Tasting the ‘aina: a tour of Kona lobster and abalone farms

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If you’re a foodie headed to Kona, you have to make a stop at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA). Most people do as Kamehameha Schools did and make appointments at least with Big Island Abalone Corporation (BIAC) and Kona Cold Lobsters (KCL).

Farming isn’t just limited to land; as we saw with these creatures, you can farm the ocean, too, and we often take the abundance of seafood in Hawaii for granted. These abalone and lobsters are delicacies from the deep ocean that are now being farm-raised in Kona, making them abundant and more accessible for restaurants and consumers without draining ocean resources. Best of all, they’re providing new industries for Hawaii, making us less dependent on outside suppliers — and the high quality of the abalone and lobsters are now renowned, so visitors know to seek these items out.

The unique location in Kona enables NELHA to pump water up from 2,000 feet below sea level through a 40-inch diameter pipeline, which has attracted other aquaculture companies like Royal Hawaiian Seafarms, Kona Blue Water Farms and Troutlodge Marine Farms. These, in addition to BIAC, sell their products to KLC for packaging and distribution throughout the state.

One big takeaway: Remember our meal at Sushi ii a few weeks ago? I was amazed that the baby abalone were so feisty in the bowl, probably because I — like many other people — consider abalone to be slow, like snails. The visit to BIAC changed my perspective on all that, and now I know abalone not only move quickly, but can see people and jump out of people’s hands, as well. Here’s a look at the two farms, and the dinner we had that night at Rays on the Bay in the Sheraton Kona:

Touring Big Island agriculture

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Starter tanks for dulse, a special seaweed, which is what the abalone eat. If they were grown in the sea water off the coast, they'd die, since they need to be kept very cold. The water here is about 56 degrees and is churned constantly to keep the oxygen flowing.

Mahalo to our Kamehameha Schools guides, who kept us on schedule and showed us these farms! This was actually the second half of the day we went to UCC Coffee and Original Hawaiian Chocolate. These were just the highlights; if you want to see the whole day’s photos, click here.


Delicate Blossom:  Very, very interesting stuff.  Were you able to find out about how they keep their stock disease free or is it because they are constantly pumping deep water that mitigates any infestation?  Remember how disease ruined the prawn farms in Kahuku?  I would have been curious about the breeding stock for abalone and lobster and how they are maintained.  You're right, lobsters are like crabs and will eat virtually anything.  So what are they feeding them?  It must be prepared stuff to keep diseases from starting up or the limu they grow.  I am a spiny lobster kind of guy because I never had a Maine lobster that tasted equal or better.  I guess because I fished for them I had spiny lobsters fresh.  Now with KCL, maybe the Maine type lobsters will taste better as they are fresher...I wonder if "wild" and "farmed" have taste differences?  I think I read once where they claim that lobsters mate for life.  Don't know about abalone.  Can you hear the refrains of the song "Stuck on You" in the background in the abalone breeding tanks?

Melissa808 moderator

 @Annoddah_Dave I believe it was a combination of the water source plus the fact they are constantly pumping new water in. After all, if a lobster dies in the ocean, why don't the other lobsters die? The circulation is key. 


As it turns out, a lot of lobster farmers feed their lobsters corn. KCL feeds their lobsters seafood because "I've never seen any corn growing in the ocean!"