Sunday | April 26, 2015
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Oyster industry growing here

Hawaii Island is poised to become a major player in the U.S. oyster industry, as growers on the mainland wrestle with the effects of climate change.

Around 2007, oyster hatcheries along the West Coast were significantly impacted by a disturbing trend.

“Oyster larvae hatcheries were seeing large die-offs during the spring and summer,” said Dave Nisbet, owner of Goose Point Oysters of Washington state’s Willapa Bay. “Oceanographers were seeing increased acidification of the West Coast’s ocean water during the spring and summer months, and the pH shift was just enough to cause larvae to die.”

The immature larvae require a very specific pH level to be able to pull calcium from the water to build their shells, he said, and increased levels of carbon dioxide in the world’s oceans has begun to affect that process.

“You’re not going to get a debate from me on climate change,” he said. “It’s here. It’s happening. I’m seeing it.”

The effect is happening around the world, according to Maria Haws, director of the University of Hawaii at Hilo Pacific Aquaculture and Coastal Resources Center in Keaukaha, which is working with growers to explore building a shellfish industry in Hawaiian waters, which are experiencing acidification to a lesser degree.

“The impacts are much more noticeable in the Pacific Northwest. … It’s affecting other species too, it’s just that they noticed it with oysters first,” she said. “They’re like the canary in the coalmine.”

It is believed that the West Coast feels the brunt of the acidification process because it experiences an upwelling of deeper, more acidified water onto the continental shelf during the spring and summer months, she said.

Nisbet’s business, which supplies buyers with billions of oysters every year, was beginning to be impacted by independent hatcheries’ inability to produce enough oyster seed, or oysters in their early growth stages. So, he turned to Hawaii’s warmer, cleaner waters and year-round shellfish breeding season.

In 2009, Nisbet partnered with Haws and the Pacific Aquaculture and Coastal Resources Center in Keaukaha to look into growing oyster seed in Hawaii. The results were so promising that in 2012 he launched Hawaiian Shellfish LLC in Hawaiian Paradise Park — producing enough seed to supply his entire business back in Washington, while selling surplus seed to other growers.

Employing six people — including three Hawaii residents with degrees from UH in aquaculture — Hawaiian Shellfish pumps about 60,000 gallons of water from a deepwater saltwater well along the Keaau coast into 12 large tanks that provide perfect growing conditions.

While the energy to pump the water 24 hours a day is a major expense, Hawaii’s warmer water means he doesn’t have to spend what hatcheries on the mainland do to heat it, Nisbet said.

“The requirement for oyster larvae is water around 75 degrees, and in the West Coast hatcheries in the springtime, we would use oil-fired boilers to bring the water to that temperature because the water runs in the 50s,” he said. “We basically have that here all year, and that’s been a big plus for us.”

Shipping the larvae back to the mainland to complete their growth cycle is also a relatively cheap process, as the oyster seed is very small and can be shipped easily.

“There are about 50 million larvae in a ball the size of tennis ball,” he said. “Shipping isn’t an issue.”

Hawaiian Shellfish, Nisbet said, has been such a success that he’s already looking at the possibility of expanding and raising other varieties of oysters.

“We’ll probably expand a little bit. We’re taking care of all our needs right now, and that was the main purpose of this. We’re pretty happy with how the operations have been going,” he said.

Stories like Nisbet’s are music to Haws’ ears. As director of the Pacific Aquaculture and Coastal Resources Center, she is charged with overseeing research to help clear the way for farmers to build a shellfish industry in Hawaii.

Located in an old water sewage treatment plant along Kalanianaole Avenue, the center provides large tanks that serve as test grounds for experimental cultures. UH students and faculty help devise processes for breeding, feeding and maintaining thriving colonies of various varieties of fish.

With help from the aquaculture center, the pioneers of Hawaii’s shellfish industry have been a total of four businesses, including Nisbet’s, which primarily produce oyster seed for shipping to the mainland. Two are located in Kona and work in concert with the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority. A third operates on Molokai, Haws said.

The next step would be for businesses to raise oysters and other bivalves, such as clams, to full maturity in Hawaii’s open waters, Haws said. But before that can happen, the state Department of Health must complete an exhaustive study of water quality in various areas farmers have identified for oyster cultivation, to generate what is known as a “growing area classification,” to ensure that any oysters grown to maturity in Hawaii’s waters would be safe to eat.

Such a study has been under way for about a year, Haws said, and she expects results in about six months.

“The DOH has really been great. They took a big step in looking into our growing area classification,” Haws said.

If everything goes as expected, that could open the door to restaurants and sellers offering Hawaii-grown oysters to in-state consumers. Further permitting would allow exportation of Hawaii shellfish, which could one day lead to them being offered as premium specialties at mainland seafood restaurants.

But Hawaii has a long way to go just to sustain its own hunger for oysters.

“We’re not going to be able to supply our own need for a while. We import close to 400,000 oysters every month in Hawaii. That’s a heck of a lot of oysters,” Haws said.

One day soon, she added, “we’ll end up like the Northwest. Restaurants there, they have lists to pick like six to 12 different varieties of oysters grown at different farms, each with their own unique flavor,” she said. “People here in Hawaii want to buy local products, so I see the growth being huge. … We’re right on the cusp.”

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.