)

Kona Blue's operation has two main components: a land-based hatchery and an
open-ocean "ranch" situated under water a half-mile offshore of Keahole

The hatchery is where Kona Kampachi begin their lives. Wild and cultivated
brood stock are maintained in large tanks, where they are allowed to spawn.
The almost microscopic eggs are collected and kept in larval rearing tanks.
Once the eggs hatch, the newborn fish are fed a zooplankton that Kona Blue
cultivates on site (the company also grows the microalgae necessary to feed
the zooplankton). After about four weeks, the fish are transferred to
nursery tanks, where they spend about three weeks before making the trip to
the ocean.

Kona Kampachi, farm-raised fish, are grown out in 3,000-cubic-meter
submersible cages off the Kona coast in Hawaii, where depths exceed 200

Unlike salmon farms, which tend to be in protected bays near the shore, Kona
Blue's ranch is a half-mile offshore. A half-mile might not seem far, but it
puts the fish cages in waters that reach more than 200 feet deep. Kona Blue
leases 90 acres of open ocean from the state of Hawaii, though it actively
uses just nine acres.

The cages in which Kona Kampachi grow are called Sea Stations, which are
made by Oceanspar, a division of a company on Bainbridge Island that
specializes in commercial fishing gear called Net Systems.

A Sea Station is a UFO-shaped contraption made of a galvanized steel and
nets. The structure consists of a 65-foot-tall center pole called a spar and
a "Saturn" ring made of 12 segments, and stretches 80 feet in diameter.
Triangular swaths of net woven of Dyneema, a fiber used in bulletproof
vests, are attached to the steel frame.

"It's two dodecahedral cones inverted so that their bases abut," said Sims,
president of Kona Blue. "It's shaped like a Chinese lantern."

Langley Gace, ocean engineer and aquaculture manager at Oceanspar, explained
the construction: "It's a bicycle wheel with an extruded axle ... which is
good for size and strength," and for maintaining a fixed volume. The net
walls are stiff and taut enough to withstand tough water conditions.

"Regardless of the currents, (the Sea Station) always has 3,000 cubic
meters. For fish health, you don't put them in a cage with moving walls."

These unique cages are fully submersible and can be raised halfway out of
the water for harvesting or cleaning. Kona Blue owns four Sea Stations,
which house a total of about 140,000 fish. One more cage will be added this

Movement of the cages depends on pneumatics. A diver takes an air hose
that's connected to an air compressor on a boat and hooks it up to the spar,
which functions like a submarine ballast that can be filled alternately with
air or water to shift the cage above or below the surface. Depending on the
compressor used, the process of raising the cage can take 10 to 40 minutes.

When the cages are fully submerged, the tip of the spar is 30 feet below the
surface. At this depth, the Sea Stations and the fish contained within are
protected from storms that would wreak havoc on standard surface cages --
hence the need for salmon farms, which rely on surface cages, to be located
in protected bays.

Kona Kampachi are eight to 10 weeks old when they are transferred to the Sea
Stations. There, they spend about 10 months before they are harvested. The
fish are given a high-fat pellet feed that is manufactured from sustainable
resources. At harvest, which occur twice weekly, the fish weigh about 6 to 8
pounds. The total weekly harvest is about 5,000 pounds.

"They look like little footballs," said Sarver, co-founder and chief
operating officer of Kona Blue.

Pearl oyster farming

Before founding Kona Blue, Sarver and Sims were interested in pearl oyster
farming. Sims, who is originally from Australia and had been a fisheries
biologist in the Cook Islands, was offered a position with an aquaculture
company in Hawaii that specialized in pearl oysters, which brought him to
Hawaii about 15 years ago. Sarver, who had worked around the world in
various forms of aquaculture but decided to settle in Hawaii, met Sims at
about that time.

Their mutual interest in pearl oyster farming led to a joint research and
consulting business. They spent nearly a decade helping companies develop
pearl oyster hatcheries and farms around the world.

