Monday, October 26, 2009

Another leap for Hawai'i fish farming: Ahi spheres approved

Ocean farming has had a troubled past, but it's moving forward quickly as technology improves.

The state Board of Land and Natural Resources just approved a Conservation District Use Permit for the latest and largest ocean aquaculture venture.

(Image: Artist's rendering of the Hawaii Ocean Technology fish farms, approved Friday by the land board. Credit: Hawaii Ocean Technology LLC)

Already in Hawai'i, you can buy moi from open ocean farms off south O'ahu. It's grown by Grove Farm Fish & Poi, and is served at fine restaurants across the state. Grove Farm Fish & Poi is planning to roughly quadruple its production in Mamala Bay. An early slideshow of predecessor company Cates International is here.

And you can get kahala or Kona Kampachi or Hawaiian yellowtail from Kona Blue Water Farms' ocean cages in waters deeper than 200 feet off Kona on the Big Island. See here.

Kona Blue uses a technology called Sea Station, which creates a flying-saucer-looking netted structure that can be raised and lowered in the water column. But the firm cites transportation costs to Mainland markets for a proposal to cut its production by 40 percent and look to Mexico for future growth.

There's another proposal by a venture called Indigo Seafood to put moi cages off the Big Island.

The most innovative new proposal is Hawaii Ocean Technology's Ahi Sphere project, which would be the largest ocean aquaculture project in the Islands to date. The land board approved the CDUA for the project Friday.

The company this year released its final environmental impact statement for its proposal to grow tuna in a fleet of twelve 160-foot-diameter “ocean spheres” which actually look more like geodesic domes than spheres.

“The company proposes to grow out the tuna to market size in offshore submerged cages, segregated by species, that are self-powered un-tethered 54m diameter 'Oceanspheres.' The proposed ocean lease site is a one square kilometer (247-acre) site, 1,320-feet deep, located 2.6 nautical-miles offshore Malae Point, North Kohala. Twelve Oceanspheres will be deployed incrementally over four years, culminating with an annual production capacity of 6,000 tons,” the report says.

It will be managed out of Kawaihae Harbor, and boats will be on site daily to handle feeding, harvesting and other duties. The baby fish—yellowfin and bigeye tuna-- will be grown at a University of Hawai'i facility.

Critics of sea farming ventures warn of disease among tightly-packed fish that could spread to wild populations. Of pollution from the concentrations of fish scat and uneaten fish food. Of attracting sharks. Of the loss of use of portions of the ocean.

The EIS addresses these issues at some length, but briefly, it argues:

The project will work with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology to monitor and manage the project for disease control. The site has been selected for its strong currents, which will very quickly dilute and sweep away organic matter. The cages have powerful netting that should be impenetrable to sharks. And it says the area selected is not an actively fished zone—it is beyond the ono trolling grounds and deeper than most bottomfish grounds. Boaters will be permitted to transit through the lease area, as long as they stay 100 feet from the spheres, which will be marked with buoys.

The spheres will have GPS capability, will be self-propelled, and capable of maintaining position without being anchored to the sea floor.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Friday, October 23, 2009

Biofuels: UN cites the good, the bad, the ugly

There's petroleum and there's biofuel. They can do much of the same thing, but they're really quite different, especially in their climate impacts.

As with much in life, it just ain't simple.

That's particularly the case with biofuels, which are playing an increasing role in the Hawaii energy picture. There's still sugar being converted into energy on Maui. There's talk of growing cane for ethanol and electricity on Kauai. And research into growing crops like Jatropha for biodiesel. There's research into oil from algae. And more

The hype has been that:

1) You get a severe climate result when you suck oil or bulldoze coal out of the ground and burn it—dumping a huge load of carbon into the atmosphere; and that,

2) Biofuel is much better--at least carbon neutral. It's made from growing products, so that it sucks up atmospheric carbon as it grows, and releases it back when it is burned.

Biofuels breathe in, and breathe out. Presumably the climate effect is nil. And that's good, right?

