UH Hilo takes lead on federal project to expand shellfish industry in Hawaiʻi and Pacific Islands

Leading one of 32 projects across the country funded by a NOAA grant to boost aquaculture, UH Hilo aquaculturist Maria Haws will head the Hawai‘i effort to assess the feasibility of forming a cooperative or other employee-owned corporation.

Aerial view of the aquaculture center with buildings, ponds, lawn expanse and Hilo Bay coastline.
An aerial view of the Pacific Aquaculture and Coastal Resources Center (at right), Keaukaha near the port at Hilo Bay.

By Susan Enright.

An aquaculturist at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo is leading a new project to develop opportunities in shellfish farming for Hawaiʻi and the U.S. affiliated Pacific Islands. The project is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration via the UH Sea Grant program.

Maria Haws
Maria Haws

Maria Haws, an associate professor of aquaculture and director of the UH Hilo Pacific Aquaculture and Coastal Resources Center, will manage the $150,000 grant, which is part of 18 Sea Grant programs around the country to receive funding from NOAA Sea Grant. The purpose is to advance the development of a sustainable marine and coastal aquaculture industry in the United States. Thirty-two projects were funded for a total of $9.3 million in federal grants to help spur the development and growth of shellfish, finfish and seaweed aquaculture businesses throughout the nation.

“It is well known that mariculture has tremendous potential to help Hawaiʻi become more self-sufficient in seafood, which would be very beneficial to our local residents,” says Haws, who specializes in the fields of invertebrate biology, aquaculture and coastal management, and natural resources management policy including climate change adaptation. She has a dual appointment as a UH Sea Grant aquaculture extension specialist.

“However,” she adds, “opportunities to establish small farms are very limited compared to those on the mainland due to strict regulations and the high cost of starting a farm.”

Haws explains the project will help the state address this issue.

“To lower barriers to oyster farming in nearshore waters, we will assess the feasibility of forming a cooperative or other employee-owned corporation,” she says. “A group of local individuals and small businesses will work with us to test this concept.”

In addition, Haws is working on developing land-based mariculture systems that could also be operated by community members or small businesses.

Although the pilot project is based in Hilo, the results from the study will be instrumental in helping other island communities throughout the state to develop similar businesses.

In a separate project, the Pacific Aquaculture and Coastal Resources Center and the UH Sea Grant Program have also formed a Center of Excellence for Sustainable Aquaculture.

“We are attempting to revive the aquaculture extension network that previously serviced the entire state and support economic development,” explains Haws.

The Pacific Aquaculture and Coastal Resources Center

The UH Hilo Pacific Aquaculture and Coastal Resources Center was established in 2004 in Keaukaha near the Hilo port at an old wastewater treatment plant that was converted into the core infrastructure of the center. The project was the result of strong support from the local community, business leaders and elected officials, all of whom worked collaboratively to bring the idea to fruition. The facility is housed within the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management.

Aerial view of the facility with ponds and the edge of the bay.
Ponds and research labs can be seen in this aerial photo of the UH Hilo Pacific Aquaculture and Coastal Resources Center at Keaukaha.

The initial focus at the Keaukaha site was ornamental fish culture and the cultivation of pearl oysters. The facility soon grew to include caviar and shrimp cultivation, adding to its specialty in doing research that helps industry. In addition to the research facilities at the Keaukaha site, there is now a pathology laboratory, quarantine facilities, a freshwater fish hatchery and several ponds at the UH Farm Laboratory in Pana‘ewa.

“The center led the movement to establish shellfish culture in Hawai‘i,” says Haws. “We have several industry contracts to assist local companies with aquaculture.”

The Keaukaha research facility continues to be the product of many community and public sector partnerships and has a commitment to those who have contributed funding and support to keep the center operational. The center is legislatively mandated but Haws says two executive/managerial positions and all general funds have been eliminated.

“There has been talk of closing the [center] down, which would certainly disappoint other entities that have invested,” she says.

The center is the only facility in the state of Hawai‘i dedicated to aquaculture and coastal management education, research and extension and which is fully accessible to stakeholders.

“There are other aquaculture facilities, of course, but none cover the entire range of aquaculture and coastal management topics,” says Haws.

Applied learning

UH Hilo has the only four-year aquaculture education program in the state. In support, the Pacific Aquaculture and Coastal Resources Center hosts a Student Aquaculture Workforce training program, which is one of the largest of the applied learning programs at UH Hilo.

Maria Haws teaching stuents at lab.
Maria Haws (red t-shirt) provides instruction to her students as part of a laboratory activity where oysters are bred as they would be in a commercial shellfish hatchery. The oyster used here is the oriental or pacific oyster, Crassostrea gigas. It was introduced from Japan in 1912 and is a favorite among many diners. Photo by Brian Hampson, click to enlarge.

“Aside from the average of 30 paid student workers, we also host interns, volunteers and undergraduate and graduate thesis students,” explains Haws. “Many of these are from other [department on campus], so the center is providing service to the entire university.”

For example, she says, approximately 60 percent of the facility’s employed students are from the College of Arts and Sciences, particularly marine science.

“Many of the students have told us that without this employment, they wouldn’t be able to pay tuition and would have left,” Haws says. “Also, we are now helping place our graduates in managerial level jobs rather than in technical positions since they graduate with three or four years of work experience as opposed to internships.”

Information on grant via UH System News.

About the writer of this story: Susan Enright is a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

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