Farming in the deep blue sea

(Second of two parts)

A Kona Kampachi by any other name just isn’t the same.

Under the moniker “kahala,” this Hawaiian fish has spent its life roving coastal areas, absorbing a potent marinade of naturally-occuring reef toxins that would make your typical dinner guest go belly up.

But under the Kona Blue aquaculture company’s trademarked name, Kona Kompachi is not only safe to eat, but has found a high-priced home in some of Tokyo and Seattle’s finest restaurants.

“Most fishermen, when they catch this fish, they curse and throw it back,” said Neil Sims, president of the Hawaii-based company. “But we’ve had such a tremendous demand since our first harvest last September. It was an easy sell – just one taste, and the scales fall from people’s eyes and they see the light.”

That light likely would have never shone had it not been for one Bainbridge islander’s innovation.

Gary Loverich, who founded the NET Systems company on Bainbridge Island’s Day Road 26 years ago, was tinkering with the idea of building fish farming pens portable enough to move between deep and shallow waters.

But the first floating “sea station” he crafted in 1994 did more than that – it allowed fish farmers to fully submerse their stock as far as 12 miles out to sea.

“I was thinking of an easy way to transport fish growing in the Strait of Juan de Fuca,” Loverich said. “All of a sudden the idea clicked. I don’t know where ideas come from. Sometimes they just explode in your mind.”

Loverich established Ocean Spar LLC to design, market and sell the sea stations while NET Systems manufactures and assembles the product.

At first, fish farmers scoffed at the UFO-shaped cages. Because salmon require surface access to recharge their air bladders, many aquaculture operations bypassed the Loverich’s invention.

“Basically, they were thinking in a straight line,” Loverich said. “They were thinking ‘what good is it if you can’t raise salmon in it?’ But then people started thinking about other fish.”

Sims was one of them. As a marine biologist, Sims had been experimenting with new ways to grow and harvest pearl-bearing oysters after a “depressing existence” managing traditional fish farms.

“I wanted to find a way to marry a commercial venture with an environmental imperative,” he said. “And I wanted to do it right.”

Sims found the big business of aquaculture was missing a sincere concern for the industry’s environmental impacts.

Fish farms are often located in protected bays where wastes don’t easily flush away, creating “dead zones” where other aquatic animals struggle to live.

Common farming practices also include raising fish near the water’s surface, making cages easy prey for storms. Damaged cages have released millions of farm-raised fish, diluting the wild populations and spreading disease, some environmentalists charge.

In Ocean Spar’s sea stations, Sims found an answer to these concerns, and more.

“We started experimenting with what the locals call the kahala,” he said. “We found that by putting them in the stations in the open ocean and away from the reefs, we could improve the water quality and have an amazing product.”

Renamed the Kona Kampachi, Sims began shipping the fish to markets along the Pacific rim. Business has been so good in the first year that Kona Blue has ordered two more stations to add to the four it already owns. About 10 percent of the harvest is sent to Japan, about 25 percent is sold in Hawaii and the rest is shipped to the continental United States.

Chefs in Hawaiian sushi bars were the first to swear by the fish’s creamy texture and long shelf life.

“I think the next big fish is farm-raised kampachi,” said Hawaiian sushi guru Alan Wong. “It’s a good sashimi eating fish with an increasingly high fat content, so it’s pretty versatile.”

According to Sims, Kona Kampachi have a 30 percent fat content. The wild kahala variety have just 3 percent.

“In this culture, we’re learning (fish) fat has tremendous health benefits,” Sims said. “It’s loaded with Omega-3 (fatty acids), which are good for the heart.”

Sims is also proud of the methods he uses to raise the fish. He fattens the fish with a “sustainable feed” comprised of about 50 percent anchovy meal and fish oil from sustainably-managed fisheries and 50 percent vegetable-based protein.

Growing fish to feed other fish isn’t the perfect model for sustainability, Sims admits - but it’s moving in the right direction.

“It’s not sustainable in general terms, but it is scalable,” he said. “And we’re doing more in that direction. “We want to move away from using any wild fish for feed and use more grains and trimmings from other fisheries.”

Loverich enjoys seeing his invention used by other innovators. Besides Kona Blue, other Hawaiian aquaculture operations are putting sea stations for unique harvests. Cates International of Hawaii is raising the rare moi, a fish that was once a treasured property fit only for the bellies of island kings.

“I created the sea station to be a tool,” said Loverich. “It happens to be a tool for producing fish flesh. But what people are doing with it is unique and is creating something valuable - which is really cool.”

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