Not so fast, says a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme's
Division of Technology, Industry, and Economics, Sustainable Consumption & Production Branch.

“They (biofuels) are characterized by some as a panacea representing a central technology in the fight against climate change. Others criticise them as a diversion from the tough climate mitigation actions needed or a threat to food security,” says the preface to the full 120-page report, Assessing Biofuels.

It is available here.

And a summary here.

This is not new research, but rather a very extensive literature review, aimed at trying to get a handle on biofuels. A key conclusion: this issue is complicated, so don't make casual broad-brush assumptions.

Some of the identified problems with crop-based fuels: They divert us from carbon-negative energy technologies; they divert crop production from needed food resources to fuel; many of them have their own environmental issues like soil runoff, energy intensive fertilizer use, extensive water use and so forth; and some may not be as carbon neutral as they seem.

For instance, if peat-lands and tropical forest are cleared for biofuel farming, the carbon released in that clearing may far-outweigh reduced net carbon emissions. This is a key objection to some oil palm production.

There are many, many reasons to be cautious about blanket support for biofuels, but the report also identifies another piece of the puzzle that discourages blanket opposition. We are now only working with the first generation of biofuel technology, and future biofuels may be much more environmentally acceptable than the worst of the current crop.

“Researchers are already studying advanced biofuels from sources such as algae or the natural enzymes used by termites to dissolve wood into sugars. These second or third generation technologies will require their own life cycle assessments,” the report says.

Meanwhile, for first-generation biofuels, Hawai'i can kick itself in the collective butt. The best of the best in terms of greenhouse gas savings is bioethanol from sugar cane, the crop we have nearly wiped off our landscape. (Sugar has its own issues, like high fertilizer demand.) By contrast, corn, soy and oil palm biofuels can range from greenhouse positive to dramatically negative, depending on how and where they're grown.

A key message of the UN report: Neither should you be kneejerk dazzled by biofuel, nor should you automatically reject the stuff.

It suggests a number of paths to improving things. Among them: identifying and reducing specific biofuel crop issues; using waste more efficiently; and noting that “stationary use of biomass—to generate heat and/or electricity—is typically more energy efficient than converting biomass to a liquid fuel. It may also provide much higher CO2 savings at lower costs.”

© Jan TenBruggencate

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bees and mites: more problems, new investigations

The state's honeybee hives are being damaged by the destructive varroa mite, and the impacts go far beyond reduced honey production.

(Image: Honeybee on a flower. Credit: NOAA Photo Library.)

Aside from the direct effect of the weakening of bees and whole colonies by the bee-blood sucking mites, there are significant indirect impacts.

One is to the bees. The varroa mite not only weakens the bees, but it can also carry bacterial and viral agents that further impact the sick insects.

And for larger society, one of the severe impacts of weak colonies with reduced numbers is that pollination of crops is significantly reduced.

The University of Hawai'i bee project is conducting research into the varroa mite.

“We are interested in developing practical treatment options for local beekeepers and establishing a sound research program that focuses on maintenance and improvement of the Hawaiian honeybees. Reducing the likelihood that the mite will invade other islands, and restricting the big island invasion is also a high priority, and we are investigating procedures for preventing feral bees from being inadvertently transported among islands on ship containers and other vessels,” says the website.

Mark Wright and Ethel Villalobos, of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources' Plant and Environmental Protection Services, are running the bee project. They are asking O'ahu residents to report any wild honeybee hives so they can investigate virus transmission by the mites.

If you come across a wild hive, you can reach the Honeybee Varroa Project at 956-2445 or email

Have more questions about mites? See the Department of Agriculture's list of frequently asked questions.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hot Hot Hot. Global temperatures still rising, El Nino extending

The period from June to September has been the warmest on record, confirming the continued warming of the global climate.

If you've been hearing people prognosticating about a global cooling trend, well...that wasn't, um, exactly true.

In fact, the first decade of the new century is on pace to be the warmest decade ever--at least for as long as records have been kept.

