One of the most visually arresting sequences in the 2005 Austrian documentary Our Daily Bread, a narration-less gathering of footage from factory farms, slaughterhouses and food processing centers, showed the completely mechanized gutting of fish. From right to left, large, lifeless fish suspended from hooks moved through a machine that effortlessly and mechanically sliced open their bodies and pulled out their innards, over and over and over again. It was visceral and disturbing and even wrenching, and I like fish.
Industrial aquaculture has long disturbed animal rights activists and organic food advocates. For a while, it seemed like they had a powerful ally in Hawaii Governor Neil Abrcrombie, who in June denounced factory fish farming and threatened to veto a new bill extending very long ocean leases for aquaculture operations. Activists applauded Abercrombie until last week, when he mysteriously reversed himself and tied himself, perhaps forever, with industrial fish farming.
Large scale aquaculture—the use of giant underwater cages to farm massive quantities of yellowfin tuna, moi and other fish the same way agri-business grows bloated swine and poultry on land—is big business in Hawaii. There are active or proposed fish farming operations off Maui, Lanai, Oahu and Hawaii Island, and the whole deal is projected to grow 900 percent by 2015. Organizations like Food & Water Watch in Washington, DC find this an appalling trend.
“After a decade, and an investment of millions in taxpayers’ dollars, it is clear that the industry has not lived up to its promises of both economic and environmental sustainability,” the group concluded in its 2010 report The Empty Promise of Ocean Aquaculture in Hawai`i. “Instead, industrial fish farming damaged ocean ecosystems, infuriated Native Hawaiian rights groups and contributed little to the local economy.”
The Food & Water Watch report outlines myriad problems with aquaculture when it’s implemented on an industrial scale, including unsafe working conditions, the injury or death of sharks, monk seals and dolphins that stray into fish farming areas, the use of potentially harmful antibiotics in fish feed and the transmission of disease from caged fish to those swimming nearby.
In late June, Abercrombie made strong statements against industrial fish farms. And he also threatened to veto Senate Bill 1511, which would increase fish farm ocean leases from 35 to 65 years. “The Governor believes oceans are always changing and providing 65-year leases is not prudent,” Donalyn Dela Cruz, Abercrombie’s press secretary, said in a June 27 news release.
Food & Water Watch applauded. “We commend Governor Neil Abercrombie for announcing his intention to veto Senate Bill 1511,” Wenonah Hunter, the group’s executive director, said a day after Dela Cruz’s release went out. “The governor described the lease extension as ‘not prudent’ and admonished the bill’s definition of aquaculture as ‘too broad,’ demonstrating his understanding of the threats posed by factory fish farms and his willingness to side with the people of Hawai`i in calling for protection of their oceans over the demands of industry.”
Abercrombie may have understood the problem, but that didn’t mean he would do anything about it. Because on July 12, with no warning, Abercrombie suddenly reversed himself and signed SB 1511 into law.
Groups like Food & Water Watch were outraged. “We were very surprised,” said Zach Corrigan, the group’s acting program director for the fish team. “I see no difference from what he announced he might veto and what he signed. The only thing we can see is that the industry was vocal and had more sway with him.”
The statement put out by Abercrombie’s office on SB 1511 was both brief and vague. “Governor Abercrombie has always been supportive of aquaculture and understands the need for long-term leases for financing operations,” stated a July 12 release from Abercrombie’s press office (Abercrombie ultimately signed eight bills, including SB 1511, that appeared on his June 27 list of bills that he intended to veto). “Moreover, he expects DLNR [Department of Land & Natural Resources] will structure leases so that long-term impacts can be properly monitored.”
When asked why Abercrombie changed his mind, Dela Cruz refused to stray far from the statement her office put out, though she denied that there was any significant lobbying of the governor by the aquaculture industry. “He took a closer look at it,” she said, referring to the bill. “There were more discussions and he had some meetings.”
As for Abercrombie’s insistence that DLNR can monitor 65-year ocean leases, Corrigan was less than optimistic.
“There is no policy that the State of Hawaii has to ensure that happens,” he said. “It’s a total pie-in-the-sky hope that the industry will behave well.”