Nomilo Fishpond on Kauai’s south shore has been stewarded by generations of the same Hawaiian family since Philip Palama purchased it more than a century ago.

kauai locator badgeNaturally formed when a dormant volcanic caldera filled up with water, the pond has seen several iterations since Palama fished its brackish waters at a time when a meal of ulua, mullet or oysters could be gathered in minutes.

In 1989, Palama’s granddaughter Lynn Maile Taylor and her husband Thayne say they secured the first state license to grow shellfish in Hawaii and began to convert the fishpond into what they hoped could be a viable business. In its first version, Kauai Sea Farm harvested and sold shellfish to local chefs.

But the couple’s novel business ambitions soon collapsed. In 1992, Hurricane Iniki’s 145-mile-per-hour winds inundated the 60-acre property with debris, clogging critical seawater channels that attract fish into the pond, circulate the water and help keep the ecosystem clean.

For over 20 years the pond was stagnant. Choked by poor water quality and invasive mangrove, the health of the once-pristine aquaculture system deteriorated into a sludge that could support very little marine life until a new generation of Nomilo heirs cleared rocks and logs from its channels, slowly bringing the fishpond back to life.

Now the Taylors are pushing to be among the first to prove that an ancient Hawaiian aquaculture system can turn a profit in modern markets, a mission that’s giving their shellfish business a second act of reinvention.

The privately owned Nomilo Fishpond stood stagnant for decades following the devastation of Hurricane Iniki in 1992. But in recent years the family that stewards the fishpond has brought it back to good health as part of a unique plan to morph the cultural resource into a profitable seafood business. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022

“Most Hawaiian fishponds are nonprofits that are pretty much living off of grants. And we’re a commercial business,” said Lynn Maile Taylor, who, with her husband Thayne, is resurrecting the Kauai Sea Farm brand name to sell oysters and clams to chefs and consumers.

“It’s kind of a big responsibility, owning a Hawaiian fishpond — and it’s expensive,” she explained. “We want to pass this on to the next generation and the next generation but it gets harder and harder as more people get involved. My vision has always been to find a way so that it can support itself financially.”

It’s an unusual direction for the stewards of a Hawaiian fishpond to take.

Hawaii GrownGrant money is the dominant funding source for most of the dozens of active fishpond restoration projects underway across the state. Many of these projects are powered by volunteers who’ve established a nonprofit to facilitate the grant-writing process.

But this episodic revenue model poses disadvantages to the longevity of fishpond preservation projects, said Brenda Asuncion, who coordinates a network of more than 50 fishpond restoration projects, including Nomilo Fishpond, through the Oahu-based nonprofit Kuaaina Ulu Auamo.

A burst of grant money can be critical to jumpstart a fishpond restoration project, but it can be difficult to secure dedicated, longterm workers when an organization relies on a revenue stream with a ticking expiration date. Grant management can also be burdensome for small organizations.

“I think folks sometimes seriously wonder whether the nonprofit model is a longterm option for fishponds,” Asuncion said. “I think a lot of this generation and the younger generation would like to make a livelihood doing fishpond work and want to see opportunities or pathways for them to be able to do that. This commercial venture (at Nomilo) is an example of people trying something new.”

Dave Anderson, Kauai Sea Farm’s science officer and production manager, handles a sea cucumber that’s part of an experiment to see if the company can successfully build a commercial hatchery to propagate sea cucumbers and sell them as an export product to China and Japan. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022

Dave Anderson, Kauai Sea Farm’s science officer and production manager, underscored the company’s intent to preserve the integrity of Nomilo Fishpond as a feat of early Hawaiian engineering while making it financially self-sustaining.

“It’s expensive to maintain the fishpond from a tax side of things and it’s super expensive to maintain it as a functioning fishpond, so there has to be a middle ground somewhere between full commercialization and cultural preservation,” Anderson said. “All the grants are based on the idea that you’re restoring something that’s going to improve food security. But unless there is actual large-scale food production it’s going to be hard to continue to make a case for that source of funding.”

There’s only one other Hawaiian fishpond that’s pursuing commercial viability: Kualoa Ranch’s Molii Fishpond on Oahu.