(Image: NASA graph showing land and ocean temperature changes. The ocean, a bigger heat sink, has less year-to-year variability, but the trend is the same. This graph goes through 2008. The 2009 number, based on mid-year information, will be a significant tick upward. See other NASA temperature data here.

And here in Hawai'i, we have something else to worry about.

The current El Nino event, which has been weak thus far, is now expected to strengthen and last at least through the winter, according to the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center.

During El Nino events, which occur every three to five years, the waters of the tropical Pacific are significantly warmer than normal. El Nino is associated in the Islands with dry winters and more tropical storms.

Here is the link to the latest forecast.

As for the temperature, NOAA had previously announced that the summer months June to August were the warmest on record. NOAA hasn't yet announced the September data, but NASA's figures here show September 2009 was one of the warmest Septembers ever—so the NOAA announcement of a four-month record heat is inevitable.

(We thank for the tip on this the climate blog, Climate Progress.)

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Rooftop solar as the low-cost alternative: An O'ahu example

O'ahu resident and Realtor Tony Kawaguchi started with the low-hanging fruit when he looked for ways to cut down a $625/month power bill in September 2008.

(Images: Top: Solar photovoltaic panels on Kawaguchi's roof. Bottom: “This is the Sunny Boy converter, installed by Mercury Solar. The installation took about 4 hours, and sits next to Hawaiian Electric’s meter, which now spins a lot slower than it used to,” Kawaguchi said. Credit: Tony Kawaguchi.)

He said he changed incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent bulbs, which use a quarter of the power for roughly the same amount of illumination. He dropped the temperature on his water heater. He retired one of his three computer monitors.

It didn't create the level of savings he was hoping for. Then he went upstairs.

Kawaguchi put a solar water heater on the roof, essentially removing his electrical cost of heating water.

And he then installed a photovoltaic system.

The electric bill was cut in half in the first month. Kawaguchi has since expanded his photovoltaic system to reap more savings. His bill was $153.47 in September 2009.

Kawaguchi said he was able to make the adjustments with very little cash outlay. He found a solar contractor with a program that financed the cost of the system at 2 percent interest. And he took advantage of a state 35 percent tax credit and federal 30 percent tax credit.

Additionally, Kawaguchi took advantage of a program under which he claimed the tax credits for paying to install solar water heaters on the roofs of low-income residents.

“I also bought another solar water system for a low income family on which I also receive the 65 percent tax credit, but the solar company finances nearly all of it at percent, and the low income family pays the loan off. So I receive the 65 percent tax credit on that $7k system, but don't have any cash out of pocket,” Kawaguchi said.

“So in reality - I paid NOTHING for all my solar power. I simply took money that I would have paid the government and instead purchased enough solar energy for other people to receive tax credits to pay for it all... I had my CPA look at it and he was already familiar with this type of deal through other solar companies,” he said.

Kawaguchi, who blogs on real estate at, said that from a real estate perspective, these changes make good economic sense.

“Imagine if you were a buyer comparing two similar homes in Hawaii, and one of them allowed you to have almost no power bill. That monthly savings would be a huge factor in the value you would see in that home,” he said.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Friday, October 9, 2009

Close encounters of the asteroid kind; this could be exciting

Our state and our planet can expect some astronomical excitement in coming years, with close asteroid encounters in the next three decades, and a (vaguely) possible impact within 50 years.

The asteroid is called Apophis. It swings near the Earth in 2029, 2036 and again in 2068.

(Image: The little circle marks Apophis in this University of Hawai'i Institute for Astronomy photo.)

The best and latest calculations have it missing the surface of the planet by just 20,000 miles in 2036.

"Our new orbit solution shows that Apophis will miss Earth's surface in 2036 by a scant 20,270 miles, give or take 125 miles. That's slightly closer to Earth than most of our communications and weather satellites," said David Tholen, of the University of Hawai'i Institute for Astronomy.

The calculation still isn't perfect, and scientists figure the odds at four in a million that it could hit the Earth.

