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How Fish Get From the Sea to Your Plate

The tug of war between fishermen, regulators, environmentalists and global competitors complicates the $87-million-a-year local industry

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Some afternoons, after lunching on a mess of ahi furikake or fried ahi belly at Nico’s, the big fish restaurant down on Pier 38, I like to walk across the street and amble down the docks and survey the ragtag fleet of fishing boats tied up along the wharf.

Like many old sailors, I’m drawn to the waterfront. I like to listen to the Filipino, Indonesian and Micronesian crews joke and tell fish stories in the open stern houses of the boats. I like the hubbub of lading and cleaning and repair work as the boats prepare for their next trips. And I like the ceremony of mooring and unmooring, the dull shudder of the diesel as a boat springs out on a forward spring and heads off to sea, the wordless passing of lines along the quay as a returning boat ghosts into a berth. The working waterfront has always seemed to me a world unto itself, and a brief stroll along the wharf inevitably puts me in mind of older, simpler times.

But Hawaii’s fishing industry isn’t just a nostalgic relic of the past. It’s still a surprisingly important sector of the local economy, selling more than 31.7 million pounds of fish in 2012 with a total value of more than $115 million. Hawaii-based boats caught more than half of the swordfish and nearly 80 percent of the bigeye tuna landed in the U.S. in 2012. The industry directly employs hundreds of fishermen and indirectly supports a vast economy of chandleries, mechanics, electronics companies, boat yards, icehouses and fishmongers. So, although few people visit the commercial harbors at Pier 38, or Kewalo Basin, or Wailoa Sampan Basin in Hilo on Hawaii Island, Hawaii’s fisheries play a signature role in how we live. But those fisheries are also under increasing threat from environmental factors, economic pressures and regulatory changes. To understand what those threats mean for the industry, you have to understand its past and the institutions that guide its future.

Hawaiian Fishing

Hawaii loves fish. We famously eat more seafood than any other state: more than nine ounces per person per week, twice the national average. And, although we import more than 60 percent of our seafood, that’s well below the mainland average of nearly 90 percent. This is a reflection of the vigor of our fishing industry. Hawaii fishermen bring in an astonishingly diverse catch, including nearshore fish such as akule, opelu and uhu; bottomfish such as opakapaka, onaga and hapuupuu; and, most important, open sea fish (pelagics) such as mahimahi, opah and yellowfin tuna.

The most valuable catches are swordfish and, especially, bigeye tuna. These fish are so prized that most of the other pelagic fish brought to market are just incidental, albeit profitable, by-catch for the swordfish and bigeye fishermen. Bigeye tuna, the source of the best quality sashimi-grade ahi, often sells for more than $7 a pound at auction. This mix of high-value fish makes the tiny local fishing industry a national powerhouse. Although the port of Honolulu only ranked 33rd in the country for the total tonnage of fish landed last year, by value, it was the 10th largest port in the nation.

Such a big, diverse catch means there’s a wide variety of fishing boats in Hawaii. Nearshore fish are caught from skiffs, Whalers and every kind of pleasure boat. Reef fish are even caught by spearfishermen towing kayaks behind them. In the bottomfishery, fishermen mostly use poles or handlines or electric reels, and work from open, trailerable boats with big, powerful outboard engines. Many of the boats in the commercial bottomfishery are based on Maui, which is close to the better fishing grounds. But the most economically important of the fishing boats in Hawaii is a fleet of about 130 longliners based out of Pier 38 in Honolulu Harbor and out of Wailoa Sampan Basin in Hilo Harbor. These low-slung, steel-hulled boats range from 64 feet to 100 feet, by regulation the largest they can get. They’re lumbering, full-displacement boats that cruise at only seven or eight knots. Hawaii is a fresh-fish market, so that means the boats have a limited range; they rarely stray beyond a 1,200-mile radius of the Islands so they can get their catch back to port while it’s still fresh.

Fishermen will tell you that’s still a lot of ocean to cover. Sean Martin, one of the major players in the Hawaiian fishing industry, puts it this way: “If you were to go 1,000 miles north, you’d be half way to Kodiak. If you go 1,000 miles west, you’re two-thirds of the way to Midway. If you go a 1,000 miles south, you’re down in Palmyra. And if you go a 1,000 miles east, you’re half way to the mainland. That’s the range of the longline fishery.”

Few people see Hawaii’s fishing industry up close. Most of the fishing happens far out to sea and, because the Honolulu fish auction takes place at 5:30 a.m., the catch is usually landed in the early morning hours.

Rich History

Martin has been at the center of Hawaii’s fishing industry for 35 years. At 21, he already owned his own boat, a 64-foot aku boat called Finback that he operated out of Crescent City, Calif., pole-fishing for albacore up and down the West Coast. Aku fishing is one of the most exciting commercial fisheries for a young man. The fishermen use long fishing poles with unbaited, barbless hooks at the end of a short length of line. They chum the waters with live bait, then stand in the transom, dipping their hooks into the school of frenzied albacore or skipjack, flipping the big fish over their shoulders onto the deck behind them.

