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An undesired invasive reef fish may soon increase Hawaii food security

by NOAA Fisheries 1 Nov 06:16 UTC
Fresh-caught taape on ice. © Conservation International Hawaii

It's relatively small and found in schools. It's bright yellow like the sun and covered with brilliant sky-blue stripes. It's not originally from Hawaii but can now be found throughout the main Hawaiian Islands.

No, we're not talking about the latest fashionable rain jacket taking over elementary schools in the state.

This is the invasive reef fish taape, or bluestripe snapper. This abundant and delicious fish could soon spread across the restaurants and seafood markets of Hawaii—just as it had previously spread across the state's reefs.

For the project, Conservation International (CI) Hawai'i is teaming up with Chef Hui to bring collaborative action among local fishers, chefs, and restaurants. They will work with the State of Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) and others to develop a market for the underutilized and largely undesired taape. To that end, CI Hawaii and Chef Hui have formed the Sustainable Seafood Council, a network of Hawaii-based chefs. The council will identify and promote opportunities to improve business practices along the seafood supply chain. They are also creating new recipes for taape for the public to try at home or in restaurants.

"We see taape as a huge opportunity to increase food security in Hawaii," said Jhana Young, sustainable seafood manager at CI Hawai'i. "We're incredibly dependent on imported food, and Hawaii imports about 50 percent of the seafood needed to feed ourselves. Hawaii's reefs are in decline, and this project could help alleviate some of the pressure on native species while also addressing the food security needs of our local communities."

The project is supported by a Saltonstall-Kennedy grant administered by the NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office.

A long-ignored sustainable food source

Part of the grant work is trying to understand the seafood supply chain and market potential for taape, Jhana said.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, DAR, then known as the Division of Fish and Game, introduced to Hawaii a number of grouper and snapper species from the South Pacific, including taape. However, taape didn't catch on among fishers, chefs, and consumers, and its population exploded.

Mark Oyama, owner of Mark's Place on Kauai and member of the Sustainable Seafood Council, recalls growing up with divers and fishers and seeing huge schools of taape in the mid-1970s. "We'd surround them and bring them up to the community," he said.

As he got older, Oyama would catch the fish and give them to his friends. But there was always a stigma around taape, which was seen as a garbage fish—not unlike tilapia once was. "I never really ate it a lot myself," Oyama confessed. "But when you do eat it, it's actually really good."

In the mid-1980s, DAR conducted a market development project to see if consumer awareness initiatives could help drive a demand and market for ta'ape. But at the time, "people didn't have a preference for sustainability," Young said. "And Hawaii is so multicultural that people preferred the silver and red fish as something that is desirable," she said, referring to the importance of these colors to certain Asian cultures.

Attitudes have shifted since then. Local consumers want to know if their food is sustainable. Many of them are willing to pay more for seafood that's sustainable.

A highly palatable invasive species

It has been more than 60 years since taape was introduced to the islands. Yet this is the first effort to bring together chefs, fishers, restaurants, and consumers to build a market for sustainable seafood, according to Young.

"Hawaii has never had a statewide collaboration that focused on edible invasive species," she said. "We're really trying to push the limits in what Hawaii can do."

The project is still in its infancy, but CI Hawaii and its Sustainable Seafood Council have hit the ground running. They launched a campaign in 2020 to raise awareness of taape, and from 2020 to 2021, commercial harvest of the sustainable fish has increased 35 percent.

Various markets in Hawaii are carrying the fish, and the increase in demand ensures that fishers are getting paid around $3-$4 per pound for taape. In recent years, that figure was $1-2, the same amount fishers were getting for it in the 70s and 80s.

Changing consumer mindsets toward taape is still a challenge. "I think what we really need to do is strengthen the consumer's idea of these fish," Oyama said. Taape is a mild-flavored and versatile fish that can be prepared in many different ways, from grilling and steaming it to making sashimi with it. "For me, personally, I just like it fried," he said. "Deep fried with beer."

CI Hawaii and Chef Hui have compiled a list of online chef-submitted taape recipes. They're also holding dinner events around the islands for people to try the fish in person.

"We really want to blow people's minds about how delicious taape can be," Young said.

Aside from building public interest in the fish, the project also needs to get wholesalers and more restaurants on board. Labor costs are currently a bottleneck to this goal, Oyama explained. The small fish need to be scaled, fileted, and have the pin bones removed. Finding a quicker way to process the fish could also open the door to other value-added products, such as taape fish cakes, jerkies, and sauces.

If successful, the project could yield a number of benefits, according to CI Hawaii. This includes:

  • Increasing the awareness and perception of sustainable seafood and U.S. domestic seafood products
  • Increasing the production of and demand for local, sustainable seafood, and reducing the need for imports
  • Strengthening locally owned fishery businesses
  • Improving the understanding of how business practices across the seafood supply chain affect seafood demand
  • Creating a scalable, market-based strategy for sustainable seafood that can be expanded to other species and parts of the Pacific

"Our goal of this project is to create a win-win-win solution for Hawaii," Young said. "We see taape as a huge opportunity to increase our food security, support our local economy, and help restore our nearshore oceans."

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