The estimates are calculated from observations at Mauna Kea observatories by Tholen, former Hawaii astronomer Fabrizio Bernardi of the University of Pisa, Italy, and University of Hawai'i graduate students Marco Micheli and Garrett Elliott. From those observations, Steve Chesley, of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, calculated the positions of Apophis.

But after that really near miss, the new calculations suggest Apophis has a three in a million chance that it could crash into the Earth in 2068. Researchers will be making more detailed calculations about that possibility in 2010 when Apophis—which disappears behind the Sun during part of its orbit—swings back into view.

Tholen, Bernardi and University of Arizona astronomer Roy Tucker discovered Apophis only in 2004.

The initial orbit calculations suggested it had a small chance of impact with the Earth as early as a Friday the 13th in April 2029, but further calculations showed that would not happen.

Apophis is a couple of hundred yards across. If it did hit, that would be a big issue. But the odds are against it.

"The refined orbital determination further reinforces that Apophis is an asteroid we can look to as an opportunity for exciting science and not something that should be feared," said Don Yeomans, manager of the Near-Earth Object Program Office at JPL. "The public can follow along as we continue to study Apophis and other near-Earth objects by visiting us on our AsteroidWatch Web site and by following us on the @AsteroidWatch Twitter feed."

The information in this post was drawn from the following two press releases.

Here's the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's release on the event.

And here's the university of Hawai'i Institute for Astronomy release.

Other resources:

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Air-free or free-air; taking the service out of service stations

They used to call them service stations, even when all they offered was fuel, water and air.

Today, at an increasing number of stations, even that's a stretch. Air is among the first to go.

(Image: Stacked tires. Credit: EIA, U.S. Department of Energy.)

These days, many gas stations will have a convenience store, selling candy bars, beer and pretzels, but they won't have even the basics when it comes to keeping your car on the road.

This is a disturbing trend. If a gas station doesn't have compressed air, who will? It's understood that a pharmacy sells bandages, and not just Viagra.

I stopped at one Kauai station to get gas and to fill up my tires. The compressor was out of order. No air. And it had been out of order for some time.

At another station, there was no compressor at all. You couldn't put air in your tires there, even if you were willing to pay for it. They referred me to a tire repair shop.

At a third, you had to feed coins into the compressor. (In some states, that coin box has become a target for vandals and thieves.)

Checking the air in your tires is something a driver ought to do every few times the car is filled up, at least a visual check and frequently a check with a tire gauge.

Low air pressure increases rolling resistance and makes you use more fuel. Differences in air pressure between tires can affect the car's performance, a safety issue. Tires are expensive, and low air can make a tire wear out quicker, and can cause tire damage. (Overinflated tires can also cause problems, reducing traction.)

But gas stations increasingly are saving money by refusing to install air compressors, or are charging for air. Some folks strongly feel that air should be free, but we are less concerned about the price than that air should at least be available.

In some states, free air is required by law. In others, a station can charge, but must provide free air service to fuel customers. (In some cases, attendants will give these folks tokens for pay compressors; in others, attendants remotely can allow free access to the compressed air.)

In California, for instance, “law requires every service station in this state to provide, during operating hours, water, compressed air, and a gauge for measuring air pressure, to the public for use in servicing any passenger or commercial vehicle, as defined.”

In Connecticut, the air must not only be free, but you legally must post a sign saying it's both available and free.

Our prediction is that if air-free (as opposed to free-air) stations continue to proliferate in Hawai'i, consumer demand will lead to legislation making it mandatory.

In the meantime, one of our energy-interested correspondents suggests stations with free air take advantage of the potential competitive boost by posting signs that they have air available.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

We test the Tesla Roadster--disruptive energy technology

A conservative institution, the international financier Deutsche Bank, is arguing that oil could hit $175 by 2016—a little more than six years out.

And that will give rise to disruptive energy technologies that will change the world, the bank says.

(Image: The Tesla Roadster, an example of the disruptive electric powered vehicle technology that will crush global oil demand? Credit: Tesla Motors.)

