Oysters to tilapia, Hawaii grows 'em

More than 600 hundred years ago, fish farming was a way of life here. Today, it appears likely to be Hawaii's way of the future.

When Captain Cook first landed on this lush, exotic island in 1778, Hawaiians were cultivating some 360 fish ponds - a total of 6,000 acres that produced about 2 million pounds of fish a year.

Although only a few of those ponds now remain, aquaculture - with a boost from modern technology - is in the midst of a comeback here. It has become one of the state's fastest-growing industries, with the promise of growing into a multi-million dollar business.

Much of the state's harvest of seafood will end up in restaurants and in the gourmet sections of supermarkets. However, a small but potentially significant part of it is made up of low-cost, high-protein fish that could help allay the food problems of third-world countries.

Last year, 40 fish farms growing prawns, shrimps, oysters, tilapia (an African freshwater fish that resembles the sunfish), and several other species, accounted for sales of $1.7 million - 10 times greater than the total sold just five years earlier. It is this year and the next, however, that are expected to be crucial ones for modern aquaculture's future in Hawaii. During this time approximately half-a-dozen major fish farming projects in the state are expected to move from the experimental to the commercial stages.

''It will be tremendously important for those of us here in Hawaii,'' sums up Richard Fassler, information specialist for the state's Aquaculture Development Program (ADP). ''So many operations have not yet been proven on a large commercial scale. It's like the difference between raising tomatoes in your backyard and running a 100-acre tomato farm.

''In 1982-83, many pilot projects will be reaching the stage where we will be able to ascertain their commercial feasibility,'' he continues. ''If even some of those succeed, it will be very good for aquaculture in Hawaii.''

Hawaii has worked hard at developing aquaculture, with an eye toward diversifying its economy away from an overwhelming dependence on tourism. It's an effort that has the approval of local residents. A 1981 poll showed that Hawaiians ranked aquaculture just behind diversifed agriculture and scientific research as industries the state should promote.

In 1977, the state Legislature established the ADP, which acts as an information resource, guides potential investors through the bureaucratic steps of permits and regulations, targets prime aquaculture land throughout the state, and acts as an all-around cheerleader for aquaculture. ADP's Fassler estimates that requests for information come in at the rate of a half dozen each week, with inquiries from all across the country and the world.

Although prawn farming has been the mainstay of Hawaiian aquaculture, the industry now boasts a wide range of ''crops.'' Among the major projects on which the state is pinning its aquaculture hopes are an oyster farm that is producing 250,000 oysters for market each month; and a three-acre shrimp farm which, when expanded to its planned 100-acre capacity, is expected to produce 65,000 pounds of shrimp tails per acre each year.

One of the most interesting major projects, however, is here on Kauai, where farmers at Astro-Marine Industries are hoping to produce 6 million to 7 million pounds of tilapia per year.

What makes Astro-Marine unusual is the fact that, unlike the overwhelming majority of aquaculture enterprises in Hawaii, the fish it is growing is not a luxury seafood. It is a relatively cheap fish which Westerners consider to be a ''junk'' fish. But it's very popular in third-world countries.

''We've experimented with the breed to prove the point that you can provide low-cost, high-yield protein,'' says Glen Goodson, facility engineer. ''Selling fish is not our end goal. It's to make a turnkey system that can be replicated in the third world.''

Already, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia have expressed an interest in buying Astro-Marine's technology, which is on the cutting edge of its field. Besides slashing tilapia's growth rate from a maturing time of 18 months in the wild to 16 weeks under farming conditions, the company has developed a strain of tilapia that is gold in color - a significant achivement because tilapia's normal color, black, has long been considered to be one of its major drawbacks among consumers.

''The really beautiful thing about Astro-Marine,'' says ADP's Fassler, ''is that if we can transfer that technology to developing countries, something very significant will have been accomplished, because (the aquaculture industry) has been criticized for some time for developing luxury foods and not feeding the world's poor.''

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