"It was tremendously rewarding, but it wasn't bringing a whole lot of
benefit to Hawaii, to Kona," Sims said. "Pearls are great, but they're
baubles. We wanted to do something that had more substantive reward to it,
something that people could sink their teeth into and feed them in the
fullest sense of the word."

The pair decided to explore open-ocean aquaculture and to focus on finfish.
The world's demand for seafood exceeds the supply, so Sarver and Sims knew
the world needed alternatives.

"What else do you do?" Sarver asked. "What's the other choice? Race you to
the last fish in the ocean or everyone has to eat milkfish? There isn't
anything else. Land-based aquaculture is fine if you're in China. We
couldn't possibly do it here. You'd lose so much money even before you

They experimented with mahi mahi, grouper and a few other native fish
species. None, however, were tasty enough or economically viable.

That's when Seriola rivoliana entered the picture.

"We didn't even know about this fish," Sarver said. "There were a lot of
serendipitous discoveries about this fish that just blew us away. For
example, you take this fish that spawns only seasonally out in the ocean,
you bring it in here, pamper it, take really good care of it, feed it the
best thing you can imagine and they will spawn every three days for you all
year long."

For a hatchery, that frequency means gold. The quality of the fish sealed
the deal.

"What I like is the richness of it," Sarver said. "It has no fishy taste, no
fishy smell, none of that fibrous stuff that gets stuck between your teeth.
It has an excellent shelf life ... it has a similar taste to hamachi, but
hamachi doesn't have that little bit of crispness that Kona Kampachi has."

The fish are given a high-fat diet, which results in high lipid levels in
the flesh.

"You can see in the flesh how opaque it is," Sarver commented while slicing
a fillet that would be served sashimi style. "Usually fish is translucent
when it's fresh. There is so much lipid in this fish you could call it

The potential of the fishery drew the attention of investors, especially
after the Hawaii Legislature passed Act 221 in 2001, which provided tax
incentives for high-tech investment. Under the statute, Kona Blue qualified
as a "high-tech" company. That detail caught interest from Aspen,
Colo.-based Cornerstone Holdings, which is chaired by Thomas McCloskey, who
is the former chairman of Horizon Organic Dairy.

Kona Blue, the startup, received two things: $4 million in venture capital
from Cornerstone and a few other firms, and Mike Wink, who eventually was
named the chief executive of Kona Blue. Wink worked as an investment
specialist for Cornerstone and discovered Kona Blue while seeking investment
candidates in Hawaii.

Now, the company employs about 30 staffers, most of whom have degrees in
biology or marine sciences, or have worked in the diving tourism industry:
all people who understand the importance of ocean health and sustainability.

"It's very important to Dale and myself that this company isn't just people
signing checks, but people who believe passionately about what we're doing,"
Sims said.

A carnivorous fish

Seriola rivoliana, whether it's the wild kahala or the cultivated Kona
Kampachi, is a carnivorous fish.

"The Kona project may be better than most fish farm operations, but as long
as they are raising carnivores, there will be a protein loss, not gain,"
said Bellingham-based Anne Moseness, who directs the Go Wild campaign for
the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. "It isn't sustainable. It
creates a high-value fish for diners in wealthier nations and it causes
prices and marketplace of wild fish to plummet."

Wink, who considers himself a socially conscious entrepreneur, recognizes
that the feed Kona Blue gives its fish is "the big attack point."

"We are trying to do this in as sustainable a way as possible," Wink said.
"The fish meal comes from sustainably caught fisheries."

Kona Blue uses a feed made by EWOS, a Norwegian-owned company based in
Surrey, B.C.

Dr. David Carpenter, one of the authors of a study released in 2004 that
determined farmed salmon contains seven times the amount of PCBs of wild
salmon, is alarmed by Kona Blue's claim that its fish contain no detectable
levels of PCBs or mercury.

"This almost always means they did not use a sensitive method for
measurement," said Carpenter, who currently is the director of the Institute
for Health and the Environment at the University of Albany. "Both of these
compounds are found in essentially every kind of seafood, but if you choose
a method to measure them that has low sensitivity, one can also find that
you don't measure them."

