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Rare monk seal dies in fish farm off Kailua-Kona

Updated: 
March 23, 2017 - 9:35am
Corrections: 
In a prior version of this March 17 article about an endangered Hawaiian Monk seal dying in a fish farm pen, The Associated Press reported erroneously a funding source for the farm. The farm, Blue Ocean Mariculture, has not received federal funding. The NOAA research funding was granted to the previous owners of the facility, under the name Kona Blue Water Farms. It is the policy of West Hawaii Today to correct promptly any misleading or incorrect information when it is brought to the attention of the newspaper.

HONOLULU — An endangered Hawaiian monk seal has died in a net pen at a fish farm like the ones federal officials plan to expand around Hawaii.

Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday the death of the 10-year-old monk seal happened at Blue Ocean Mariculture off Hawaii’s Big Island. The farm is the same one that, under previous ownership, was partially funded by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service for research of open-ocean aquaculture. Kona Blue Water Farms was acquired by Blue Ocean Mariculture in 2012.

Blue Ocean Mariculture has not received any federal funds, according to NOAA officials.

NOAA is working on a plan to expand aquaculture into federals waters despite concerns by some environmental groups and scientists who say the industrial-scale farms could do more harm than good to overall fish stocks and ocean health.

The federal plan would create a regulatory and permitting scheme for the industry. The plan includes federal permitting and management of commercial fish farms in federal waters, the area of ocean from three to 200 miles offshore, around Hawaii and other Pacific islands.

The agency has funded various research projects to study the feasibility of open-ocean fish farms in U.S. federal waters around Hawaii.

NOAA officials said at a news conference Thursday that they believe the seal drowned after the farm operators opened one panel of their net pen to release a shark that had gotten inside. The seal died on March 5.

“We did not see any signs of trauma or entanglement or any gashes or lacerations. We also saw no gross signs, meaning obvious signs, of disease,” said NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service’s David Schofield, the marine mammal response coordinator for the region. “The seal, B18, had a stomach full of fish and otherwise appeared in good body condition so we can draw no other conclusion than that the animal did die in the fish pen likely due to drowning or suffocation.”

Schofield said it was unclear if the fish that were found in the monk seal’s stomach were farmed fish from the net pen, but further testing should help determine that.

Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources Chair Suzanne Case said in a statement the death is a tragedy and the state will work with federal officials to prevent future problems with aquaculture operations.

There are only about 1400 Hawaiian monks seals left in the wild, according to official estimates.

Fish farming has been practiced for centuries in Hawaii and around the world. But modern aquaculture, some environmentalists say, carries pollution risks and the potential for non-native farmed fish to escape and enter the natural ecosystem.

Former NOAA chief scientist and founder of ocean advocacy group Mission Blue Sylvia Earle told the AP in an interview in December there are more environmentally sustainable and economically viable options than open-ocean aquaculture, which uses floating net-pens or submerged cages.

“We have to make a choice with aquaculture,” she said. “Is our goal to feed a large number of people? Or is our goal to create or to serve a luxury market?”

New technologies are being developed for open-ocean aquaculture, and many U.S. companies are sending their crews overseas to farm, according to NOAA officials. NOAA says the research being conducted at the farm is designed to better understand ways to make open ocean farming safe and efficient.

“The U.S.’s view is we’d rather have these U.S. companies pursuing these opportunities in a sustainable, environmentally sound way in the U.S.,” said Michael Tosatto, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service regional administrator, in a 2016 interview.

A request for comment from Blue Ocean Mariculture was not immediately returned.

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