Deutsche bank has some credibility in oil prediction. Early last year, half a year before oil hit $147 a barrel, the bank predicted it would reach $150. Hmm.

We haven't been able to find the actual $175/gal report, but the Wall Street Journal has.

The fascinating thing about Deutsche Bank's prediction is that it also suggests that will help prompt a second peak—a peak in demand.

In essence, they're saying that the high pricing (in part) will crush demand so thoroughly and permanently that prices will drop by 2030 back to today's $70 range.

We've seen a little of this kind of activity in the year since last year's oil price peak. Demand for petroleum has dropped. Global oil stockpiles are high. Oil-fired electricity demand is down. Is it more the oil price peak, or more the recession, or a combination? Don't know. But the drop in demand is there.

The Journal cites the Deutsche Bank report as saying it expects the automotive industry to promote the disruptive technology that will help drive down petroleum demand. It's hybrid and electric cars.

“We expect [electric propulsion] will reverse the dynamics of world oil demand, and spell the end of the oil age,” the Journal quotes the report saying.

By coincidence, as I write this, I'm a few hours out of a test drive in an electric car.

It was the $109,000 Tesla Roadster.

It shatters all the stereotypes of an electric car as a glorified golf cart, as a short-range neighborhood vehicle, as something an order of magnitude less than sexy.

It was red.

It was low.

It was convertible.

It had a distinctly Lotus air about it.

It was all electric.

It was the hottest car I've ever driven.

Acceleration that pulls the flesh back off the bones of your face.

Speed, well, so let's just say it reaches with elan whatever is the posted speed limit.

It nicely held the road in corners.

It has no transmission. Electric motors don't need to shift.

And it has more than 200 miles of range on a single charge.

I don't know whether the folks at Deutsche Bank have driven the Tesla Roadster. If they have, I understand their prediction.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Diseases on reefs? Overfishing and maybe butterflyfishes involved

Disease is killing off corals faster, in some parts of the world, than sedimentation, chemicals flowing from the land, damaging anchoring procedures and destructive fishing techniques.

And what's promoting disease? Perhaps it's overfishing and a high population of butterflyfishes.

(Image: Complex marine communities appear healthier than ones missing key players, research indicates. Credit: National Marine Fisheries Service.)

A new study suggests one thing can help protect reefs from coral disease: a diverse fish population.

This odd-seeming result, argues, the authors say, for protecting coral reefs from overfishing.

To make sense of this research, it is necessary to think of coral reefs as interlocked communities rather than simply collections of living rock. And fish are part of the community.

The paper that reported the study is in the October 6, 2009, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. ( It is entitled, “Functionally diverse reef-fish communities ameliorate coral disease,” by University of Guam Marine Laboratory researchers Laurie J. Raymundo, Andrew R. Halford, and Alexander Kerr, and University of Hawai'i Department of Zoology researcher Aileen P. Maypa.

The researchers studied reefs in the Philippines, including both fished reefs and marine protected areas. They looked at more than 20,000 coral colonies. In general, they found that reefs with diverse fish communities had less disease, and vice versa.

Their paper reports that fish are a major regulating force on reefs. Some fish, of course, eat corals, but other fish eat those fish, still others eat algae that threaten corals and so forth.

What happens if fishing pressure pulls out one piece of this three-dimensional jigsaw?

“If subject to sustained heavy fishing, entire functional groups can be lost, resulting in a cascade of effects,” the authors said.

Fish that are no longer being eaten can increase in population, building up the pressure on the things they eat, for example. The cascade of impacts threaten the stability of the reef and, “ultimately, the resilience of coral reefs is compromised.”

One additional and intriguing bit of information from the research was that areas with high butterflyfish populations tended also to have higher coral disease levels.

Anglers and spearfisherfolks tend not to target butterflyfishes, so they can actually increase in number after heavy fishing—both because they're not being killed by humans, but also because their predators are removed by human fishers.

