What started out as a futuristic experiment in generating electricity is now generating something completely different –- abalone and lobster. Near the Kona airport on the big island of Hawaii, the awkwardly named National Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority still houses a plant for making electricity, but there’s some serious aquaculture going on, too.
When the authority was planned in 1974, the plan was to pull cold water from the ocean depths and warm water from the shore and use the temperature difference to turn a turbine and generate electricity.
That effort is still ongoing and may yet pay off. But what’s already drawing dividends are a couple of forward-thinking aquaculture projects at the site. Big Island Abalone Corporation uses that nutrient-rich deep water and the area’s nearly constant sunshine to feed its Japanese breed of abalone. They’re now producing nearly 60 tons per year and thanks to recent expansion hope to hit 100 tons by the end of 2012.
Unlike California abalone, which is being successfully aquacultured in smaller amounts on the Central Coast, this Japanese Ezo variety doesn’t need tenderizing before cooking. It’s already being served at several restaurants in the islands, including Roy’s and Alan Wong’s, and at Benu in San Francisco and Terra in the Napa Valley.
The NELHA facility is also host to Kona Cold Lobsters, which distributes Maine lobster on the islands using the cold water to hold them, a salt company, an outfit desalinating and bottling deep ocean water, and even a company farming sea horses (not for consumption).
Another tenant, formerly operating as Kona Blue, has delivered promising results but is currently looking for investors to back its deep-water farming of kampachi. It’s also looking into farming other fish, including grouper.
[UPDATED: THE PHONE NUMBER ORIGINALLY GIVEN WAS FOR ADMINISTRATION] Tours offered every Friday morning for $29 (students and seniors $25), reservations required. 73-4460 Queen Kaahumanu Highway, No. 101, Kailua Kona, Hawaii, (808) 329-8073, www.FriendsOfNELHA.org.
Photo: The sorting line at Big Island Abalone; credit Kathy Parsons/For The Times.