Small-Scale Backyard Integrated Aquamethaponics Food Production System and Training Program for Native Hawaiian Working Families in Hawaii

Year: 2006

Research Center: American Indian Studies Program, The University of Arizona

Investigator: D`Silva, Aecio, and Robert Howerton

Institution: The University of Arizona

Project Contact:
Aecio D’Silva
The University of Arizona
104 BioEast
Tucson, AZ 85721
Phone: 520-621-1959


Native Hawaiian health care programs encourage a return to traditional diets that include fish and taro.

Native Hawaiians have the highest health statistics in Hawaii for morbid obesity, depression and other mental illnesses, high blood pressure, diabetes, respiratory illnesses, heart disease, and cancer mortality compared with other ethnic groups. A contributing factor to these health problems was the adoption of westernized lifestyles that introduced dietary items that replaced the traditional Native Hawaiian diet of predominantly fish, taro, fruits, and vegetables.

In the latter half of the 20th century, institutional efforts, including the Native Hawaiian Health Care Improvement Act, the Native Hawaiian Health Care System of 1988, and the Native Hawaiian Health Scholarship Program of 1992, were initiated to improve the social and health situation of Native Hawaiians. The mission of the Native Hawaiian Health Care Program is to improve the health status of Native Hawaiians by advocating, initiating, and maintaining culturally appropriate actions aimed at improving the physical, mental, and spiritual health of Native Hawaiians.

A small-scale family food production system could reduce household expenses and increase nutritional input for poor working families.

Hawaii has one of the highest costs of living in the United States. A significant amount of expenses for a household in Hawaii are food purchases. Moreover, a substantial number of working families of ethnic origin in Hawaii, including a majority of Native Hawaiians, live close to or under the poverty level.

The purpose of this project was to recruit five Native Hawaiian families and train them in producing food, including fish and vegetables in small-scale aquamethaponics systems (called Systems Aquamethaponci of Recirculation, or SAAR). These low-cost integrated aquaculture-agriculture systems can be constructed in backyards and supplement healthful foods that may be too expensive to purchase in quantities for low-income families. The food items produced by this system, principally fresh fish and vegetables, were the traditional dietary components of Native Hawaiians. The hypothesis of this project is that, by making access to these foods easier and more affordable, participants may return to a more healthful lifestyle.

Four families were selected for the project by advertising for participants in local working-class communities and newsletters and by word of mouth. Initially, four families and a nonprofit organization, the Paia Learning Center (PLC), were chosen for participation in the aquamethaponics project. The PLC was chosen because of its mission to work with “at-risk” families and teenagers and to teach vocational-technical skills. The PLC verbally committed to the project for a minimum of 3 years and also agreed to help at least one family develop another system. The families selected built five aquamethaponics systems. All families were trained in a week-long “hands-on” workshop.

All family systems are operational. Results show that the families have harvested over 250 pounds of lettuce and tomatoes, as well as green onions, cilantro, and basil. Families also use organic biofertilizer to irrigate terrestrial plants and fruit trees adjacent to the aquamethaponics system. The total fish production was approximately 120 pounds. All fish and vegetable production went directly to family consumption, indicating that aquamethaponics systems could help native Hawaiians return to a more healthful lifestyle.

Work continues at the Paia Learning Center on two classrooms. After completion in 2007, the classrooms will be used for a regular series of aquaculture and integrated agriculture-aquaculture workshops. These classrooms will facilitate the expansion of the backyard SAAR program and provide a facility in which resources may be consolidated.

Initial results of the aquaculture program have spurred expanded interest.

In support of the PLC and its aquaculture program, a number of Hawaii-based nonprofit charitable foundations have been solicited for funds to expand the backyard SAAR project. Anticipated funds from these foundations will double the number of SAAR systems in production by the end of 2007.

The agriculture coordinator from the Maui County Office of Economic Development (MCOED) toured a number of the systems. Based on a favorable impression of the production of vegetables, fish, and herbs, a proposal was submitted to MCOED and funds subsequently awarded to expand the program with five additional systems. Families have been selected and materials and supplies purchased to install the systems in 2007. One of these systems will be set up at Maui Community College to expand educational capacity with the aquaculture classes.

An additional system also has been completed recently at Kamehameha School. The high school aquascience class has begun to use the system for educational purposes and will continue to do so throughout the school year.