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Tech company to build deepwater fish farm prototype

July 25, 2014 - 12:05am

A fish farming technology company plans to begin construction of a huge, untethered and highly automated spherical pen for farming yellowfin and bigeye tuna off the Kohala coast.

Hawaii Oceanic Technology Inc. intends to deploy a prototype Oceansphere sometime next year, and contractors are working to finalize the design for the skeleton of the 180-foot wide geodesic sphere, HOTI’s CEO Bill Spencer said.

The deepwater pen will be capable of holding 1,000 tons of ahi at a depth of 1,300 feet. Fish grow faster in deep ocean settings, have fewer parasites and better food conversion ratios, according to the company.

HOTI officials don’t yet know how many of the spheres they will build.

“That depends on how well (the first one) goes,” Spencer said. “Our goal is to develop a new, environmentally responsible way to raise tuna in deep waters.”

The company received its final permit from the Army Corps of Engineers last year in a plan to build up to 12 of the spheres in a 247-acre area about three miles off of Malae Point near Kawaihae. The site is under a 35-year lease from the state.

The company will be the first to raise the fish from egg to harvest size, Spencer said.

The project, whose cost Spencer pegged at several million dollars, will employ an automated feeding system and a series of thrusters to keep the sphere stationary. A network of sensors will provide constant data on water quality, as requested by the Environmental Protection Agency, Spencer said.

Some residents remain hostile to the project. About 1,700 people signed a petition opposing the farm, and in 2012, 400 people wrote letters to the state Board of Land and Natural Resources opposing extensions of construction deadlines that the board granted while the company waited for clearance from the Corps of Engineers.

Thursday, Diane Kanealii of the Kailapa Community Association in Kawaihae said the North Kohala coast is a fish replenishment area and whale sanctuary, and worried that waste pollution from the farm would damage the ecosystem.

“The bottom line is the benefit does not outweigh the risks, no matter what kind of fish they plan to grow,” Kanealii said in an email. “The current fish farms brag of great success, but what have the locals seen in the way of greater fish in the market or more affordable fish supply? How many jobs have they created?”

Rob Parsons, a former Hawaii Islands consultant with Food &Water Watch, said the project amounts to “a factory feedlot in our ocean.”

“This type of industrial use of our shared natural resources has had a mixed track record, both environmentally and economically,” said Parsons, who is currently the Maui County environmental coordinator.

Spencer said the project is environmentally sound and located outside the whale sanctuary. To raise cattle in a quantity to match the protein producing capability of one sphere would require thousands of acres of range land and more than a billion gallons of water, he said. Additionally, by raising tuna from the egg, the system does not deplete wild stocks by capturing and fattening immature wild fish as is the practice elsewhere, he said.

Once assembly of the sphere is completed, it will be deployed and tested in the water for six month before it is stocked, Spencer said. It takes about 18 months to grow the fish to market size, so the earliest harvest would be in late 2017.

“When fully operational, we will limit our sale into Hawaii at 600 tons a year, because we don’t want to compete with local fishermen,” Spencer said.

Instead, the company plans to expand its patented technology into the global market. HOTI expects the demand for open ocean fish farming equipment to be a $75 billion market by 2020 as worldwide demand for seafood outstrips supply.

Rather than focusing on fish production initially, Spencer said, the launch is all about fine-tuning the technology.