Researchers want to release grouper, but face resistance
They’re gigantic, gentle and delicious — three traits which have been their undoing.
Cruising in the dark confines of a tank at Kampachi Farms, the six giant grouper may represent the one chance that residents have to glimpse this rare species in the flesh — 250 pounds of flesh, to be more specific.
The researchers who interact daily with the giants liken them to golden retrievers, or Saint Bernards.
The giant grouper, or hapuupuu, are believed to have once been fairly common in Hawaii and throughout their habitat, which extends west through Polynesia and Indonesia to East Africa. Today, the fish exist mostly in legend.
“Throughout their range, they’ve been extirpated,” said Neil Sims, CEO of Kampachi Farms, an open ocean aquaculture research and development company located at the Natural Energy Lab of Hawaii Authority.
“This is like shooting a rhinoceros,” Sims said. “They’re fearless. If you grow up to 500 pounds, you’re not afraid of much. Someone can just swim up and hit you on the head with a hammer.”
The grouper have done well in a tank — dining on squid and sardines and putting on about 10 pounds a year. Hopes for freedom may be past for these colossi, but Sims and Kampachi Farms researcher Dale Sarver would like nothing better than to release the offspring of these groupers into the ocean. The farm has about 50 such fish, born in 2008 and each about 2 feet long.
However, any release of the stock faces stiff resistance from at least one state regulatory agency.
Sims estimates that giant grouper can fetch around $30 a pound, or higher depending on the market. His adventures with the fish started back in 2001, when he saw there could be a commercial and conservation benefit to propagating the high-value, depleted resource. He was founder of Kona Blue Water Farms around that time, an entity that was later sold and became Blue Ocean Mariculture.
Kampachi Farms offered a $1,000 reward for anyone who could bring a live grouper specimen. They got only one call — from someone who knew where such a fish lived and wasn’t going to tell anyone where it was.
Eventually Kampachi acquired broodstock from Taiwan, intending to raise them and hoping to release their offspring. Sarver figured there would be no problem from a regulatory standpoint considering the fish is native to the region. Then he found out that state Department of Agriculture rules prohibit release of the grouper — or any imported fish, into Hawaii waters. Sarver and Sims have no problem with the protections in general, but believe there should be an exception for groupers. They have asked the Department of Agriculture to revise their import permit so they can release the fish.
They cite the potential benefits to conservation and tourism if reef populations of the species rebound, and have reached out to area tour companies, the West Hawaii Fisheries Council and other entities for support.
“Think of the potential tourist draw,” Sims said. “To be able to dive on these guys would just be terrific.”
But William Aila, chairman of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said Kampachi Farms can be assured that if the Department of Agriculture asks for his opinion on releasing the fish, it will not be favorable.
“They’re top level carnivores and they eat a lot of biomass,” Aila said. “We’re not sure what environmental impacts there would be if they were released into the waters off Kona.”
“If there were found to be negative impacts, we would certainly hold (Kampachi Farms) responsible for damages,” Aila added. “I strongly urge them not to release the fish.”
Aila characterized giant grouper as somewhere between uncommon and rare, but said there are no adequate surveys to give an accurate picture of their population. He said he’s only heard of one or two of the fish being caught in the past 20 years. But part of that may be because fishermen aren’t targeting the species, he said.
“Normally, you don’t try to spear a fish that large,” he said. “I know of several places where they are, and no one is rushing out to spear them or catch them.”
Despite their rarity, there are no protections on the books for giant grouper.
Once the sedentary fish park their mass along a cliff, reef or other shelter, they tend to stay there, making them a dependable source of entertainment for dive operators, Sarver said.
“They love caves, they love wrecks. Anywhere they can can get under a ledge, they call home,” Sarver said.
Kampachi Farms offers public viewing of the grouper tanks on Fridays, part of a larger tour put on by Friends of NELHA.
Katie Gaab, a dive instructor and shop manager at Kona Diving Co., has been following the grouper project with interest and said she’d like to see the fish thrive in the wild.
“It would be better to have ones that are supposed to be here rather than, say, the peacock grouper,” said Gaab, who has been diving off the Big Island for eight years but has never been lucky enough to encounter a giant grouper in the wild.
“I have a friend that has seen one diving in the wild,” Gaab said, “and they said it was one of the coolest things they had ever seen.”