Pacific Pearls

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OYSTERS GENERALLY TEND TO ELICIT TWO TYPES OF RESPONSES: fervent adoration or loathsome repulsion. Oysters—a voluptuous bivalve that reveals a verdant sweetness, bathed in a beguiling briny liquor¬–may also be perceived as a corpulent bursa of internal organs drenched in slimy seawater. However, how these apparent aphrodisiacs are helping preserve some of Hawai‘i’s historical sites, while establishing an economically viable bridge to a promising sustainable future, may make those who shy away from oysters reconsider the romance.

While one may not necessarily think of “Hawai‘i” when oysters are mentioned, the Aloha State is home to native oysters and in fact, Pearl Harbor are was once called Wai Momi (pearl waters). Those waters are once again home to oysters native to Pearl Harbor: the Hawaiian Oyster (Dendostrea sandvicensis) and the Black-lip Pacific Oyster (Pinctada margaritifera). These oysters— recently re-introduced to the estuary thanks to a partnership between the U.S. Navy, O‘ahu Waterkeeper and Pacific Aquaculture and Coastal Resources Center (PACRC)—are there to improve the water quality at Pearl Harbor only and not for consumption. Despite the aptly named harbor not producing consumable oysters, there are other places in which Hawai‘i’s oysters are thriving.

The industry’s second breath, one that would supply a larger audience, was fueled by a conversation between Bruce Anderson of the Department of Health and the Morgan family, owners and custodians of Kualoa Ranch. Anderson suggested that the mollusks be raised in a submerged system in Moli‘i Pond, the on-site fishpond believed to be 800 or 900 years old. Boasting the longest record of continuous operation in the State of Hawai‘i, Moli‘i actively produced o‘io (bonefish), papio (young ulua), lai (queenfish), to‘au (blacktail snapper), and Samoan crab. The primary stocking of fish and crabs was achieved through natural recruitment to maintain the stability of the pond’s ecology.

After about five years of research and development and a melee of daunting challenges, including barnacle infestation, boring parasites, and longer and hotter summers, the oyster farm at Kualoa Ranch gained its Department of Health certification, thanks to strong support from the Morgan family. Today, the farm continues to maintain its designation via routine water quality in- spections several times a year to ensure a safer product for consumption.

What aids the aquaculture process are a few more contemporary implementations. One is the development of a basket system—coined Anderson floats—which suspends oysters above the muddy bottom of the pond, in order to allow oysters better access to nourishing algae, helping maintain a stable ecosystem within the ancient fish pond, while not letting the oysters be- come smothered in sediment. Another is a depuration tank, which helps the oysters from consuming most of the undesirable components that depreciate its savory appeal.

Raising shellfish from a six mm seed is not a simple task; rather, it is a labor intensive, nurturing process that takes about eight to nine months. Fortunately, the animal that typically thrives in cold water is harvested year-round in Hawai‘i because the triploids, which are fast- growing, non-reproductive oysters, do not release any eggs during the summer, normally causing them to become thin and runny, even chalky. Furthermore, during hotter summers, which may also spur higher mortality rates, the Kualoa oysters are treated to a gentle bath in chilling tanks so as to not shock them, resulting in the perennial enjoyment of these aesthetically plump, salty delicacies that reveal a sweet, watermelon rind and cucumber-esque finish.

While Kualoa Ranch’s pioneering efforts to raise Pacific oysters in a historical Hawaiian fish pond satisfies merely a drop in the bucket in the move towards sustainability, with its monthly yield of 10,000 oysters for a market that consumes about 4.8 million a year, they serve as great role models by actively helping others institute their programs, giving them guidance and assistance. In the future, we can only hope that more high-quality, locally harvested gems will be proudly featured on menus alongside other oysters, as the pure and clean-flavored Mer Bleue, salty and asparagus-scented Village Bay, sugary yet earthy Fanny Bay, smaller sweet and fruity Kumamoto, as well as the tiny but sweet, pear-flavored Kusshi, adding to the spectrum of sizes, textures and flavors already being savored in the Islands.

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