Images by Jun Jo
In an 800-year-old Hawaiian fishpond on O‘ahu’s eastern shore, new life grows. Encircled by dense, green vegetation and flanked by a cascading mountain, the Moli‘i Fishpond, located at Kualoa Ranch, once fed a large swath of the island for hundreds of years. And if the grand plans for the future of the pond hold true, it will contribute once again, marking a new phase in Hawaiian aquaculture and adding an important element to the state’s modern economy. So what’s the secret to revitalizing this old fishpond? Oysters.
“Yep, we’re growing oysters in the fishpond. Around 30,000 of them actually. Pacific oysters to be exact,” says David Morgan, whose family has owned and worked Kualoa Ranch for generations. “Since we announced what we’ve been up to, we’ve had a tremendous amount of positive feedback. People are really excited about what we’re doing and so are we. We think oysters production in this fishpond could be a big part of what we do here at Kualoa Ranch in the future.”
Hawai‘i has played a crucial role in American oyster production for some time. Over the past decade, the Pacific Northwest—an epicenter in mainland oyster farming—began to experience ocean acidification, making it difficult to grow oysters. Because of Hawai‘i’s temperate climate and ocean conditions, many oyster farmers in Washington began growing their seed, or baby oysters, in Hawai‘i, where the shellfish reach maturation at a much faster rate. Unfortunately, all the oyster seed grown in the islands is shipped back to the mainland, where it continues to mature, and is eventually sold to a very hungry market.
According to research conducted by the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, the shellfish industry in Washington state alone is worth $150 million, and in the country as a whole, more than a billion. Conservative estimates by UH Hilo predict oyster farming in Hawai‘i could bring in $20 million a year over the next 10 years.
So, with an increased demand for oysters from foodies around the world, and a perfect setup in the form of the fishpond, Morgan took to work. When it comes to growing oysters meant for human consumption, the state requires producers to meet a bevy of regulations. Over the course of a few years, Morgan worked with the state to ensure that the pond and his methods of farming were up to code, and just earlier this year, he pulled in his first harvest. Currently, the oysters are for sale by the dozen at Kualoa Ranch and at select farmers markets like the one at Windward Mall. And while the ranch has plans of selling directly to restaurants in the future, it is looking to increase its stock before taking on that endeavor.
While Morgan oversees the ranch and the oyster farm, Ku‘uipo McCarty, a woman with a wry grin and a sharp sense of humor, is responsible for the day-to-day operations. Luckily for me, the ranch set up a tour of the production, including an oyster tasting. The oysters, which she mothers from seed to maturation, require a hard day’s work to ensure they meet the ranch’s (and state health officials’) high standards. The end result, she tells me, is one of the finest oysters I’ll ever eat.
I ask her to prove it.
With the light dancing on the brackish water in the fishpond behind us, McCarty removes an oyster knife and begins shucking oysters pulled from the pond just hours before. “You won’t find anything but lean protein in our oysters. After we harvest them from the fishpond, we put them in a tank with pure fresh water for two days to ensure that they don’t have anything left in their system,” she tells me. “This makes the taste of the oyster—which really should be like a fresh bite of the sea—that much better.”
With a deft hand, she unhinges the shell and plucks the live oyster from its home. She passes me the bivalve and I quickly slurp it, chewing it exactly three times before swallowing. The taste is otherworldly, like if you were to eat canned tuna all your life, then encounter a high-quality slice of fresh sashimi.
“What did I tell you?” she asks. “Pretty good huh? You want another?”
How about a dozen?
Fresh live oysters are available by the dozen for $15, and are picked up at Kualoa Ranch. For more information or to reserve yours, visit kualoa.com/oysters-seafood.