HPU Today
The Oceanic Institute at Hawai‘i Pacific University

By Chris Aguinaldo

Technology benefits food security and sustainability

Troubled Waters: The Plight of the Yellow Tang
A Civil Beat video

What would happen if 2 billion more people showed up for dinner and the refrigerators were empty? This is an extremely oversimplified description of what could happen in just a few decades.

"If the demographers are correct that there will be about 9 billion people in 2050, we are looking at an additional 2 billion mouths to feed," said Shaun Moss, Ph.D., acting president and CEO for Scientific Programs at the Oceanic Institute at Hawai‘i Pacific University.

Compounding matters are countries such as China and India that are experiencing unprecedented economic development with populations consuming "more and more of our scarce resources in addition to the absolute growth … it's a scary prognosis," said Moss solemnly.

It is no coincidence, then, that Moss has met with representatives from both countries and others around the world about food security and how OI's groundbreaking technology can help them.

Located at Makapu‘u Point on O‘ahu with a spectacular view of the beautiful Waimanalo coastline, OI has developed an enviable reputation as a world leader in aquaculture and shrimp breeding technology, in particular. With shrimp, OI had the right tech at the right time.

"Historically, most of the farmed shrimp came from Asia, and most of the shrimp farmed in Asia was a species called the black tiger prawn or black tiger," Moss said. But about two decades ago, those shrimp succumbed to diseases that made farming them unprofitable.

At about that time, OI started to conduct research on a population of a different species not native to Asia—the Pacific White Shrimp. With partners in the U.S. Marine Shrimp Farming Program, OI produced the world's first specific, pathogen-free (SPF) population of Pacific White Shrimp.

The Oceanic Institute at Hawai‘i Pacific University produced the world’s first specific, pathogen-free (SPF) population of Pacific White Shrimp. The shrimp helped to revitalize the Asian shrimp farm industry.
The Oceanic Institute at Hawai‘i Pacific University produced the world’s first specific, pathogen-free (SPF) population of Pacific White Shrimp. The shrimp helped to revitalize the Asian shrimp farm industry.
Photo by Chris Aguinaldo

"We started to breed them for rapid growth, high survival in ponds, even resistance to specific viral pathogens," Moss said. "We started to create a shrimp that performed very well on shrimp farms."

OI distributed shrimp developed from the SPF breeding technology to local companies which then "created a multimillion dollar industry here in Hawai‘i. They started exporting SPF broodstock to the Asian market and the Asian farmers started to make money again," said Moss.

This work was well-received by the scientific community, in addition to the revitalized Asian shrimp farming industry, giving OI a healthy amount of credibility. That reputation came in handy as OI's major funding mechanism—the federal earmark—faced scrutiny in recent years.

U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye was a big supporter of OI and its mission of aquaculture development and the broader mission of food security. OI used federal funding to create "transportable" technologies that can be used by industry, said Moss. As those earmarks disappeared, OI shifted its focus to developing partnerships that could provide financial support necessary to continue the work and further development of its aquaculture strengths.

"We are fortunate to have technologies that have market value," Moss said. Led by Moss, OI researchers opened conversations with a long and growing list of companies and countries, preceded by a stellar reputation and proven, cutting-edge technology.

Recently, OI completed collaborative research agreements with parties in India and China to help improve the genetic quality of farmed shrimp toward increasing sustainable food supplies in those countries. The multi-year deals will allow OI to continue to develop its shrimp breeding technologies to produce an even better shrimp.

Moss and his colleagues have also visited Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand, among other countries. A longtime scientist, Moss jokes that he spends more time on airlines than a lab these days. "Boy, I've learned a lot about Asian cultures and negotiations!"

Shaun Moss, Ph.D., meets state Sen. Clarence Nishihara following a demonstration of OI’s revolutionary shrimp rearing technology that could help address food security globally.
Shaun Moss, Ph.D., meets state Sen. Clarence Nishihara following a demonstration of OI’s revolutionary shrimp rearing technology that could help address food security globally.
Photo by Chris Aguinaldo

"Up until 2010, 2011, we didn't do this kind of work. Because we had these large federal grants, our primary stakeholder was the U.S. shrimp farming industry. Despite some inquiries, we weren't terribly interested," Moss said.

While there continues to be heavy interest in its technology, OI remains a "non-profit research institute, first and foremost," with any excess funds going back into research, said Moss.

"That's the fundamental difference. If we were a for-profit company, that could go to shareholders—but we reinvest it," he added. "Our core mission is sustainable, aquatic protein production, using marine resources to produce food in a sustainable way."

Even as OI reinvents itself as a premier, non-profit food security enterprise, Moss said it is still dedicated to Hawai‘i. In fact, a long-planned project that could help the islands develop a more sustainable food supply is gaining momentum.

With financial support from federal and state government, as well as private backers, OI is moving forward with plans for a commercial prototype feed mill on the Big Island of Hawai‘i and hoping to break ground next year.

Hawai‘i's isolation makes food security a priority, with only about a 12-day food supply, should cargo ships be unable to reach the state for some reason, Moss said. Raising enough animal protein—whether aquatic or terrestrial—to feed the state on a sustainable basis is a challenge because feed must be shipped to Hawai‘i.

"From an animal protein standpoint, the biggest obstacle is lack of available, low-cost feed. Feeds represent a major operating cost. In fact, in aquaculture, it can represent up to 60 percent of your operating costs, for cost of feed for your animal," Moss said.

