To feed itself, Hawai‘i must make sea change, study finds

A school of Hawaiian anchovies. (© Conservation International/photo by S. Kēhaunani Springer)

It should come as no surprise that seafood is a major staple in Hawai‘i.

What may be surprising, however, is that nearly half of it is imported.

To feed its growing population — the island state is projected to grow by 300,000 people by 2040 — Hawai‘i is looking to produce more locally sourced seafood, which has a smaller environmental footprint.

How much seafood will Hawai‘i have to catch? How will it catch it sustainably? And what lessons could Hawai‘i have for island countries that also rely heavily on expensive imports for their food supply?

New research, conducted by Lida Teneva, naturalist for Lindblad Expeditions; Eva Schemmel, science adviser for Conservation International Hawaiʻi; and Jack Kittinger, senior director of the Blue Production Program at the Center for Oceans at Conservation International, is beginning to answer these questions. Human Nature sat down with Schemmel to talk about it.

Question: What were you looking to find in the research?

Answer: People in Hawaiʻi rely on seafood to meet their subsistence, livelihood and cultural needs. We just didn’t know how much seafood was actually available to people. How much do they spend on seafood in Hawaiʻi? How much seafood can we expect to need with current predictions of population growth? How much more do to meet the future demand?

Q: What did your team find?

A: We found that the total annual seafood available in Hawaiʻi equates to over 134 million meals each year. This translates into about 36 pounds of seafood per person per year for residents of Hawaiʻi. This is a lot higher than anywhere else in the United States.

Additionally, our estimate of total annual seafood production in Hawaiʻi is higher than previous estimates because we included the non-commerical fisheries, which bring in 20 percent of our local seafood. These fisheries support local families and are an important component to include when measuring Hawaiʻiʻs reliance on local seafood.

Q: What does this mean for Hawaiʻi?

A: This means that about 55 percent of our local seafood is from Hawaiʻi and that is a lot higher than other types of food products consumed in Hawaiʻi. For example, only about 13 percent of our total food supply is locally sourced from Hawaiʻi. So, being an archipelago in the middle of the ocean, we import a lot of food just to survive.The fact that over half of our seafood is locally sourced shows that our food security comes from our oceans.

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Q: What are you hoping to do with the information?

A: Much of Hawaiʻi’s seafood is used to feed local families, and with the population expected to grow by about 300,000 by 2040, more will be needed. We anticipate that to meet this growing demand, we will need to increase the total available seafood by 40 percent.

If unaddressed, this gap between demand and supply is likely to have negative consequences for food security, requiring increased reliance on imports. Additionally, as prices for seafood are predicted to increase, low-income households may face economic barriers to accessing seafood.

This means that we’re going to have to invest in better management of our seafood systems by looking at how we can increase production either from aquaculture or better managed fisheries. Some of the ways we can increase our seafood supply are to reduce fish waste or loss through different distributors or markets, increase transparency by understanding where all of our seafood is going, and keep more local seafood in Hawaiʻi. I think that the aquaculture sector will be critical to this. We need to support sustainable aquaculture such as traditional Hawaiian fishponds, which used to produce millions of pounds of seafood a year in a sustainable way. There is a growing network of local fishponds (Hui Mālama Loko Iʻa) that are being managed and restored to meet community and cultural needs to have locally sourced, sustainable seafood.

Additionally, we need to keep our oceans healthy and productive. Land use and development has direct impacts on the health of our ocean coral. By reducing developmental impacts and protecting our native forests we can decrease these impacts and improve water quality, reduce erosion and minimize nutrients from entering our ocean.

Q: How can the information help other communities?

A: This research helped to develop standardized metrics to understand seafood security in Hawaiʻi and across the globe. These metrics are being used to track our seafood self sufficency and local demand in Hawaiʻi and can be used in other places to assess their fisheries and the contribution of seafood towards meeting local needs.

This initiative is part of Hawai‘i’s statewide effort on the Aloha+ Challenge, a joint commitment by public and private partners to achieve six integrated sustainability goals by 2030 for clean energy, local food, natural resource management, solid waste, smart sustainable communities and green education and workforces.

Eva Schemmel is a science adviser for Conservation International Hawaiʻi. Morgan Lynch is a staff writer for Conservation International. 

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