Some senators say moving aquaculture to another state agency is the answer. Others say it’s about providing the necessary resources.

The Legislature may give the embattled Agribusiness Development Corp. oversight of aquaculture, seen as a linchpin in Hawaii’s evolving agricultural economy following the plantation era.

Aquaculture is already one of the most lucrative agricultural sectors in the state, having tripled in size over the past three decades to $90 million last year. If the current growth rate continues, it could be worth just shy of $600 million by 2034, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Legislators see this potential and have been meeting with industry insiders to figure out how best to support the sector’s growth.

Kanpachi grown by Blue Ocean Mariculture, which sits offshore of Kona, spend about a year in offshore pens before being harvested. (Courtesy: Blue Ocean Mariculture)

Industry leaders expounded on aquaculture’s promise and pointed out bottlenecks Thursday during an informational briefing held by the Senate Water and Land and Agriculture and Environment committees.

Lawmakers have conveyed their concerns over DOA not paying enough attention to the industry’s exponential growth, locally and globally, saying it should be moved to the ADC, which now falls under the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

Fish, mollusk, bivalve and algae farmers face a complex web of federal and state regulations overseen by different agencies, but the DOA has led the industry’s oversight in Hawaii.

Sen. Glenn Wakai, a vocal proponent of aquaculture, said the DOA has held aquaculture back by clinging onto plantation-era notions that terrestrial agriculture will somehow fulfill Hawaii’s perennial food production goals by itself.

He pointed out how the DOA branch that oversees aquaculture holds just six of the department’s 320 total positions. 

“If the Department of Agriculture is going to be reluctant to see the value of aquaculture, then put it in someone else’s area of responsibility,” Wakai said in an interview. “We need to get moving. We cannot just cross our fingers.”

The DOA, however, does not want to let go of aquaculture, and many fish farmers are reluctant to shift to the ADC.

‘It’s A Policy Call’

The notion of moving aquaculture from DOA to ADC arose in two separate Senate bills last year, introduced by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz and Sen. Lorraine Inouye. 

At the time, former ADC Executive Director James Nakatani told lawmakers that the move was a Senate initiative, a “policy call” proposed purely to “move aquaculture forward.”

Sen. Donovan Del Cruz has raised the issue of aquaculture at several Senate Ways and Means Committee meetings. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2024)

Some in the industry were lukewarm on the prospect, instead concerned about the resources that were extended to the program.

Nakatani died less than a month after testifying in front of the House committee, leaving a hole in the embattled but well-funded state corporation. 

Both bills failed to pass last year but will be revived this session, which opened Wednesday.

Dela Cruz, who has long supported the ADC, still has aquaculture in his sights. At a Jan. 8 legislative briefing, he scolded the DOA for its inaction with aquaculture. 

The argument is that the ADC would be better suited to promote aquaculture than the DOA, which some argue has simply become a regulatory agency. 

“Why have the division if we’re not going to do anything?” Dela Cruz said at the briefing. “Maybe we should be moving aquaculture to ADC if that’s where we’re going to see movement.”

Traditional Hawaii fishponds, such as the Heeia pond, are an integral part of what many in aquaculture see as a prosperous future for fish farming. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018)

The ADC has its own problems, having been subject to a blistering audit in 2021 and losing its longtime executive director last year. 

But to Ron Weidenbach, president of the Hawaii Aquaculture and Aquaponics Association, the problem is not which agency has custody of aquaculture but what resources that agency has to put toward the industry and its growth.

“You have to invest in it to make it flourish and grow but they’re not doing so,” Weidenbach said.  

  • ‘Hawaii Grown’ Special Series

Weidenbach was among several who testified against the bills last year and still believes the DOA should oversee the industry.

Elevating the industry within the state would be a start, according to Jim Wyban, father of Hawaii’s shrimp broodstock industry, whose annual exports are valued at $30 million.

Limu lepe-o-Hina is grown in tanks at Waikolua Loko Ia in Kaneohe, something that could be part of a growing aquaculture economy. (Courtesy: Hawaii Sea Grant/2022)

“A department or division, that’s to be argued by the bureaucrats,” Wyban said in an interview. “But it’s still — at this point — a poor step-child.”

Bob Endreson of Kohala Mountain Fish Co. said he feels that promotion and marketing should be separated from regulation because they naturally conflict: DOA can regulate and ADC should promote. 

“You can’t be a servant for two masters,” Endreson said.

The DOA has recently begun work on a memorandum of understanding among the various agencies that deal with aquaculture to make all their roles clear.

That process started “a couple of days ago,” Ag Director Sharon Hurd told lawmakers Thursday, adding that DOA would retain aquaculture specific to food production.

Catching The Wave

Leveraging the worldwide momentum of aquaculture could be a game-changer for the state’s agricultural sector. It could help Hawaii get closer to achieving its food production goals and contribute meaningfully to the economy.

Algae is already one of Hawaii’s most valuable crops by itself, worth $45.4 million in 2022. That’s more than macadamia nuts and papaya combined.

Senator Glenn Wakai listens to testimony during a Senate Ways and Means Committee meeting Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023, in Honolulu. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Sen. Glenn Wakai has been a proponent of aquaculture. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

DOA aquaculture and livestock support services manager Todd Low laid out just over $11 million in projects that lawmakers could support, such as scoping state lands for sites for aquaculture production.

For native seaweeds alone, it could mean that Hawaii takes a slice of an industry the World Bank forecasts will be worth $11.8 billion by 2030.

“If Hawaii can harness its growing conditions and ramp up its production of seaweeds, we would hopefully be able to take part in this global industry,” Low said.

He estimated the industry’s worth locally would reach close to $600 million by 2034, which other industry insiders agreed was a conservative estimate at the Thursday briefing.

“At this point, aquaculture will eclipse the output of agriculture,” Wakai said at the briefing. “Maybe we should consider the ‘Department of Aquaculture’ and have ag as a division within that?”

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

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