When First Lady Michelle Obama ordered farm-raised tilapia during a vacation-time meal at Alan Wong’s Restaurant in Honolulu this past December, it signaled a smiling acknowledgment for the once frowned-upon fish. Many longtime locals still cringe at the thought of eating tilapia, which was historically notorious for thriving in icky canals.
But, it’s a new day for tilapia, as consumers and connoisseurs are learning it’s actually an epicurean delicacy. In fact, the species is being viewed as a splashing success in aquaculture farms throughout the state—helping to boost Hawai‘i’s production of fish stocks, eliminating reliance on imported stocks, and improving the 50th State’s ability to be more sustainable.
Currently, more than 30 aquatic plant and animal species are being raised for research or commercial purposes in the islands. According to the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture, the commercial aquaculture sector has expanded from 13 farms in 1976 to 100 in 2003. That number continues to grow, due to an increasing demand for fresh, local products and a high consumption of seafood.
In fact, aquaculture has become the fastest growing segment in local diversified agriculture, grossing record sales of $34.7 million in 2008. To cope with the high demand for aquaculture products, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa scientists and researchers have stepped up to work alongside farmers, and state and national aquaculture personnel, and share their expertise.
At the Hawai‘i Institute for Marine Biology, for example, Director Jo-Ann Leong reported that colleagues are focusing on targeted sectors for greater development in aquaculture, based on the industry’s track record to date. They include:
- High-value seafood products such as opihi.
- Macroalgae or seaweeds for food or specialty chemicals.
- Year-round production of specific pathogen-free broodstock and seedstock.
- Marine and freshwater aquarium species for export.
- Offshore and open-ocean production of fish and pearl oysters.
Leong added that a trio of long-term projects will concentrate on the development of 1) disease-resistant strains of aquacultured species, 2) appropriate and sustainable food supplies for different stages of the life cycle for new animal species, and 3) environmentally friendly aquaculture methods.
Meanwhile, funding support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is enabling Sea Grant College Director Gordon Grau to develop feeds for fish that help them grow optimally with the mildest impact on ecosystems. Grau aims to design feeds without fishmeal that promote efficient growth with minimal loss of nutrients. He works in collaboration with colleagues at a USDA lab at Auburn University in Alabama to compound the feeds for tilapia, which are then evaluated by both his lab, and university and government partners, in the U.S. and Japan. Last year, more than 400 million pounds of tilapia were imported into the U.S. from Central and South America, China and the Philippines.
Then there’s the Aquaculture Research and Extension Unit in the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. Led by aquaculture specialist Clyde Tamaru, his team members are engaged in a variety of aquaculture research and extension activities. Tamaru is principal investigator of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration supported project on how to improve the hatchery output of the Hawaiian pink snapper or opakapaka, a favorite of many locals. His research hinges on the species ability to naturally spawn from captive broodstock held at Coconut Island. Due to its overfished status, the bottomfish fishery is now governed by the federal Magnuson-Stevenson Act, thus the state has been mandated to devise ways in which the fishery can be restored by at least 20 percent.
Working with the Division of Aquatic Resources, Tamaru and researchers at Mānoa are developing hatchery and nursery techniques for the production of opakapaka juveniles that can meet commercial-scale requirements, with the intent to transfer those technologies to appropriate end users for either public or private use. His research has already proven helpful for local farmer Hukilau Food, significantly improving its moi hatchery outputs that now average about 400,000 per hatchery run. These researchers and many others at UH Mānoa continue to develop cutting-edge aquaculture technologies to help achieve a more sustainable Hawai‘i while drawing international interest.
To learn more about these research projects and others being conducted by these units, visit:
Hawai’i Institute for Marine Biology – http://www.hawaii.edu/himb
Sea Grant College – http://seagrant.soest.hawaii.edu/
College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources – http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/
Top photo: Farm raised tilapia is becoming a popular choice among consumers and restaurant chefs.