State gives tuna farmers more time


The Board of Land and Natural Resources last week granted a Hawaii aquaculture company another extension to begin construction over the protests of Big Island residents.

Hawaii Oceanic Technology Inc. requested the extension on the Conservation District Use Permit condition requiring construction to begin in October 2015, not this fall, as the land board approved last year. Land board members signed off on the extension, but Kohala resident Carl Bernhardt, who attended the hearing, said he questioned why they did so when the board last year said its one-year extension was the last it was going to give to the company. The original permit called for construction to begin in 2011.

“The level of frustration is extremely high,” Bernhardt said Friday. “We believe the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ hands are tied because they have marching orders from the government that (the state) wants open ocean aquaculture.”

HOTI initially filed its application with the state to station 12 oceanspheres to raise tuna about three miles offshore of Malae Point, near Kawaihae, in 2009. HOTI CEO Bill Spencer said the company has received all of its permits, except for one from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He said he filed for that permit in 2009, then revised his application in 2010 at the organization’s request. He said Hawaii-level corps officials have indicated they support the project, but are awaiting national-level approvals.

Rob Pacheco, the Hawaii Island representative on the board, said he was “very comfortable” with the decision to grant the extension. HOTI must come back to the DLNR once the corps issues its approvals and the company’s construction plans must also get DLNR approval before work begins.

Further, Pacheco said, limiting extensions in those circumstances would be an unusual move for the board.

“It’s pretty standard for us to grant extensions, especially when they’re held up in other processes,” Pacheco said. “We would have put ourselves in possible trouble by seeming to be arbitrary.”

He said he didn’t remember a discussion last year about limiting the number of time extensions HOTI could get. The board’s minutes include several pages of discussion about the aquaculture project, but do not mention any extension limitations.

Suzanne Shriner, a Kona resident who previously worked with Fish and Water Watch and who attended the 2012 hearing at which the extension was granted, said she did recall that conversation.

“The board stated this will be the last extension,” Shriner said. “It’s frustrating. It almost feels like the land board rubber stamps a lot of things. They just don’t take that close of a look at the issues.”

Shriner is one of hundreds of Big Island residents who opposes HOTI. About 1,700 people have signed petitions against the project, and another 400 wrote letters to the land board last year asking it not to give HOTI any time extensions.

“This really relates to our quality of life on the Kohala Coast and North Kona,” she said. “We live our lives outdoors in Hawaii.”

Bernhardt said the issue boils down to environmental concerns for many opponents. He cited the case of salmon farms of Chile’s coast, which he said left the waters denuded of forage fish and so polluted that the whales that once migrated along the coastal waters left and haven’t returned. What would be the economic impact to Hawaii Island if a Kawaihae-based fish farm so polluted West Hawaii’s waters resorts down the coast warned residents not to swim, he asked.

There’s no comparison between the amount of money tourists generate and the amount of money fish farms may end up creating, he said. The tourism industry is bigger, he said.

“The fundamental concern of everybody is the environmental impact of a project of this scale, located so close to shore where there are unpredictable currents and the impact it can have to the environment over time,” Berhhardt said.

Spencer has maintained his goal is an aquaculture operation that addresses environmental issues, not creates new ones. With a global population that is increasing steadily, Spencer said the pressure on wild fisheries is only going to increase as well.

“Anybody serious about making sure there’s enough food to feed 9 billion people” should be considering solutions such as aquaculture, Spencer said. “We are at the mercy of imports. We import almost 90 percent of the seafood we eat in Hawaii. Our goal is to give the fishing industry tools to make sustainability a reality. We continue to be motivated to solve this problem.”

Shriner said opponents may need to consider filing a legal action if they hope to stop the project, but not yet.

“We have to wait for the process to go all the way through before we can file a lawsuit,” she said. “That would be the recourse.”