story by Dennis Hollier
photos by Wayne Levin
NEIL SIMS HOLDS HIS FACE MASK IN PLACE as he steps off the transom of the boat, plunging feet-first into the sapphire waters of his farm. Although we’re nearly a quarter-mile off the coast of Kona, in 250 feet of water, his 10-acre plot is a productive one. Sims is one of the founders of Kona Blue, a company that’s pioneering the new field of open-ocean aquaculture. Beneath him, in six enormous submarine net-pens, he’s raising a crop of more than 360,000 fish—dense, shimmering schools of yellowtails, known to local fishermen as kŻahala. Sims prefers to call his fish Kona Kampachi.
Normally, here in the waters offshore from the Kona International Airport, only a surplus Navy barge and a few marker buoys give any indication of the scale of the operation below the surface. Today, though, Kona Blue has towed a new net-pen to the site, and Sims has brought me out to see its installation and to learn a little about what it takes to raise Kona Kampachi. After taking a moment to smear spit inside his mask, Sims strikes off up-current, stroking his fins powerfully.
I clear my snorkel and follow.
Sims is a marine biologist from Sydney, specializing in fisheries management. He spent the early part of his career in the Australian version of the Peace Corps, promoting sustainable fishing practices in the Cook Islands. That conservation background is what attracted him to open-ocean aquaculture, which he sees as the key to saving the world’s dwindling fisheries. “It’s just like Al Gore predicted,” Sims says. “We’re at the nexus of economics and environmentalism. It’s private individuals finding conservation solutions.”
As we snorkel along, Kona Blue’s net-pens are arrayed in a grid, suspended about 30 feet below us. The limpid waters surrounding them are alive with micro-organisms, and a squadron of ulua patrols the perimeter. Sims pauses over net-pen number four. From the surface, I can barely make out the fish in the pen. But when we dive down to the top of the cage, the magnitude of the school becomes obvious: Nearly 60,000 silvery fish swirl placidly inside the pen. They’re all virtually identical: Each is almost 2 feet long, weighs about 4 pounds and is perfectly formed. Kona Kampachi, because they’re raised in ideal ocean conditions and fed a tightly controlled, healthy diet, experience less than 5 percent mortality from egg to the plate. These fish are ready to harvest.
In Hawai‘i, kahala are usually considered trash fish. Although their flesh is delicious, the wild-caught fish typically have internal parasites and many carry ciguatera, a toxin that often accumulates in predator reef fish. Kona Kampachi, on the other hand, is a sashimi-grade fish. Sims points out that the same species of fish can be found in many Hawai‘i sushi bars, imported from Japan under the name hamachi. But Japanese hamachi are raised from wild stock, a fact that doesn’t square neatly with Sims’ ecological paradigm. “We can’t continue to rely upon wild fingerlings,” he says. “Another issue is quality control: Who knows what wild stock has been eating?” By scrupulously controlling the diet of its fish, Kona Blue measurably improves their quality. “Wild kahala have about 4 percent body fat,” Sims says.
“We get 30 percent. And Kona Kampachi has no internal parasites, no chance of ciguatera and no detectable mercury.”
Of course, the real test is in the eating. Kona Kampachi is one of the most expensive fish wherever it’s sold, often fetching more than $20 a pound. Nevertheless, its firm, mild-flavored flesh has become very popular with the white tablecloth trade. Chefs love it because you can do almost anything with it and because it’s so fresh (fish aren’t harvested until there’s an order for them). Just up the beach at the Four Seasons’ Hualalai Grille, the fish is served on a simple platter, thinly sliced with fresh wasabi and a cottage-brewed shoyu. The flavor and consistency rivals the best ‘ahi.