NOAA, public discuss aquaculture expansion to deep, unregulated waters

KAILUA-KONA — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration held a meeting Wednesday evening in Kona to receive public comments and suggestions on the establishment of a federal management program for aquaculture fisheries in the exclusive economic zone around Hawaii and other Pacific islands under U.S. jurisdiction.

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KAILUA-KONA — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration held a meeting Wednesday evening in Kona to receive public comments and suggestions on the establishment of a federal management program for aquaculture fisheries in the exclusive economic zone around Hawaii and other Pacific islands under U.S. jurisdiction.

The aquaculture industry hasn’t yet established itself in the EEZ, which typically spans ocean areas between 3-200 nautical miles off of U.S. coastlines.

Only one industrial aquaculture fishery currently operates in these waters, but because of the inherent advantages of deep-sea aquaculture and its potential to help feed the ever-increasing human population, NOAA representatives are taking initiative to get ahead of the issue from a managerial standpoint.

“We do kind of expect there to be more operations and ultimately, we would like to develop a coordinated, consistent and efficient regulatory process for marine aquaculture,” said David Nichols, fishery management specialist with NOAA. “We are looking for input from the public to get a better handle on what their concerns are that we might not know or might have missed before we even start down this path.”

The management program, in simple terms, would develop a permitting process for businesses that wish to operate in the EEZ and would include regulations for environmental assessments and impact studies while also considering economic concerns.

NOAA has set an ambitious timetable, hoping to complete the program impact statement by fall, 2017. But some members of the public took issue with what they described as a hasty process with potentially destructive effects on not just Hawaii’s environment, but also its industries and people.

“Right now, they are just looking at opening up a permitting process,” said Ruth Aloua, a fish pond guardian with ancestral roots in Hawaii. “The best way to think about it is a game board where the rules are not written, but once you agree, you just agreed to play the game.

“There is too much at risk, too many unknowns. What is going to happen to our nearshore fisheries, our deep-shore fisheries, our native fish? What is the potential that could be introduced? There are too many unknowns to just open a permitting process to allow industrial aquaculture in our waters right now.”

Aloua added that proper studies take time, and the timetable proposed by NOAA doesn’t allow for an adequate opportunity to engage in the right kind of studies — studies that would make clear the environmental impact of a burgeoning industry with the potential to eventually operate on an enormous scale.

She said outside entities too often make ill-advised decisions and it’s the Hawaiian people who are left to clean up the mess, which can be a complicated, lengthy and expensive process.

“In the end, we the community are the ones who have to deal with the repercussions and hold the agency and the businesses accountable,” Aloua said.

Other opinions voiced at the meeting exposed a natural tension between sentiments that local fish should be used to feed the local population at a reasonable cost and concerns about small-boat fishermen being pushed out of the market by corporate entities.

Local fishermen, who are more price takers and less price setters, don’t want to compete with big industries that can afford to store product until the market produces a favorable price point, then flood the market and price the small fishing businesses out of operation.

At the same time, lower prices mean a better value for local consumers, many of whom feel they have an inherent right to benefit from their home’s natural resources.

Despite the concerns and complications, Kevin Kelly — a project consultant who will draft the management plan — said the environmental advantages of deep water aquaculture are readily apparent.

Kelly added that if aquaculture is to become a driving force in efforts to feed the world, the density of it on that scale would require it be done in the EEZ and not in nearshore waters. Issues of pollution are exacerbated by a higher density of operations, he explained.

“Some food does not get eaten and it falls to the bottom,” Kelly said. “Fish (defecate) and some fish will die. All that stuff turns into something you do not want washing up on your shore.”

At greater depths, the excess carbon and nitrogen from the fish feed — also known as marine snow — never reaches the ocean floor or negatively impacts reefs. Ocean currents sweep it away, and Kelly said that based on modeling, the dilution of the pollution turns it into little more than “background noise” by the time it drifts only 100 feet from an aquaculture cage.

As aquaculture is almost exclusively a near-shore process in Hawaii, issues also arise between different factions of people who wish to utilize the ocean for different purposes. Deep-sea aquaculture largely eliminates those tensions, Kelly said.

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The public scoping process will close on October 31, and the initial Draft PEIS is expected to be released in the spring of next year. There will be another public comment period and another draft in 2017 after the initial PEIS is released.

Those who wish to have their voices considered in the initial PEIS may submit comments via the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal by visiting http://www.regulations.gov/docket?D=NOAA-NMFS-2016-0111. Those submitting must then click the “Comment Now!” icon, complete the required fields and enter or attach comments.

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