KAILUA-KONA — About a half-mile offshore from Unualoha Point in North Kona, Blue Ocean Mariculture’s submersible pens are teeming with potential for what the company sees as a better way to raise seafood. 

And as the operator of the nation’s first finfish farm certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, an organization devoted to encouraging environmental sustainability and social responsibility, the company believes it’s a model for others around the country, vice president of sales David Valleau said.

“I definitely believe that Blue Ocean is an example, by our commitment to healthy fish and our oceans and our employees and our communities,” Valleau said. 

Each of Blue Ocean’s six pens, anchored to the seafloor 82 feet below, houses between 100,000 and 130,000 almaco jack, branded as Hawaiian Kanpachi. Blue Ocean’s operations also include a hatchery at Hawaii Ocean Science and Technology Park south of the Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport. Wild-caught adult fish produce eggs and the hatched fish spend three months in the hatchery growing big enough to be transferred to the offshore pens. The fish grow in the pens for another 12 months before they’re harvested.

During their year in the submersible pens, the fish swim against a consistent and temperate current of “the cleanest seawater you can find,” Valleau said, resulting in the texture and flavor that’s made the fish popular among chefs and restaurants. It’s also a fish that can be propagated in captivity — which Valleau said is rare among marine fish and the reason it was selected. It’s local to Hawaii waters, and is consistently available year-round. Blue Ocean Mariculture doesn’t use antibiotics or hormones, and the feed uses a balance of fish meal, fish oil and non-GMO grain.

“It’s a sustainable product,” Valleau said. “We can keep growing more and more of these fish without negatively impacting other ecosystems. That’s really the difference between this fish and any other protein that you buy and consume.”

The Aquaculture Stewardship Council, which certified Blue Ocean this month, was created in 2010 by the World Wildlife Fund and the Netherlands-based Sustainable Trade Initiative.

Blue Ocean Mariculture in Kailua-Kona raises almaco jack, branded locally as Hawaiian Kanpachi, in submersible net pens like this one off the coast of West Hawaii Island. Courtesy: Blue Ocean Mariculture

The council’s standards cover 17 groups of species raised in the aquaculture industry, including salmon and shrimp as well as seriola and cobia, the group that includes Hawaiian Kanpachi. As of the beginning of February, there were more than 1,300 ASC-certified farms around the world producing more than 1.7 million metric tons of food, according to Kathleen McDavitt, the council’s U.S. market development manager.

The certification process includes an audit by an independent assessor that looks at a wide array of sustainability metrics. Farms, for example, have to monitor local water quality and limit fish escapes as well as show they source their feed responsibly. Farms also have to pass muster under standards for social responsibility. That includes ensuring farms have fair labor practices and are engaged with their communities.

“For us, social responsibility is just as important as environmental responsibility,” McDavitt wrote in an email.  “Farms don’t exist in a vacuum; they exist within communities and often rely on those communities for a workforce. This is why all ASC-certified farms must demonstrate that they are good neighbors.”

Certified products can carry the ASC’s logo, which signifies that the farm and every processor along the supply chain have met the organization’s standards.

Valleau called the certification program the most robust of its kind for aquaculture.

“This is an industry that has had some black eyes and not that long ago,” he said. “So we want to not only make sure that our fish are healthy for the environment, but (that we are) also respectful of the people in the supply chain.”

The onsite audit for Blue Ocean took place in November, according to the report by SCS Global Services, which conducted the audit of Blue Ocean Maraculture. Another observation is scheduled in about a year.

Valleau said the certification process didn’t lead to any changes except in how the company documents its practices.

Elsewhere, ASC has seen more farms seeking certification when demand for sustainably-sourced fish has increased from retailers and processors.

“It’s clear that Blue Ocean is passionate about responsible farming which is definitely a big advantage,” McDavitt said. “Of course, it’s also hard to be the first and to demonstrate that it can be done and that it’s worth doing. That’s why Blue Ocean and producers like them are playing such an important role – they will encourage many more farms to follow suit.”

The fish spend about a year in offshore pens before being harvested. Courtesy: Blue Ocean Mariculture

The company is looking ahead to opportunities for growth. Valleau said the company hopes to have two more pens (it’s licensed for a total of eight) built by the end of the year. Blue Ocean has also acquired a freezer to freeze and vacuum pack fish, giving the company a chance to reach new markets, and has plans to take on more processing activities, like cutting filets, which he said will lead to adding more workers.

Valleau said the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority, which administers the HOST Park, is an example of an agency that helps support ethical growth of aquaculture.

Greg Barbour, executive director of NELHA, emphasized the recent growth in the aquaculture industry, which now accounts for more than 50% of seafood consumed worldwide. Last fall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported aquaculture sales in Hawaii hit a record high of $83.2 million in 2019– a 6% increase over sales the previous year. Finfish and shellfish, which were grouped together in the agency’s report, were valued at nearly $48 million, with the rest coming from algae and ornamental fish such as those sold for aquariums.

With the push to diversify Hawaii’s economy, Barbour said aquaculture’s continued growth suggests it can offer the state resiliency. And Blue Ocean Mariculture, he added, “is at the forefront of that” because it creates manufacturing-type jobs that aren’t common in the state.

“It’s really positive from the bigger picture perspective,” Barbour said. “So I think it’s pretty exciting.”

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About the Author

  • Cameron Miculka
    Cameron Miculka is a freelance journalist. He is a former staff journalist for West Hawaii Today in Kailua-Kona, and he has previously worked as a journalist at the Pacific Daily News in Hagatna, Guam, and the Weimar Mercury in Colorado County, Texas. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism and currently lives in Glasgow, Scotland, where he is pursuing a master's degree in Public and Urban Policy at the University of Glasgow.