The worldwide demand for seafood is huge and ascending. The global seafood industry is equally massive and is a critical driver in international trade and economic well being for many countries. Seafood is the unchallenged jewel of the contemporary culinary arts, and a rich, nutritious, and accessible dietary resource for anyone who can use a fishing pole, net, or a spear.
Seafood is also running out … and faster than we might think.
Due to pollution, overfishing, illegal poaching, greed, and waste, the ocean’s naturally occurring near shore and open ocean seafood stocks are being depleted at alarming rates. Like the Earth’s oil reserves, they’re losing the footrace between ravenous human consumption and the ability to replenish themselves via natural processes. Not sure if it’s just a coincidence, but when I get in the water these days, I’ve noticed at certain locations that the reefs below me are eerily devoid of the numbers of (large) fish that used to gather there.
My daughter Malia and her Girl Scouts pals ready for their exciting shrimp farm adventure. (Photo: D. Luke)
In Hawaii, multiple generations have been raised on locally caught fish, crab, lobster, limpets, octopus, and seaweed. Per capita, we eat more seafood than any other state in the union, and probably a few small countries to boot! Over 50 million pounds are consumed annually here. You could say that food from the ocean is an integral part of the local DNA. Without it, our distinctive culture, fragile livelihoods, and crucial sustainability would surely die slow deaths.
To address the dwindling resource, man has turned to Aquaculture; the commercial scale seeding, cultivation, sale, and perpetuation of highly in-demand food species in controlled conditions. The ancient Hawaiians are credited with pioneering ocean farming, constructing effective stone and earthen walled coastal fishponds over a thousand years ago throughout the islands. They were amazing in so many ways, weren’t they? Today, species such abalone, catfish, mullet, moi, lobster, crab, shrimp, oysters, seaweed, and more are being raised commercially in Hawaii and although the costs of doing so are very high, it’s a pursuit that must carry on in lieu of the continual overharvesting of the wild reserves and to supplement what’s left in the sea.
Early in the morning, looking down on the shrimp ponds from the lanai of the Admin building. (Photo: D. Luke)
One pond of many in an expansive operation. The still surface of the water disguised the massive amounts of live shrimp stirring below it. (Photo: D. Luke)
You can’t help but notice how beautiful this part of Oahu is; very rural, very rustic, and very Hawaiian. (Photo: D. Luke)
My first paying job was as a laborer for a government contractor called the Young Adult Conservation Corps. We did all kinds of bus’-okole work, like maintaining trails in wildlife refuges, removing low scrub from US Navy landing strips on Midway so that protected Hawaiian Albatross (Gooney birds) wouldn’t nest there and get killed, and hacking down bushes to clear land for aquaculture farms in Kahuku. This last one was pure agony. I’d never perspired or bled so much in my life. But before then, I never knew anything about aquaculture. We also dragged one of the existing shrimp ponds, and again with the bleeding, because the razor sharp spires on those critters slice up your legs pretty good. But as a bonus, each of us got to take home a small bag of fresh water prawns, and they tasted so ono!
Farm guide testing the water quality. As hearty as they’re perceived to be, it’s amazing how sensitive marine animals are to artificial conditions. A failed water pump, overfeeding, too high saline content, etc. can spell doom for a potential harvest. (Photo: D. Luke)
Who wants to go first? Our guide asks for a volunteer to throw out the first net. (Photo: D. Luke)
Problem was, aside from the tasty meal, I never learned anything about the science in the course of the work. So when my daughter invited me on a guided Girl Scouts Father/Daughter outing to a Windward Oahu shrimp farming operation, I jumped at the chance to go. The day we went was cold and windy, and we got an early morning start to the tour.
Our guide showed us informational displays of their operation and samples of their products. After the short presentation, we moved in single file down the hill and onto narrow walkways between the ponds. Water quality monitoring and management were explained next, and the cost of keeping PH, saline, and algal content at proper levels. This is what makes raising seafood so technical and expensive. Even the heartiest species’ require rigorous, almost around the clock attention. Feed products, medicines, and water pump machining add to an already hefty tab as well.
Soon, the air was filled with flying nets. Here’s Malia’s first attempt. Nice throw sweetie! (Photo: D. Luke)
After the nets were pulled up and emptied on the ground, dozens of randomly flipping shrimp caused the girls to squeal in delight … and in some cases, terror! (Photo: D. Luke)
The girls were getting antsy for a chance to see the shrimp, and the guide then put us through netting techniques that are used to harvest the shrimp. After a few practice reps with the throw nets, everyone broke up into groups and got started. It was fun but messy as the retrieved nets surfaced out of the standing green water peppered with bits of slimy vegetation and kicking juvenile shrimps inside. The girls were terrified of the little buggers as they kick wildly, have lots of creepy legs, slippery bodies, long antenna, and two very sharp spikes on each end that can deliver a painful stab. So like a good Dad, I threw a few of them at the girls, making them scream and laugh! So …much …fun (well at least for me)! It was a really enjoyable and highly educational day in the most beautiful area of the island (would’ve been even better if we all got to take home a bag of free shrimp!).
Malia finally wrangled this baby, which she proudly displays here. (Photo: D. Luke)
Table-ready, commercial grade 36/40 white shrimp that didn’t have to be taken from the sea. (Photo: D. Luke)
The aquaculture industry has so many onboard benefits for Hawaii. The obvious one being that we can grow seafood without having to continually pillage the ocean or support those who do. It can also create and maintain reciprocal employment in our wilting economy, replace the receding market for Hawaiian agricultural products, and the marine biological research can break boundaries, make new discoveries, and help wild populations from becoming endangered, or worse yet, extinct. We’re also surrounded by the great Pacific, so fresh, clean, and fertile seawater is available in an almost endless supply. Someone told me that Hawaii could quickly bolster its anemic economy and create many new jobs by exporting it’s highest (literally) potential cash crop; Marijuana. Well, I don’t see that happening anytime soon, and I’m not sure that’s what Hawaii wants to be known for or get involved in. Local government keeps knocking its collective head against the agriculture and tourism wall, and maybe its time they look more seriously into investing more thought and budget in ecologically sound ocean farming.
After we were pau with the tour, it was time to go grab lunch … and what else to order but Shrimp! (Photo: D. Luke)
I’m hoping that in the near future, local grocery chains will carry much more locally raised products and mark them clearly (restaurants too) so that consumers can make them our first buy consideration. If it costs a little more, I think I’d be willing to shell out a little more if it meant keeping our fellow local folks operating and profitable. Until then, I’ll just have to keep going to neighborhood farmer’s markets and roadside stands.
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