Sims agrees that there is "no such thing as 'contaminant-free' food." But,
he said, the real issue is at what point do the contaminants become a health
concern. In fact, in Carpenter's study, the higher levels of contaminants
found in farmed salmon still were far below the limits set by the FDA.

Kona Blue employs Seattle-based Surefish for third-party seafood quality

"The degree of sensitivity employed by Surefish laboratory is widely
accepted," Sims said. "Our fish had no detectable levels of PCBs or mercury
at these detection limits."

He added that Surefish uses a test that is sensitive enough to detect
contaminants at levels 20 times less than limits set by the Food and Drug

The state of Hawaii, which issues ocean leases, requires frequent
third-party testing of the water. Once a month, Kona Blue sends water
samples from and down-current of the farm site to test for ammonia and
turbidity. Once every three months, the fish are tested for contaminant
levels. Eventually, it will be once every two months.

"Recognizing we're trailblazers, it's important to us that we do this, not
just because the state dictates it, but because we want to know if we are
having a significant impact on the environment," Sims said. "If we are, this
will not scale."

Since the Sea Stations are in the open ocean, the brisk currents provide a
constant exchange of water, which means that the fish waste does not have a
chance to build up. Also, the cages are kept at under capacity, with about
30,000 fish per cage, which has a volume of just under 3,000 cubic meters.

To minimize the feed used, the fish are fed once a day. This keeps them
ravenous enough that at meal time the food released into the cages is
devoured quickly, which helps prevent pellets from drifting into the ocean.

Kona Blue has found that once-a-day feeding creates an optimum food
conversion ratio: It takes 1 pound of dried feed to produce 1 pound of fish.
With farmed salmon, that ratio is 3 to 5 pounds of feed to 1 pound of fish.

Dr. Albert Tacon, of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, is a worldwide
expert in aquatic nutrition and feed technology research. He believes that
it is possible to raise carnivores sustainably, "provided that we can find
sustainable feed ingredient sources and feeds that keep pace with the
development of the sector.

"I think if anyone can conduct offshore aquaculture in an environmentally
responsible way, it is Kona Blue. Their track record to date has been one of
complete openness and transparency -- this is so refreshing in an emerging
industry which has had its share of ups and downs."

Competition fears quelled

>From the start, Kona blue was meticulous about consulting with the public --
everyone from commercial fishers and other shoreline interests to Hawaiian
community elders -- to explain the intentions of the company. The
transparency helped the company gain necessary permits and the important
ocean lease.

Fears of competition with commercial fishers or a "gold rush" of open-ocean
aquaculture outfits were quickly quelled. Once fishers learned Kona Blue
would be raising kahala, they laughed at the prospect because the fish is so
undesirable in the wild. There hasn't been a gold rush because the permit
process is tedious and the amount of capital required to start and maintain
such a farm is formidable.

The only other company using similar technology in Hawaii is Cates
International, which grows moi (Pacific threadfin) in Sea Stations. Moi is
more popular in Hawaii.

Even if there isn't a sudden surge in the number of open-ocean fish farms,
there is concern over privatizing the ocean -- especially with the National
Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2005, which would open up federal waters to
aquaculture, being considered in Congress.

"We haven't sought exclusive control of the ocean, just control of what's in
the cages," Sims said.

The cages are submerged 30 feet below the surface; boats can sail above
without consequence, though anchoring is prohibited.

As Kona Blue becomes more advanced and streamlined, the cost of the fish --
now at about $20 per pound retail -- should decrease.

Also, as the word gets out and the demand grows, the distribution will

"We're really, at this point, not talking about being a farm," Wink said.
"We're about being a sustainable fishery, raising fish in the open ocean."

* For more information about the fish and the nets used to raise them,
visit these Web sites: and

P-I food editor Hsiao-Ching Chou can be reached at 206-448-8117 or

© 1998-2006 Seattle Post-Intelligencer