The 800-year-old fishpond provides the ranch a revenue stream from weekly direct-to-consumer sales of about 8,000 oysters.

Oysters were originally recruited as a tool to clean up the fishpond’s water quality. Now, along with Nomilo, Molii is one of only two Hawaiian fishponds permitted by state health regulators to sell oysters used to clean pond algae as a food product.

The fishpond is also a stop on the ranch’s $52-per-head Aloha Aina Tour, which educates people about early Hawaiian aquaculture practices. It can be rented for upwards of $3,295 a day as the serene backdrop to one of the ranch’s popular wedding venues. And it’s a place where culture is put into practice by ranch employees and volunteer groups who help upkeep the fishpond by removing invasive fish and plants.

In all of these ways, the fishpond contributes to the ranch’s profitability, but it’s not easy to tease out whether the fishpond alone, without the other business components, generates a profit, said Taylor Kellerman, director of diversified agriculture and land stewardship at Kualoa Ranch.

Although the pond has become an important part of the ranch’s business plan, Kellerman said it’s valued as a treasure of early Hawaiian ingenuity and as an environmentally sustainable resource as much as a revenue generator.

“I think in the beginning it raised some eyebrows because it was different,” Kellerman said of the ranch’s decision to build the fishpond into the business plan. “But we chose to do it in a way that I think you can’t really frown upon. I think if you were to put commercialism above good stewardship, that’s different. But if something is to perpetuate, it needs to support itself. So in that sense I think the ability to have a business plan around it should be applauded.”

Nomilo Fishpond has several underwater and above-ground channels that connect the pond to the ocean — a vital link for the health of the brackish water ecosystem. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022

Since Kauai Sea Farm’s 2018 reboot, a variety of government grants have helped the Taylors hire a scientist, improve the pond’s water quality and invest in business plans to sustainably raise, harvest and process shellfish.

The company’s goal is to wean off the grant money that’s so far been essential to restarting the business. By the end of this year, Kauai Sea Farm is poised to start selling clams, and possibly oysters, to local restaurants. Anderson said he predicts the business will be able to produce and sell about 1,000 clams per week.

It’s more difficult to forecast the company’s future oyster production.

Last year a devastating outbreak of mud blister worms, an invasive parasite that infests oyster shells, killed nearly all the oysters in the fishpond — about a quarter million of them — within a few months.

The pest appears to be gone. But Anderson said he’s not taking any chances on another major setback.

He’s also not willing to abandon oysters as a revenue stream. Before its entire oyster harvest died off, Kauai Sea Farm had been selling small quantities of oysters at a wholesale price of $1.30 a piece, Anderson said.

So the company has pivoted to a land-based, solar-powered oyster farming system built on the banks of the fishpond. Growing oysters this way gives the company more control over the size and shape of its oysters — characteristics important to the product’s value and marketability — and it eliminates the threat of the mud blister worm, should the pest return.

“It’s just very difficult to let go of the idea of growing oysters because there’s this huge market for direct-to-consumer sales,” Anderson said. “Even restaurants, when they buy them from the mainland, the cost of shipping really inflates the price because they can’t be shipped frozen, they have to be shipped raw. So if we’re able to produce them in high quantities then we should be able to match that mainland price and provide a fresher product.”

Other experiments underway could someday yield new cash crops. For example, the company is trying to develop a native species of sea cucumber as a potential high-value food export product. There’s insatiable demand for sea cucumber as a delicacy in China and Japan, where a single animal can fetch a farm gate price upwards of $5, according to Anderson.

Sea cucumbers have another important role in the fledgling aquaculture business. In the wild, they ingest sediment on the sea floor, consuming algae and expelling filtered sediment back out onto the ocean bottom. Putting them into a fishpond could have a restorative effect on the entire ecosystem.

“Even though sea cucumbers are a strange product, I don’t think there’s a single aquaculture company in Hawaii that doesn’t focus primarily on an export product to make their profit,” Anderson said. “I just think that eventually fishponds have to start actually producing stuff or the argument to restore them for food security is not really going to last.”

“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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