Could these fishes be associated with coral disease spread? It looks like they might. The researchers studied data on Australian coral reefs and came up with the same results.

“Chaetodontids (butterflyfishes) again emerged as the single fish family significantly

and positively associated with disease prevalence,” they wrote.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Friday, October 2, 2009

A potential endangered whale shuffle

There's talk about moving one Hawaiian whale on and one Hawaiian whale off the federal Endangered Species List.

Why? Humpbacks have recovered nicely since being protected, while the Hawaiian inshore population of false killer whales is dropping to near 100 individuals.

(Image: humpback whale numbers have recovered, but they still face threats. This whale off Maui last year, was entangled in multiple lengths of polypropylene line. Credit: NOAA)

The humpback whale, for which the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary was designated just a dozen years ago, has recovered dramatically in numbers since whaling for it was technically halted by an international ban back in 1966.

Humpbacks had dropped in number to between 1,000 and 2,000. Now their number is estimated at more than 20,000 in the North Pacific.

The sanctuary, of course, is for more than just whales, and its survival should not be threatened by the downlisting of Hawai'i's most visible whale species. More information on the status review for humpbacks here

That site includes information on how to comment on the status of the whales. Deadline for comment is Oct. 13. More on this below.

Meanwhile, the Natural Resources Defense Council is calling for the endangered species listing of another Hawai'i whale, the Hawaiian false killer whale.

Most folks have seen humpbacks, because of their remarkable aerial acrobatics, sometimes leaping their tons upon tons entirely out of the water.

Most have never seen Hawaiian false killer whales, Pseudorca crassidens, which are large dolphins that can reach three-quarters of a ton in weight. These animals tend to be deepwater creatures, but there is a genetically distinct Hawaiian population that remains close to shore.

There are only about 120 of them, and the population has been declining for the last quarter century—the same time during which humpbacks have been rebounding.

“Given the extremely small size of this population, the loss of even a few mature adults could have serious and long-term reproductive consequences. Toxic chemicals, reduced food sources and interactions with fishing vessels are the biggest threats to this unique mammal,” said NRDC wildlife biologist Sylvia Fallon.

In a press release, the organization adds these points:

“The population faces a number of threats including interactions with local fisheries, reduced food sources and exposure to toxic chemicals. False killer whales are likely affected both by long-line and unregulated near-shore and “short” long-line fisheries. A recent study showed that disfigurement from fishing gear in this population was four times higher than for other dolphin and toothed whale species, suggesting high rates of interactions with fisheries. These fisheries may also be contributing to a decline in the size or number of the primary food source for false killer whales, which are large deep water fish including mahi mahi and yellowfin tuna.

“Recent research confirms the presence of PCBs (a toxic substance found in plastics), DDT and flame retardants in tissue samples taken from the Hawaiian false killer whales. Pollution levels found in one-third of the samples are known to cause serious health problems in marine mammals.

“The cumulative effects of these risks combined with the depleted population qualify the Hawaiian false killer whale as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act. If listed, the population would become the first Hawaiian toothed whale species listed under ESA and only the second toothed whale (after the southern resident killer whale in the Pacific Northwest) listed overall. Today’s petition was sent to the Secretary of Commerce through the National Marine Fisheries Service.”

This site has images of major whale species and the threats they face,

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

If you choose to comment on the listing status of humpback whales, here's the contact information from the Federal Register:

DATES: To allow us adequate time to conduct these reviews, we must
receive your information no later than October 13, 2009. However, we
will continue to accept new information about any listed species at any time.

ADDRESSES: You may submit comments, identified by the code 0648-XQ74,
addressed to Shannon Bettridge by any of the following methods:
1. Electronic Submissions: Submit all electronic comments via the
Federal eRulemaking Portal
2. Facsimile (fax): 301-713-0376, Attn: Shannon Bettridge.
3. Mail: Shannon Bettridge, National Marine Fisheries Service,
Office of Protected Resources, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring,
MD 20910.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Shannon Bettridge at the above
address, or at 301-713-2322.