Weeks after hatching at the Oceanic Institute, baby clownfish strongly resemble their parents.
The Oceanic Institute at Hawai‘i Pacific University produced the world’s first specific, pathogen-free (SPF) population of Pacific White Shrimp. The shrimp helped to revitalize the Asian shrimp farm industry.
Photo by By Chatham Callan, Ph.D., Finfish Department, Oceanic Institute
Oceanic Institute is making significant breakthroughs in rearing and feeding technology for yellow tang, a popular ornamental fish.
Oceanic Institute is making significant breakthroughs in rearing and feeding technology for yellow tang, a popular ornamental fish.
Photo by By Melissa D. Rietfors, Finfish Department, Oceanic Institute

With the feed mill project, researchers will identify feed formulations for animals—including cattle, pigs, moi and shrimp—that use byproducts of local industries. This may include byproducts from fisheries and the agricultural industry.

Once identified, the feed will be tested on a scale commercially relevant to Hawai‘i at the new feed mill.

"Right now we can't do that. The only aquatic feed mill in Hawai‘i is only 200 yards away," said Moss, gesturing outside his office at OI. "It has very limited capacity."

Which is why Moss is looking forward to the new facility. If successful and the right mixes are found, it could help lead to a more sustainable food supply in Hawai‘i, he said.

But OI's work in sustainability goes beyond food. While leveraging expertise to develop technologies to ensure food security, that research can help address sustainability in other ways.

"There are a lot of collateral benefits and uses of the technology," said Moss, including research into culturing marine ornamental fish, "which has a whole cascade of benefits from a conservation and coral reef ecology perspective."

Research scientist Chatham K. Callan, Ph.D., of the OI Finfish Department is part of a team trying to culture the very popular aquarium fish, yellow tang. Because more than 300,000 yellow tang are collected in the wild and exported from Hawai‘i annually, culturing these fish can significantly benefit the environment by reducing pressures on wild populations.

"Culturing yellow tang will be a huge step forward in the conservation of Hawai‘i's coral reefs," Callan said. "Not only would it help reduce the fishing pressure on the reefs for these aquarium species, but it could unlock some doors towards culturing other very difficult to rear fish—such as deep-water snappers or groupers—that also have very tiny and fragile larvae."

OI researchers pioneered rearing methods for both yellow tang larvae and their prey, enabling larvae to eat and survive through the first few weeks of life to the critical first-feeding stage. No one else had taken the research that far.

Callan has a new set of yellow tang eggs and is continuing the research. But as he does, he keeps busy with OI's newest residents: clownfish.

In the spring, hundreds of the distinctive, orange and white-striped ornamental fish—popularized by the global Disney box office smash, "Finding Nemo," which starred an animated clownfish in the title role—hatched at OI. The clownfish research is valuable in its own right, but it could also benefit the yellow tang research.

"Clownfish are our controls and models of a complete, mature process, where we know what to expect at any given point in development," Callan said. "We can use the clownfish larvae to help us understand whether our system parameters, diet parameters and more are all in check."

OI research assistant Dean Kline (BS Marine Biology '08, MS Marine Science '11) added, "The clownfish are great teaching tools for our students, as well as a reliable benchmark for OI researchers trying to raise more difficult fish larvae."

Research assistant Dean Kline (BS Marine Biology ’08, MS Marine Science ’11) checks on baby clownfish being raised at the Oceanic Institute.
Research assistant Dean Kline (BS Marine Biology ’08, MS Marine Science ’11) checks on baby clownfish being raised at the Oceanic Institute.
Photo by Chris Aguinaldo

Kline, originally from Mechanicsville, Va., started studying yellow tang as an HPU student. "Being a part of the institute as a graduate student really immersed me into the scientific process."

"There are very few places to study aquaculture in the U.S., but fortunately I came across HPU and its affiliate, OI," he said. "The affiliation between HPU and OI is the primary reason for my choosing

HPU for my education. I wanted to work with the researchers at OI."

"It's very exciting to have a tank of eggs that later hatch into tiny larvae and then to watch the day to day development," Kline continued. "Every day, I wake up excited for work. I'm just as excited now as a full member of the research team as I was as a student intern back in 2007."

Moss sometimes envies students studying in OI's labs. "When I think about my undergraduate experiences, they were mostly in a classroom. I would have killed to come to an OI!"

Students learning from HPU researchers on site, working on internships with OI scientists and seeing leading aquaculture technology up close are having "an incredible experience," Moss said.

That marriage of a strong education with practical science will become even more important in the near future, Moss reflected, as the world faces significant challenges, such as water and food safety issues.

For example, the shrimp industry in Asia is being affected by Early Mortality Syndrome (EMS). Since the disease was first reported in China in 2009, it has spread to Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand. With reduced shrimp supplies, it has led to losses reported to be more than $1 billion for the industry.

"Because OI has a large and fully pedigreed shrimp breeding program," explained Moss, "its scientists may be able to select shrimp for high survival after exposure to a pathogen, once it has been identified."

However, industry researchers have had challenges in identifying the pathogen behind EMS. OI's scientists will follow the situation closely for this and other food safety issues around the world, Moss said. After all, those 2 billion more people will be here eventually, and the unavoidable problem of not having enough food looms large.

"The solutions are going to have to be multidisciplinary. [Solutions] are not going to come from only a biologist or the engineers or the economist," he said. "It's going to come from the integration of social science, natural science, engineering, math, computers—all of this."

That goes hand in hand with plans of HPU and OI fully integrating, after 10 years of successful research and teaching collaboration. The boards of HPU and OI in early summer approved plans to merge the two institutions. The merger is subject to consents from federal and state agencies and could happen in the 2013–14 academic year, which begins in September.

With this anticipated merger of world-class scientific research and higher education, the future looks bright at the Oceanic Institute, especially for students interested in tackling the challenges of tomorrow.

"To me, we're addressing a piece of the problem here," said Moss. "The extent that we can contribute to a growing mind about food security and aquaculture—if they start to integrate that in with their other academic experiences at HPU, then HPU will be in the business of producing problem solvers … and OI is part of it.