Canadian company plans
Big Isle butterfish farm

The venture to raise black cod is
getting its financing in place

By Craig Gima

In a little more than two years, a favorite island delicacy -- miso butterfish -- may be available from fresh coldwater black cod raised on an aquaculture farm in the lava fields near Kona.

A Canadian company has received approvals to raise black cod, also known as butterfish or sablefish, at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii's ocean science and technology park off Keahole Point. If the rest of its financing falls into place, it could begin operations by early summer.

Black cod thrive in waters near Alaska and in the North Atlantic where temperatures are near freezing. But sunny Kona has deep, cold ocean water pumped up from 2,000 feet below the surface into the NELHA technology park. The water's constant 43-degree temperature and relative purity from contamination make it ideal for cold-water aquaculture, said Don MacQuarrie, who with partner Ian Shand is putting the sablefish research venture together.

"It (NELHA) is a real jewel," MacQuarrie said. "I'm amazed that is not more fully committed to people in the aquaculture industry."

MacQuarrie and Shad also hope to raise Atlantic halibut, another cold-water species, at NELHA in a related venture.

MacQuarrie said that catch limits for the black cod fishery have been decreasing in the United States and the supply of fish goes down in the winter because of rougher seas. The halibut fishery is also closed part of the year.

The Hawaii venture could provide a stable, year-round supply of fresh black cod and halibut. The location is also close to the Kona Airport, where a 747 leaves almost daily for Japan, a prime market for fresh fish. MacQuarrie said they hope to sell the fish to local restaurants, in Japan and on the West Coast.

Alan Wong of Alan Wong's Restaurant said he thinks the project could be successful if the fish is priced right.

"I think the black cod would be immediately accepted," he said. "For locals, that's like an immediate hit."

While halibut has been farmed successfully for years, raising black cod in commercial fish farms is new and still in the research stage, MacQuarrie said.

Initially, plans for the $5 million black cod venture call for bringing in juvenile cod weighing about 4 grams. In about 26 months, the fish should grow to about 8.5 pounds and be ready for market.

The company, Unlimited Aquaculture Corp., is hoping to eventually provide 300 tons of black cod a year.

The halibut venture, Unlimited Halibut Corp., is trying to raise $14 million. Plans call for it to start with about 25,000 juvenile fish and, over several years, increase production from about 100 tons to 1,000 tons of fish annually.

The black cod farm at full production would create eight to 10 full-time and some part-time jobs, while the halibut operation may create up to 22 jobs, according to the entrepreneurs.

Fish farming has faced opposition from commercial fishermen in Alaska, who fear that the availability of large quantities of farmed fish may lower prices, and from environmentalists, concerned about open-ocean farms.

The land-based operation in Keahole would avoid problems with fish waste because the waste would be recovered and turned into soil supplements or fertilizer, MacQuarrie said.

In addition, even if the fish were to escape, they couldn't survive in warm water.

"The last thing we want to do is foul our own nest," MacQuarrie said. "There's nothing in there that's harmful, and it's not going back into the environment."

MacQuarrie also hopes that opposition to the project from Alaskan fisherman won't be a significant problem in Hawaii.

He cited the "very, very positive attitude toward aquaculture at NELHA and in Hawaii" as one of the reasons the company wants to locate here. "It (aquaculture) is an economic generator that will sort of augment the tourist industry."

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