Sometimes they catch hundreds in a day.

“There’s nothing more fun,” Martin says. “When you’re in your teens and 20s and you get to go around and do that, it’s not like work at all.”

But the California fisheries at the time were looking less and less viable for a boat like Finback. Then, in 1979, Hawaii Tuna Packers, a subsidiary of BumbleBee, sponsored a one-year experiment to test the viability of an albacore fishery in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. That looked like an opportunity to Martin, so he and Finback joined a fleet of 20 fishing boats and a specially rigged refrigerator boat that served as a mother ship and they all headed west in a flotilla.

“We left Crescent City on April 1 and basically fished two-thirds of the way to Japan.”

Martin and the rest of the experimental fleet spent the summer trolling for albacore in the NWHI, periodically transferring their catches to the mother ship so they wouldn’t have to return to port. At the end of the season, Martin brought Finback to Honolulu and, after spending the winter buying new gear and rerigging the boat, he joined the small longline fleet at Kewalo Basin.

“I started longlining in 1981 and have been involved in the longline fleet ever since,” he says.

Sean Martin has been one of the major players in  Hawaii’s fishing industry for 35 years. He and partner Jim Cook own six longline boats, POP Marine Supply and an ice-supply company.


Today, Martin and his partner, Jim Cook, own six longliners, ranging from the 65-foot Finback to the 100-foot Sea Pearl, one of the newest boats in the fleet. Martin and Cook also own POP Marine Supplies, the main chandlery for the longline fleet, and Hawaiian Ice, which supplies ice for most of the fishing boats, and Cook is part owner of Nico’s, the seafood restaurant. In addition, Martin serves as president of the Hawaii Longliners Association and is the past chairman of the powerful Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council. However, he is not without critics. Martin and Cook’s boats have been fined numerous times for fishing violations, and some people have accused them of self-dealing in their official roles on the Council.

Nevertheless, few people know more than Martin about longlining in Hawaii.

“Longlining was developed in Hawaii before World War II,” Martin says. “It was called flag-line fishing back then, but it’s really the same fishery, though some people might argue it’s not. The fishery was suspended during the war, because most of the fishermen at that time were of Japanese ancestry and were prohibited from going to sea. After the war, it kind of revitalized again. Most of the boats back then were small sampan boats that fished within fifty miles of the Islands. There was a pretty good-size fleet that operated out of Hilo and was supported by Suisan, the fish auction down there, and there was the fishery here on Oahu. I think the Honolulu fish auction, the United Fishing Agency, started maybe in 1951.”

The longline fishery hadn’t changed much when Martin arrived in the 1980s. Although it had absorbed a few California boats, like Finback, the size of the longline fleet remained fairly stable at 30 to 35 boats. But to ambitious fishermen like Martin, the Hawaii fishery looked like it had real growth opportunities.

That was largely because of changes in technology. “What happened,” Martin says, “was we heard about some different methodologies being used in the Atlantic, so I went to a fishing industry show in New Orleans and saw this new technology.

Rather than use what we used to call ‘traditional rope line,’ they used heavy-gauge monofilament wound up on a big drum like you can see on all these boats out here now. I bought one of these systems and brought it back and put it on Finback and it turned out to be quite efficient and effective.”

Fishermen are notoriously conservative, even superstitious, about change, but the new gear was basically a no-brainer, Martin says. “It took less talent to be effective and you could carry more gear and catch as much or, arguably, more fish than before. So we started importing that gear and providing it to people who were interested. That’s kind of how we built POP. That was in 1984, and, I think, by 1988 or 1989, all the boats had changed, with the exception of one or two, to the more modern gear.”

At that time, the thriving Hawaii fishery was contrasted by fisheries on the mainland that were overfished and under growing regulatory pressure. In the Northeast, the cod fishery and lobster fisheries seemed on the verge of collapse. In the Mid-Atlantic, the crab and oyster industries, and even the menhaden fishery, once the largest in the country, suffered from radically shrinking catches. In the Gulf of Mexico, price wars that erupted between established local boats and those owned by Vietnamese immigrants began to put pressure on the economic viability of the shrimping industry.

“Back then,” Martin says, “the longliners used to always operate out of Kewalo Basin, and one day 22 boats from the Gulf of Mexico showed up. They came in a big caravan, traveling across the Pacific from Panama. They were all Vietnamese immigrants who had been displaced by the Vietnam War and settled on the Gulf Coast. They had been longlining there for yellowfin, so it was a different fishery than ours, but they used similar gear, and I think some of the Vietnamese guys realized there was an opportunity out here, so they got together and said, ‘Go west.’ That was a kind of the explosion in the industry.”

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