It is a typical day down on the farm. In a paddock currently drifting about 30 miles southwest of Hawaii’s Big Island, 2,000 ravenous silver fish dart after pellets raining down from a sailing vessel that doubles as a feed warehouse. A farmer clad in scuba gear checks the health of his stock and the security of the spherical, brass-mesh pen that encloses them. He hopes to have these tasty fillets on your dinner plate come March.
This scenario may sound familiar at first. Raising fish in moored pens close to shore has become commonplace—and often controversial for the pollution they can cause. But the folks at Hawaii’s Kampachi Farms are trying something new: they have hauled up anchor and sent their valuable stock adrift in the open ocean. Why? They want to open up new frontiers to fish farming while eliminating farming’s impact on the oceans, explains Neil Anthony Sims, co-CEO of Kampachi Farms (formerly Kona Blue Water Farms).
“It took 10,000 years of farming before it occurred to people we shouldn’t grow the cows in the town common,” Sims explains. “We finally realized we should put them out in the countryside instead.”
As the world’s first mobile, “countryside” fish farm, the 22-foot-diameter, fish-filled geodesic dome and its tethered tender vessel drift freely in a circular current flowing as far as 75 miles from shore. (Like rocks create eddies or whirlpools in a stream, the Big Island breaks up the flow of the ocean’s prevailing westerly current.) The ship serves primarily as a feed warehouse and shelter for the five marine biologists who watch over the flock; they use the ship’s engines only to make small course corrections.
Other purveyors of open-ocean aquaculture say this is just the beginning. Ocean engineer Cliff Goudey envisions setting fleets of fish paddocks loose in larger gyre that encircles the Caribbean Sea, each pen stocked with its own automatic feeders and requiring visits from a tender vessel only occasionally. Just think: the Atlantic’s Gulf Stream may one day ferry farmed fish from Florida to France.
“It’s all about changing how we relate to the oceans,” Sims told me during a private tour of his company’s hatchery near Kona. At that time, in 2009, he was raising his silver fish, a local species of amberjack branded as Kona Kampachi, in pens anchored half a mile from the coast. Even that farming strategy was unusual. Of the thousands of fish farms worldwide, most were (and still are) located in calm, shallow waters hugging the shore; only a handful of farmers have the innovative cage and mooring systems needed to farm deep water, where strong currents sweep away waste and dilute it to harmless levels.
Sims was as adamant then as he is now that sustainable aquaculture is a prime solution for saving the oceans from overfishing and for feeding the world (listen for yourself as he describes the new venture, called the Velella project, on his new YouTube channel.)
Still, not everyone is as optimistic as Sims. Two environmental groups sued the NOAA Fisheries Service in August for failing to adequately assess the potential impacts of the Kampachi Farms project.
It is important to note, however, that issuing this permit is not something NOAA took lightly. The agency has funded aquaculture research projects for years, but despite mounting pressure to open up federal waters to aquaculture, it staunchly refused to do so until the new National Marine Aquaculture Policy was finalized in June. Following public review of the environmental impact assessment for the Velella project and subsequent revision, NOAA issued the project permit on July 6, making it the first permit for aquaculture in U.S. federal waters.
Sims is psyched to be on the cutting edge of his field. “You can’t get to the perfect fish farm by wishing it into being,” he says. “You have to get out there and do it.”
Young Kona Kampachi stocked in a mobile fish paddock drifting off the coast of Hawaii’s Big Island.
Neil Anthony Sims (diver) checks on his brood shortly after stocking the drifter pen.
The schooner Machias, the tender vessel tethered to the drifter pen.
All photos by Bryce Groark