How Chefs Like Peter Merriman Are Using Mariculture To Bring Sustainable Seafood To Maui

I love fish. Whether I’m catching my own mahi while line trolling on the small sport fishing boats or getting beautiful filets from my brother-in-law’s spearfishing outings, the results are some of the most memorable and healthy meals to come from my kitchen. Fishing for meals is a part of our culture on Maui, as is eating fresh, locally caught fish in restaurants. But our fishing industry and culture is threatened with the depletion of wild fish stocks.

It’s hard to see, given that the boats in Lahaina Harbor don’t resemble the giant commercial fishing expeditions seen on Deadliest Catch. But our current passion for fish is just not sustainable. “[M]arine resources in the main Hawaiian islands are being stretched thin,” Chris Colletta wrote on “The islands have lost 75 percent of their fish population in recent years. Much of this decline can be attributed to unsustainable coastal development and pollution. In addition, there’s a lot of ocean around Hawaii, and it’s not always easy to monitor illegal activity and enforce existing laws.”

One of the things we can do is eat more farmed seafood products to offset our intake of wild fish. Chef Peter Merriman recently started a fish initiative to do exactly that in his restaurants across the state. For instance, fish portions on his dishes are usually six ounces. But starting Aug. 1, all his restaurants will offer a “sustainable seafood special” that will reduce the wild caught fish portion to three ounces and add another three ounces of farm-raised seafood.

This way, patrons will get a taste of what Hawaii has to offer in the way of sustainably farmed fish. Like Hawaiian Kampachi, which is raised in deep water offshore of Kona. Blue Ocean Mariculture, the company that maintains the hatchery and cages, supplies healthy five-pound Hawaiian Kampachi. Company president Todd Madsen says the company is dedicated to “sustainable and responsible” production of finfish in Hawaii, citing the fish’s high quality and the low environmental impact of their operation.

Kampachi Farms is also on Hawaii Island. They’re a company that’s pioneering finfish farming methods. While not in the business of commercially farming fish, they’re researching ways to make that more feasible. Recently they had a very successful research operation launched out of Kawaihae into the waters off Hawaii. This “fallow” method raises fish stock in an unanchored drifting net ball that lingers two to three miles beneath the surface in deep ocean water tethered to a boat.

The company says that this method, beta tested over the past year, could be a game changer for the seafood industry. It’s high-tech stuff, and in a partnership with Lockheed Martin the project (called Velella) involves robotic cage cleaners, satellite communication and auto feeders.

“Is there risk to wild fish stock when fishing? Yes! We are killing all the fish!” says Niel Sims, CEO of Kampachi Farms. “Half of our imported fish is farmed already, we are just exporting our environmental footprint. We don’t care how it’s grown or fished we just pay and buy it. The only sustainable way to continue to meet the demand for fish is to grow the farmed fish industry. Yet here on the island of Hawaii, there is only one permit in operation since starting the industry in 2004. In eight years there has not been another. The state permitting process and investments are impediments. Applications for moi farm in Hawaii, opakapaka in Lanai, moi off Maui, Tuna off Waianae were all submitted and all of those did not make it through the process. Maybe it’s too restrictive?”

Merriman is launching his sustainable seafood special with a $5,000 donation to Conservation International’s Hawaii Fish Trust Project. This new initiative aims to support sustainable fishing practices and will try to restore near shore fish populations. Conservation International’s website points out that “Historically, Hawaii was a self-sufficient Polynesian voyaging culture deeply connected to the environment, successfully managing food resources through development of large-scale aquaculture, while today Hawaii imports 85% of its food. While the locally grown food sector grows, fisheries are the forgotten factor in Hawaii’s food security.”

Another company, Sunrise Capital, operates the Kauai Shrimp Farm in Kekaha. Owner George Chamberlain says they breed the shrimp from start to finish in sustainable conditions. Fresh water is the key, he says. His farm pumps clean water from 500 feet deep. Right now the farm has had zero water overflow for six years. The farm raises clams and oysters with the water discharged after raising shrimp. They’re currently researching the prospect of raising high density algae for fuel energy use.

These delicious shrimp are known for their sweet taste and will also be making an appearance in Merriman’s sustainable seafood special. The specials will run for $46.95 at Merriman’s in Kapalua and $35.95 at Monkeypod Kitchen. The special ends Sept. 30, 2012.