Lita Weidenbach, Navigating a Future for Sustainable Fish

When Estrellita was just a girl with a name full of starlight, she would explore the wilderness surrounding their family’s anthurium farm in Mountain View on Hawaii Island and come back with baby fish that she would raise in tubs and buckets in the backyard. She cared for them so well that they would end up on the dinner table months later. That was just the beginning.

Now Lita Weidenbach, with her husband Ron, runs the largest Tilapia aquaculture farm in the state of Hawaii.

The second thing Lita tells me is that it was love at first sight: college days, Ron was standing in the kitchen at a friend’s party, cooking. Fish soup. This led to dates of driving around the North Shore looking for land to dream about raising fish on, deep decades longs research and experimentation that has led to the cultivation of a unique branch of Hawaii’s food growing past and potential: land-based aquaculture.

Over the nearly 20 years of building their farm, Lita and Ron have also built a new reputation for tilapia in Hawaii and it hasn’t been easy. Tilapia here picked up a reputation for being prolific and cheap, whose quality was determined by it’s environment: historically ditches and canals. The quality of any fish is determined by where it lives and what it eats. Tilapia is no different.

We’re standing a few feet away from the edge of a cliff that drops down into the shimmering green expanse. She calls it a pond but it’s eight acres large and 100 plus feet deep. What makes it so rare and keeps it alive is the fact it’s being fed by cool natural springs. Tilapia can grow anywhere, but there could not be a more perfect place for raising a new kind of tilapia: the tastiest kind. Lita and Ron have been working together for thirty years, painstakingly breeding and carefully cultivating toward a fish fit for white tablecloth and the finest of palates. Especially one belonging to a very stylish and knowledgeable First Lady, who has in fact dined on a tilapia raised right here on this farm and has declared that tilapia is her favorite fish.

Tasty is right. It takes one to two years depending on the desired finish weight. The result is big, meaty with a delicate and light flavor.

Lita’s domain at the farm is the hatchery and nursery, the raising of the baby fry as well as the algae the baby fish feed on. Keen attention to detail, and nuanced reading of behavior key Lita into the well-being of the young fish. It is fascinating to me, how Lita’s girlhood fascination with growing fish had blossomed into a very specialized livelihood.  I want to learn more about how far back and how deeply this connection to fish is to her life and she sends me this illuminating email: “You know, I think when you are a child it is so easy to be captivated by the wonder of animals, plants, and other creatures of this world — a child can be acutely aware of and appreciate such minute details as the translucent tint of a fish scale or the particular flowing curve of a fin.  I remember knowing each of my tilapia as specific individuals — I had a name for each of them!  I was so totally charmed by these underwater inhabitants that I spent long hours just observing them and learning their habits.  So yes, I believe that on some level, the care of my fishes came naturally to me, although my mother assisted in helping me to provide their basic care (an old bathtub and leftover rice from dinner!).”

Is it possible to have a sense of fish?  We think so.  So many people who have dedicated their lives to working with nature have developed a certain sense. It could even be looked at as a kind of communication between humans and animals, perhaps honed by tens of thousands of hours of living together and of caring for.   There is also another kind of sense that Lita hinted to in our interview as we talked about how more women are needed in aquaculture.  Why women?  In aquaculture the kind of attention to detail and acute observational skills that women have had to develop as care givers would be of great benefit in raising fragile young creatures that can only exist in very specific living conditions.  In Lita’s case maternal instincts must have been doing double duty with raising her small fry alongside her three human children on the farm.

With their involvement in the growth of the aquaculture industry in Hawaii and the nation, Ron was sometimes away on conferences and this often left Lita in charge of running the farm and caring for her young children. We’re standing at the rocky shore as Lita introduces me to a farm-built skiff that she and the kids would steer out onto the water to feed the fish. It’s about the size of a surfboard. It must not have been easy at all, as isolated as the farm is, but I can tell by her laugh and the glimmer in her eyes that they took it as an adventure.

Lita mentions often that it was a dream of theirs, to raise their children on a farm and the dream has come true.

Her children were outstanding students at Waialua High School.  Joe is now 25 and an environmental engineer.  Mariah is 22 and has a degree in sociology.  The youngest, Mikia, is 18 and attending Princeton and is focusing on issues of sustainability and renewable energy. They still come back to help on the farm and have a hand in planning for its future– the second generation of Weidenbachs. It will be exciting to see what they can do all together now.

We hope nothing gets in the way of their plans.

A few days ago, Dan and I got word that the Weidenbach’s farm is in danger. Please lend your help by emailing a brief testimony of support for the renewal of their lease so that they may continue to operate their farm. They not only strengthen our local food system by being our largest land-based aquaculture operation, but they are also leaders in this community. Here’s a link to the Acting Up Call to Action.

It’s highly unlikely that anyone else will ever be able to use that particular patch of land in the optimal and sustainable way that Lita and Ron are. They have been selectively breeding fish, maintaining a pristine eight acre pond, and cultivating an industry that already feeds us and may even save us one day: sustainable land-based aquaculture. This means the ability to raise seafood in safe, controlled and healthy environments, not the ocean.

With all that’s been happening to our oceans, how relevant is this particular endeavor at this moment in time?

Recipe: Grandma Fely’s Tilapia Soup
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2 Responses to “Lita Weidenbach, Navigating a Future for Sustainable Fish”

  1. […] Read about Lita’s story here. […]

  2. Natalie Cash says:

    Great story for Lita Weidenbach, they do support the fish industry totally.
    Great job they are doing, what more can you ask for?