Thursday, August 5, 1999

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Chris Kelley, above left, and Aaron Moriwake look for eggs released
by the captured fish, below, in the hatchery. The researchers from the
University of Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology's Coconut Island
facility are attempting to replenish the population of
endangered ehu and opakapaka.

Egg breakthrough
big step in restoring
bottomfish populations

UH marine biologists say
ehu have spawned in a hatchery
for the first time

By Helen Altonn


For the first time known anywhere, snappers have spawned in a hatchery at Coconut Island -- advancing efforts to save Hawaii's endangered bottomfish.

University of Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology researchers so far have found eggs in their tanks from three ehu.

"They're not fertilized, so we're going to have to figure out what to do about the males," said Chris Kelley, who is leading a program to try to rebuild the prized bottomfish populations.

He wants to see what the males do on their own. Otherwise Kelly may encourage them with "a few tricks" that he learned in 10 years at the Oceanic Institute.

"If there's a block, we can inject the males with hormones," he said.

Meanwhile, he said, "It's very exciting just getting eggs in the first place."

"It's fantastic -- it's never been done before," said the institute's interim director, E. Gordon Grau, who oversees the project in his Laboratory of Fish Endocrinology and Environmental Physiology.

Kelley said the ehu is the first snapper and one of few, if not the first, bottomfish to spawn in hatchery conditions.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources is funding efforts to save the endangered fishery as part of Gov. Ben Cayetano's "Ocean State" Initiative.

"Everybody came together on this," Grau said, pointing out that scientists, fishermen and state, federal and private agencies are involved.

Ehu and onaga are down to 3 percent to 5 percent of their 1995 adult spawning populations, and opakapaka stocks are reaching that plight.

Kelley began the project with numerous obstacles: "How to bring them up alive? How to keep them alive? How to get them feeding and see if the large ones will go through the natural reproductive cycle?"

He said they're getting better at collecting the deep-ocean fish, with 70 percent to 80 percent survival rates.

They've had trouble keeping onaga alive in the hatchery, but ehu and opakapaka are doing well, he said. The ehu are in cold-water tanks, the opakapaka in offshore cages.

Kelley credits research associate Aaron Moriwake for the successes. "He's accomplishing all of this while I'm out on the boat. He is one of the most knowledgeable people in spawning and maturing," Kelley said.

Moriwake experimented to try to provide compatible water temperatures, light and other conditions for the deep-ocean snappers.

He said ehu do best in water about 59 degrees Fahrenheit, close to the temperature at 1,000 feet where they were collected.

Kelley is optimistic about more ehu spawning activity. While no eggs have been fertilized, he said, "This is only the beginning -- the (reproductive) cycle continues through October."

The HIMB lab will share any fertilized eggs with the Oceanic Institute and DLNR's Anuenue Fisheries Research Center. It's hoped at least one of the three facilities will find a way to keep them alive, Kelley said.

The UH researchers are trying to raise 46 opakapaka to breeding size in hopes they'll reproduce. They were collected as juveniles in nursery grounds 250 feet deep and are swimming in cages in ocean water next to the laboratory.

What's fun for him, Kelley said, is going into the cages underwater to help with cleaning. "It's sort of like swimming with opakapaka. Who would have ever thought?

"Those are our babies," he said. "After so many problems with popeyes, to see these guys swimming around in good condition is a joy to us."

The "popeyes" are fish that have bulging eyes because of a gas bubble disease. "We have it a little bit with ehu, not as much as opaka," Moriwake said. "We don't have enough onaga as yet to tell."

Kelley said the condition can occur when the fish are brought up from deep water or even a month later, perhaps from hitting the tanks or cages or from conditions in the water.

"They're sort of startled when they're brought up," he said. "Their air bladder is quite expanded and their stomach is outside." He said researchers pop the stomach with a hypodermic needle to deflate it.

The Anuenue station was given some opaka and had the same popeye problems, but less so in net pens than in tanks, Kelley said. "If we can solve that one, we feel we can make some headway."

Kelley uses two privately owned boats, the Hookupu and Searcher, and the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory's submersible Pisces V for his program.

Besides collecting fish, he's surveying bottomfish sites and gathering ecological and habitat data for use by the DLNR's Aquatic Resources Division in managing the troubled fishery.

He has explored sites off Maui and Kauai and left Friday in the Searcher to work several weeks off the Big Island.

He is planning six submersible dives next year in the Palolo Channel between Molokai and Maui.

Kelley is looking for nursery areas and information on what fish live at various deep ocean sites, what they're feeding on and what fish are interacting with them.

"There are still a lot of problems we have to overcome," he said. "Say we get fertilized eggs. Then what? We have to figure out how to incubate and hatch them and raise them up to a size we could potentially release.

"The main thing is we're a little further along in possibly acquiring a tool for producing small fish for release."

If they could produce several thousand juveniles, the fish could be tagged and released to learn about their movement patterns, Kelley said.

"That may be one of the biggest advances if we succeed. We could learn a lot about the fish."

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