65-year aquaculture leases: Food & Water Watch questions Abercrombie’s sudden support

Ikaika M Hussey

HONOLULU—Last week, consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch released documents obtained from Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie’s office that shed light on the governor’s recent position reversal in support of a controversial fish farming bill.

“Factory fish farming—the growing of thousands of fish in close quarters in open net cages or pens—is a filthy, polluting practice that involves pesticides, chemicals, and other toxins flowing freely into the ocean,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “We were shocked when Gov. Abercrombie publicly denounced factory fish farming only to come out in support of it weeks later. Now we know that industry influence played no small part.”

Documents obtained by Food & Water Watch via a public information request describe the fish farming industry’s meetings with the governor subsequent to his announcement that he would veto Senate Bill 1511 that would have considerably lengthened the lease terms for factory fish farms from 35 to 65 years.

Abercrombie announced his intent to veto the bill in late June, to the applause of thousands of concerned Hawaiians and environmental and consumer advocates, Food & Water Watch said.

The governor’s press release read: “The Governor believes oceans are always changing and providing 65-year leases is not prudent. In addition, the definition of aquaculture is too broad.”

Two weeks later, Abercrombie reversed his position, signing the bill into law and prompting many to question the reason behind the sudden, dramatic change in position. 

According to Food & Water Watch, the fish farming industry went on the defensive, holding several closed-door meetings with the governor after he announced his intent to oppose the lease extensions. The documents acquired by Food & Water Watch reveal that:

John Corbin, former manager of Hawaii’s Aquaculture Development Program and owner of Aquaculture Planning and Advocacy LLC, a company that works with factory fish farm operators, submitted a letter to Abercrombie that attacked Food & Water Watch as the sole source of opposition to the bill. In reality, 31 national and local groups representing tens of thousands of Hawaiians sent a letter to Governor Abercrombie requesting that he veto the lease extension.

Notes from meetings between the governor’s office and fish farming industry members list the federal programs for which fish farmers could receive the maximum amount of money if they had longer leases. One bullet point reads: “Once you go to private financing, other considerations like quick profit take over.”

Other meeting notes portrayed the costs for Hukilau Farms, originally run by John R. Cates and Kona Blue Water Farms, run by Neil Sims: “Cates put in $13m, started at $300K, 2 yrs later at $2.5m then $5m. Now at least $5m to start with. Sims at $40m b/c of marketing.” The notes reveal that factory fish farming is big business and requires a large investment. Longer leases would only benefit such financing.

“It is clear from the factory fish farming industry’s meetings with Governor Abercrombie that the industry was pushing for longer leases to obtain more public financing, meaning that taxpayers would have to finance these private ventures which have failed to prove their economic viability time and again,” Hauter said. “That the governor caved to pressure from offshore fish farming corporations in the face of such strong public opposition is reprehensible.”

The industry has already received over $3 million in government funding, costing taxpayers thousands, Food & Water Watch said.

For the full list of documents obtained by Food & Water Watch, click here