After a hiatus of more than three decades, oysters are
starting to be grown commercially in Hawai‘i. Global warming-induced changes
such as seawater acidification have made oyster production in parts of the
Mainland problematic, and so far Hawai‘i is less affected by this trend. The
state’s warm and nutrient-rich waters are ideal for the bivalves, allowing them
to mature faster, and the growing trend towards eating local is driving a
burgeoning market for Island-grown oysters. In an acknowledgement of Hawai‘i’s
native cultural methods of food production, the oysters are being grown in loko
i‘a, or traditional fishponds.
Conditions, both environmental and economic, seem ideal for
this new product. But things may not be so simple. Jessie Chen, a master’s
student in the department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management,
undertook a study of the possible costs and benefits of such an industry under
advisor PingSun Leung and collaborators at UH-Hilo’s Pacific Aquaculture and
Coastal Resources Center and the University of Alaska. She points out that such
an analysis has never been done and is necessary due to the unique aspects of
growing oysters in this Pacific island state.
Hawai‘i’s warm, nutrient-rich waters are producing delicious
oysters, more quickly than on the Mainland.
The recent creation of a long-needed water
quality-monitoring program required to classify shellfish-growing areas is
crucial, Ms. Chen explains. However, other food-safety considerations can raise
the cost of raising oysters considerably. For example, the Hawai‘i State
Department of Health may require that they undergo a 48-hour cleansing process
using artificial seawater before they are sold, depending on water quality.
This treatment, she discovered, which most growers will likely have to
incorporate, can amount to a large percentage of a producer’s operational
costs. Complex permitting processes involving restoration of the loko i‘a, and
high labor costs for the necessary hand-harvesting of the shellfish are other
Using data collected from a small-scale local oyster grower,
Ms. Chen developed a spreadsheet model for analyzing the economic viability of
such an operation. Her results showed that net return is near the break-even
point and is highly dependent on the optimal levels of key variables, including
oyster mortality rate and market price. But armed with this knowledge, growers
now know what they have to do to succeed…and make Hawai‘i-grown oysters the
sought-after commodity they deserve to be.