Moi to the World

Demand is increasing for fish raised in undersea cages

March, 2004

As keynote presenter, chef Roy Yamaguchi of Roy’s Restaurant wowed 1,100 members of the American Culinary Federation, the world’s largest organization of professional chefs, at its annual convention in Washington, D.C., last July, with a uniquely Hawaii fusion dish, Steamed Whole Moi with Chinese Soy. The moi (Pacific threadfish) was not only from Hawaii, but was raised in the nation’s first open-ocean-lease aquaculture farm just off Ewa Beach on Oahu.

“I wanted to showcase a locally grown product that represents the advances that have been made in aquaculture in the state, and show that you can sustain once very rare species through hard work and innovation,” says Yamaguchi.

That event and others promoting her company’s cage-raised moi brought a flood of Mainland inquiries to Virginia Enos, vice president and co-owner of Cates International Inc. Since 2001, Cates has been the state’s sole provider of commercial moi raised in offshore sea cages on the first-of-its-kind, 28-acre ocean site leased from the state. Despite the high export interest, 90 percent of the moi produced by Cates goes to the local market, according to Enos.

“Even today, we have such a good market with moi that we still cannot fully meet the demand locally,” says Enos. A key attraction is the constant price Cates can offer, because of the steady supply made possible by the offshore ocean farm. And that translates into a stabile price for Hawaii’s consumers.

Exciting ventures such as Cates’ cage-raised moi, a successful partnership between researchers and entrepreneurs, have helped make aquaculture one of the state’s fastest growing agricultural sectors. From $6.9 million in 1991, the industry has grown to $25.2 million in 2002, a robust 13 percent increase over 2001. Growth areas ahead for the aquaculture industry cited by John Corbin, manager of the state Department of Agriculture’s Aquaculture Development program, include ornamental fish and specific pathogen-free brood and seed stock for shrimp, clams and other highly desirable commercial species. Open-ocean aquaculture, pioneered by Cates’ moi operation, shows promise as the third projected growth area.

Corbin says, “We have a natural competitive advantage [in this kind of aquaculture], with our abundance of unique native species, such as moi, kahala and deep-water snappers.” Three more offshore ocean leases have been authorized by the state and four others are currently in the works. Corbin believes that 10 such farms in the next 10 years could result in a $100-million industry, because of the large scale of the operations.

More ocean-lease farms such as Cates’ cropping up soon are not a given, however, because of the significant front-end capital investment for such operations. Enos cites the need for long-term financial resources as a major challenge facing Cates International’s continued maintenance and growth. She and her partner, Randy Cates, are hoping to attract private investors. Another challenge for Cates is zoning restrictions on large land space near their ocean farm. Current technology requires land-based commercial hatcheries to raise the microscopic newborns to fingerlings large enough to transfer to the offshore ocean cages. The technology for ocean-based hatcheries is still sometime in the future, she says.

Still, Cates International is looking forward to a 30 percent ramp up in production in 2004. In 2001, it began with 75,000 fingerlings every three months, with a 70 percent success rate. Now, it averages more than 100,000 fingerlings every 30 days, with the same rate of success. Cates expects a large harvest of moi in April, and strong market demand from Las Vegas’ high-end sushi restaurants, which have gotten limited quantities of Cates moi in the past few years. With such prospects, Enos is exploring expanding exports to the Mainland to finally meet the demand stirred up by Yamaguchi and other Hawaii chefs.

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