Sunfish, also known as tilapia, have a texture like goatfish and a mild taste that goes well with sauces, says hatchery manager Ernest Kaneshiro. Photo by Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin

Waianae Valley
residents foresee swimming results
from aquaculture project

Families will gain business skills, a sense of community, and maybe even make a little money on the side as the effort gears up for expansion

By June Watanabe

Deep in Waianae Valley, almost at the base of the Waianae Mountains, lay nine scraggly, overgrown acres that may very well hold the economic dreams of a community.

On this dry, former sugar plantation land, residents will be given a chance to raise thousands of food fish - mainly sunfish, otherwise known as tilapia - in up to 125 wooden tanks. It's the latest step in an 8-year-old project to help Waianae residents become economically self-sufficient in their own neighborhoods.

The Integrated Aquaculture/Agriculture Park is a spinoff of the one-tank backyard aquaculture project launched in the late 1980s by the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Alternative Development Corp.

Beyond tilapia, the plan is to expand to other fish, such as catfish, as well as aquatic plants, hydroponically grown vegetables, and such land-based "cultural" crops as taro, hala, medicinal plants and ti leaves.

"The (backyard aquaculture) project came out of the struggle over development of West Beach (Ko Olina Resort)," explained Puanani Burgess, director of the WCCADC. The Waianae community had opposed development of the West Beach area of the Ewa Plain. But in 1987, a truce was reached, with community leaders agreeing not to block development if the developer "respected the concerns of the community."

Part of the agreement included a settlement of $375,000, of which $150,000 went to develop the aquaculture program. The state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism funded another $525,000, split between the aquaculture project and a cultural learning center, also in Waianae Valley.

Until then, "economic development was a dirty word because only developers did that," Burgess recalled. "But people began to understand that if you didn't take hold of economic development, all you do is put Band-Aids on wounds."

The aquaculture project is the kind of "grassroots-controlled economic development" that incorporates "the values, resources and culture of a particular community," said Lynn Maunakea, manager of DBEDT's community economic development program. "The community might not be geographical. It could be an ethnic or economic-based community."

Other examples include the Waiahole Poi Factory, where community members share use of a commercial kitchen and a marketplace in Hana, being developed as a venue for small businesses in the tiny Maui community, Maunakea said.

The WCCADC itself is "really a new way of thinking of what communities are powerful enough to do," Burgess said. "It's not just doing human services, but developing economic strategies."

The nonprofit agency, which receives most of its funding from the U.S. Administration for Native Americans, reached agreement in April with the state Department of Agriculture to pay $5,000 a year for the nine-acre aquaculture/agriculture park.

By sometime next year, the plan is to move all hatchery operations - based at WCCADC's three-acre site next to Waianae District Park - into the park and to build a facility manager's house there.

The 28 families in the backyard aquaculture project will have first crack at setting up tanks in the park, although details have to be worked out, Burgess said.

A portion of the park also will be set aside for "landless families," including those in public housing or recently on welfare. "We want to get the project down to people (two-parent families) who need supplemental income," she said.

The whole thrust is to give residents a chance to grow their own food, develop skills to run a business and create a stronger sense of community, she said.

For families already involved, a second spinoff will be the formation of an organization to completely take over the backyard operations. It's called "Owning our Sweat," said WCCADC president Kaohu Seto. "Right now we're in the weaning process."

"Since they do the work, they should own it all," Burgess said.

With just one 2,000-gallon tank, families are able to raise 300 one- to 11/2-pound fish for sale every six months. The families pay for their tanks, buy the "fingerlings" (baby fish) at cost from WCCADC and are responsible for upkeep and operations.

The baby fish are distributed when they reach a size of about six inches, said hatchery manager Ernest Kaneshiro. They are then returned to WCCADC to be sold. The families can keep up to 25 percent of the fish for personal use or to give away. Residents keep the profits, less 25 percent to cover the agency's costs of maintenance, marketing, administration and the like, Kaneshiro said.

At this level, none of the families is making much money. Even Leonard Olson, a Honolulu Fire Department captain, said the 11 tanks he has is not enough to generate much of a profit.

But one tank is enough to provide families with some fish to eat, steady supplemental income and a sense of empowerment.

Liz and Clinton Coelho were drawn to the project because it was something "we could work together on as a family," said Liz Coelho, 47, a paraprofessional aide for Kamehameha Schools preschools.

Hatchery manager Ernest Kaneshiro checks a fish tank at the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Alternative Development Corp.'s three-acre site.
Photo by Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin

In 2-1/2 years, the 2,000-gallon tank that sits in their well-manicured backyard has taught the family - Liz; Clint, a federal police officer; and their three daughters, ages 9, 12 and 24 - not only about raising fish, but about working together as a family and with other families.

The Coelhos plan to add another tank this summer, then expand in to the aquaculture park.

For now, backyard aquaculture is a simple way for his family to earn extra income, said Kalei Wilbur, 25, who owns a Dave's Ice Cream franchise in Waianae. But "a lot of people have been bugging us to sell (the fish), so there are a lot of opportunities," he said.

Among those involved are his sister, Kai Wilbur, 26; and their brother, Pono Maukaula, 13. "We want to teach him some responsibility," Kai said.

At 64, George Arakaki is a retired construction worker and all-around community "treasure," according to Burgess. He also has become an expert on one-tank aquaculture, taking on the project 21/2 years ago because he wanted his son, daughter-in-law and grandkids, who live with him, "to get interested in something."

Olson, 45, got his first tank four years ago with more of an eye on a business venture than Arakaki. He already was growing crown flowers, ginger and plumeria on his Nanakuli homestead and selling to florists and lei stands when he decided he needed something to fall back on in case the market for his blooms dried up.

"He's one of our success stories," Burgess said, especially since Olson uses the nutrient-rich tank water to irrigate his fields, producing "bigger, nicer flowers."

"If I had understood it better in the beginning, I would have built the tanks higher so it could water all my fields," he said.

With his wife and daughters helping out, "It's not hard work," he said. "The only limiting thing is land and getting the babies to raise."

But to make raising fish profitable, he really needs 24 to 28 tanks. Olson himself has the property to expand, but for others, expansion now will be possible through the aquaculture park.

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