April 12, 2005

Study to See if Fish Farms Attract Sharks

HONOLULU (AP) -- Thanks to the movie monsters, every swimmer is keenly aware that the ocean is filled with more than harmless little fish. And Leeward Oahu residents say they have seen more sharks since a fish farm took up residence about two miles offshore at Ewa Beach almost six years ago, said William Aila, a resident and fisherman.

Since companies have approached the Waianae community during the last year with plans for new aquaculture farms off their coast, residents want to find out if they should be concerned, he said.

"We know that any structure attracts predators. ... I want to know, where do the predators go once they are attracted to this area?" Aila said.

On Friday, state lawmakers approved a state-funded study of sharks off Oahu's Leeward Coast to learn if the fish farm is bringing them closer to shore.

Similar farms are being considered for other parts of the islands, bringing the potential of more jobs and investment in Hawaii, Aila said. Another deep-sea fish farm just opened last month a half mile off Keahole Point on the Big Island's Kona Coast.

And more could be in store for the rest of the nation and beyond.

Offshore fish farming, in which submerged pens containing thousands of fish are tended by scuba divers, is limited commercially to waters within state jurisdiction, where permits have been easier to get. But in December, President Bush proposed making it easier to put fish farms off the nation's coasts.

Sharks have been spotted around the Ewa Beach farm's four pens, which are each about the size of a small house and anchored in 150 feet of water.

But the sharks have never caused trouble for workers at the facility, are seen only occasionally, and are exclusively of a species not known to be aggressive to humans - the sandbar shark, said Randy Cates, owner of the company that runs the cages, Cates International Inc.

There are about 40 varieties of sharks swimming about the islands, ranging from the inches-long pygmy shark to the resident bad guy - the tiger shark - held responsible for most attacks on humans.

Cates said the presence of sharks around his fish cages shouldn't be surprising. The cages function as an artificial reef and create a reef ecosystem, which naturally includes the predators.

"Will they attract sharks? Yes, they will. But so will everything else that you put in the ocean that's an artificial reef," said Cates, who said he would assist the state on any study.

The managers of the nation's two other longtime deep-sea fish farms, one in New Hampshire and another in Puerto Rico, also have reported sharks are attracted to their cages, said Kate Naughten of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's aquaculture program. Neither have reported any problems.

A modest study of the sort proposed by the Legislature could address some small questions, such as whether the sharks stay in the area of the cages, said Kim Holland, a shark researcher at Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, which would conduct the study with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

It also could help residents feel more comfortable with offshore farms, said Clyde Tamaru, aquaculture specialist with the University of Hawaii Seagrant College Program. However, there's also the concern that the results could be misunderstood and create a backlash against the industry, which carries significant potential for Hawaii, he said.

"For us the challenge is to maintain an economy that's not going to be solely dependent on tourism," Tamaru said. "And the one resource that we have - and we can compete with the rest of the world - is the ocean."


On the Net:

U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: http://www.noaa.gov/

Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, Shark Research Group: http://www.hawaii.edu/HIMB/sharklab/