Kona Blue ventures into federal waters

The “future of sustainable aquaculture” was unveiled to the public on Monday as Kona Blue Water Farms presented what it calls “revolutionary” technological advances in offshore fish farming.

Kona Blue is the first company to attain a one-year federal permit to farm fish in the United States’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which extends from three to 200 miles offshore. In the waters off the west coast of Hawaii’s Big Island, Kona is raising its sashimi-grade kampachi in unanchored, spherical net pens called Aquapods that are being towed by tender vessels from site to site in powerful eddies to reduce the environmental impact of its operations.

Kona Blue co-founder Neil Sims said during a webinar teleconference that the Velella Project, which has been conducted partly at the Natural Energy Lab of Hawaii in Kailua-Kona, where Kona Blue is based, is thus far a success. Kampachi have been growing out in the unanchored pens for about a month. Mortality rates are very low (0.25 percent) and the fish are “eating vigorously and growing well,” said Sims. “The drifting concept is working but there’s a lot more to learn here.”

The Velella Project is very much still in the experimental stage. Sims said ramping this technology up to a commercially viable scale will take “millions of dollars” in investments, continued support and commitment from the federal government and assistance from key stakeholders. The project has been funded by several corporations and organizations, including Lockheed Martin, Ocean Farm Technologies (the Aquapod manufacturer), the International Copper Association and the Illinois Soybean Association, among others.

“We’re excited not for one research project, but for growth in an industry and to work toward sustainable solutions,” said Sims.

But Kona Blue — and Kampachi Farms, the newly formed company that is handling the technology side of the business — appears to have the support it needs, at least for the time being. Eric Schwaab, the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Fisheries Service, issued a statement that said aquaculture is a “critical component” for meeting increasing consumer demand for healthy and sustainable seafood.

“This is precisely the type of science-based technology” that NOAA’s National Marine Aquaculture Policy and Aquaculture Technology Transfer Initiative, both announced this summer, called for, said Schwaab. “What we learn here will inform other projects.”

Much of the discussion during Monday’s media event centered on Kampachi Farms’ work in reformulating its fish feed to reduce the dependence on wild sources of fishmeal. The company has proven that it can raise a carnivorous species with consistently decreasing amounts of fishmeal and fish oil, but it is still struggling to keep its kampachi on the market for sustained periods of time. The fish was unavailable from roughly November 2009 to May 2010, and Kona Blue’s website currently notifies visitors that the fish is out of stock.

Still, the fact that NOAA issued the permit for this project is important. Perhaps the largest reason why the United States has not caught up to the rest of the world in terms of aquaculture production is the extremely ambiguous permitting system in place and the layers of government — local, state and federal — that operators must navigate. In fact, Sims said that obtaining the permit was the most challenging aspect of the Velella Project.

“And the concern going forward is the permit pathway,” said Sims. “If you make it available, they will come. Entrepreneurs will come and make investments. American entrepreneurs realize an opportunity when they see one. The biggest constraint we hear from them is, ‘Will we be allowed to scale this [up]? How can we be sure that we can build an industry here?’”

Editor’s note: For an in-depth look at the National Marine Aquaculture Policy and what it means for finfish farming in U.S. waters, check out the cover story of the September issue of SeaFood Business magazine, which will be available soon. 


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