Hawaii County

Proposed fish farm
off Kawaihae delayed

Community concerns prompt
Ahi Nui Tuna to prepare an EIS

By Craig Gima

A Big Island company's plans to raise and sell up to 4.4 million pounds of ahi in underwater pens off of Kawaihae have been delayed to address environmental concerns raised by two community groups.

Ahi Nui Tuna Farming LLC will conduct a full environmental impact statement on the project -- a process that will postpone the proposed start-up of the operation by nine months to a year, said Clayton Brenton, Ahi Nui's fish-farming expert.

"We're all trying to make this work for the community," he said. "The logical thing is to try to resolve the concerns."

The company is proposing to catch juvenile big-eye and yellowfin tuna and raise them until they are ready for market in underwater cages over 216 acres of ocean about four miles north of Kawaihae.

At first Ahi Nui will raise the fish in six cages 165 feet across and 60 feet deep, anchored in about 170 feet of water 1,100 to 3,800 feet from shore. If the venture is successful, the company may expand to up to 18 cages.

The operation could bring in up to $10 million a year and create 50 to 100 jobs, Brenton said.

But local fishermen and others in the area are concerned about how the project will affect the environment and their access to the ocean.

"We have a stake in the area. We live there and we fish there. What if it gets polluted? We can't just pull up our stakes and fish somewhere else," said Andy Ho, a member of the Kawaihae Fishing Association, a group of fishermen, including native Hawaiians, formed because of their concerns about the project.

"We'd like to see the Kawaihae area have something for our children and our children's children," he said.

Ho's group and another organization called Ka Makani O Kohala Ohana, composed of fishermen, divers, surfers and paddlers, have asked for a contested-case hearing over state permits needed for the project to begin operations.

The controversy is being watched closely by others involved in the fledgling open-ocean farming industry here.

"We're on the frontier here," said John Corbin, manager of the aquaculture development program in the state Department of Agriculture.

Ahi Nui's project is one of four ventures that are seeking or have gotten leases and permits to use state ocean waters for aquaculture.

Cates International already produces thousands of moi in open-ocean cages off of Ewa.

Another company, Black Pearls Inc., has gotten approval to raise oysters in waters off Honolulu Airport, and a company called Kona Blue Water Farms hopes to raise mahimahi off of the Natural Energy Lab at Keahole Point on the Big Island.

"Open-ocean leasing for aquaculture has been a new thing for Hawaii," Corbin said. "The community that cares about the ocean are going to have concerns about these projects."

Corbin says some of the issues raised about the Ahi Nui project are specific to its proposed location, while concerns about pollution have been raised over other aquaculture projects.

Ho said Ahi Nui's project is in an area where people fish for ono, mahimahi, kona crab and opelu. He has questions about the impact that fish waste and uneaten fish food will have on the fishing ground and about restrictions on access to the fishing area.

"There are some real environmental concerns that I think the public needs to be aware of before we put our wholesale stamp of approval on it and say go," said Tom Oye, a fisherman and member of Ka Makani O Kohala Ohana.

Oye is also concerned that the uneaten food and the fish will attract sharks and have an impact on dolphins.

He said the project will also be visible from the shore and could spoil what is now an unobstructed view.

Brenton said there will still be access to most of the 216 acres of ocean around the cages. He said the fish and the excess fish food will attract more fish to the area, improving the catch for local fishermen.

Because people need to be taken to and from the fish cages, Brenton says the project needs to be located within five miles of Kawaihae Harbor for it to be successful. But he said the EIS will look at the feasibility of moving the project to another area with less impact.

Brenton argues that ocean currents should keep fish and food waste from building up in the area and that there will be strict environmental monitoring.

"We're not even at one-tenth the density of the moi project off of Oahu, and they're not having any environmental impact," he said.

Based on the moi project and in changes on incidents of sharks around artificial reefs, he does not believe there will be an increase in dangerous shark activities.

The community groups say fish farms in other countries have had pollution problems, and not enough is known about how it would affect Hawaii's environment.

"The state of Hawaii, in exuberance to attract new industry, may not be adequately prepared with proper laws, proper management, proper manpower to stay ahead of this industry," Oye said.

Brenton says the environmental assessment the company completed answers some of their concerns, but Ahi Nui is willing to delay the project at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars to conduct a full EIS.

"If that's what it takes to establish a level of confidence in the community, then that's what we'll do," he said.

County of Hawaii

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