Support Small Fishermen By Making It Easier To Buy Fresh Off The Boat - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Rick Gaffney

Rick Gaffney is a lifetime resident of Hawaii, an environmentalist and a fisherman.


The pandemic changed many things in Hawaii, including access to fresh fish. The swift departure of hundreds of thousands of tourists and the consequent closure of many hotels and restaurants eliminated the bulk of the demand for fresh fish literally overnight.

One major fish wholesaler resorted to curbside sales at Pier 38 in Honolulu Harbor just to keep the lights on, and some large commercial fishing vessel owners shut down to avoid their extensive costs of operation.

Creative solutions for distribution quickly surfaced. Community Supported Agriculture — direct purchasing between consumer and farmer — began flourishing in communities across the state, offering a model for fisheries. Local IA on Oahu, a self-described community supported fishery, provided a direct link for fresh, locally caught seafood.

Roadside fish sales proliferated on all the islands, and fresh fish retailers who could keep their doors open while meeting COVID-19 restrictions engaged long-standing relationships with fishermen to assure that preferred local seafoods were available.

A new app called FishLine — created specifically to help consumers find fresh fish directly from fishermen at no cost to either — also surfaced. FishLine was introduced on the Big Island by the Hawaii Fishing and Boating Association.

Some savvy consumers also learned that simply hanging around the launch ramp in fishing communities stretching from Kukuiula on Kauai to Honokohau on Hawaii island, particularly in the late afternoon, could often reward them with very fresh fish for dinner and a new relationship with a fisherman, all for asking, “What did you catch today?”

While there’s been no formal measurement of the resurgence of fishermen giving away portions of their catch to family, neighbors and friends — or of the growth of a trade, barter and casual exchange economy, particularly on the neighbor islands — anecdotal evidence suggests many small-boat fishermen in rural parts of the state essentially revived the Hawaiian cultural practice of sharing one’s catch.

The pandemic gave us a short course in how kanaka maoli survived in the days before the arrival of Captain Cook, when resident population numbers were little different from those today, and there were zero imports.

Charles Bartlett’s depiction of fishing in Hawaii evokes a time when the work was much more organic and low-key. Wikimedia

Such a system of direct connection between the people catching fish and the people eating that fish benefits more than just the individuals involved. It benefits the ocean itself.

That’s because short of buying direct from a small boat fisherman who’s employing only a handful of hooks to catch fish, it is very hard to know for certain if the fish you are buying was caught in nearby waters in a sustainable manner.

The opposite extreme is unwittingly buying part of a catch that represents a haul of tons of pelagic fish (along with the possibility of tons of bycatch) landed by local longliners who employ thousands of hooks and continue to catch species that are threatened by over-harvesting.

On a completely different scale: For years pelagic fish caught by longliners have been laid out for buyers at the Honolulu Fish Auction. The pandemic disrupted the auction and helped renew ties between fishermen and consumers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Some History

Prior to the early 1900s, fresh seafood was generally traded, bartered and gifted in Hawaii. Those practices became increasingly less common as the number of foreigners doing business in the islands rapidly expanded the cash economy.

Casual exchanges between fishermen and consumers gradually gave way as a commercial fishing industry was established. By 1832 seafood was being sold in an open market near Honolulu Harbor. In 1851 a central market house opened, and in 1890 a huge new building covering an acre and half was completed.

The exceptional skills of native Hawaiian fishermen, passed down over many generations, allowed them to lead this new cash economy for a time, but their leadership began to diminish as wave after wave of immigrants from America, China, Portugal, Japan and the Philippines arrived.

Octopus fishermen near Koko Head circa 1900. Wikimedia

Some of these immigrants, particularly the Japanese, worked through their labor contracts on sugar plantations and then returned to the sea.

Japanese boatbuilders arrived too and the traditional sampans they built expanded the capacity of commercial fishermen to deliver fresh fish to the Hawaii market. The addition of motors to these vessels in 1905 and the implementation of the Japanese longline method of fishing in 1917 further expanded the range and productivity of the sampan fleet. Soon sampans ranged well over 1,000 miles from Hawaii in pursuit of ahi (yellowfin and bigeye tuna). Many smaller sampans also pursued akule, opelu and various bottom fish for local markets.

Suisan opened the first fresh fish auction block in Hilo in the early 1900s and a tuna cannery was built in Honolulu in 1917. By 1930 the Hawaiian Tuna Packers produced 10 million cans of tuna annually and had opened a second cannery in Hilo.

Suisan Fish Market in Hilo with fishing boats lined up nearby. Wikimedia

Like the precipitous shutdown of commercial fishing engendered by the current pandemic, on the eve of World War II Hawaii’s fishing industry was toppled by suspicions that Hawaii’s Japanese immigrants could be a threat to national security, which in hindsight we know to be patently false.

Nonetheless, new laws prevented “aliens” from owning fishing boats and other forms of participation in the local fishery, and by early 1941 most of the larger sampan fishing vessels in Hawaii had been seized. The United States entry into the war essentially shut down offshore fishing in Hawaii, and after the peace treaty was signed on Aug. 1, 1945, many displaced fishermen chose not to re-enter the industry.

Hawaii’s commercial fishery slowly regenerated to feed both the local population and the rapidly growing post-war tourism industry, as well as the Hawaiian Tuna Packers cannery.

Then it was dramatically altered again in 1988 when two Vietnamese-refugee-owned longliners arrived from the U.S. Gulf coast. Others followed in quick succession, creating a scene that has been likened to the California Gold Rush. In just four years Hawaii’s fleet of longline vessels more than tripled, from 37 to 141.

Port of Honolulu fishing boats1. 23 may 2016.
A few of the boats in Hawaii’s longline fishing fleet; with thousands of hooks and the ability to travel far out to sea, the fleet goes after tuna and swordfish. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In 1989 swordfish fishing started up north of Hawaii, drawing additional boats from as far away as the East Coast. By 1991 it was clear that a cap needed to be put on the number of vessels.  That cap was set at 164 longlining permits, though market dynamics and local, national and international fishery regulations kept that cap from ever being reached.

Post Pandemic Dynamics

Hawaii’s industrial longline fleet significantly changed Hawaii’s fresh fish industry, and largely consolidated it in the port of Honolulu.

Prior to 1988, Hawaii’s commercial fleet was more diverse. It berthed its boats and delivered fish at ports across the state. It included many more small boats, employed more people in the support industries and spread its economic benefits more broadly. More fishermen sold direct to restaurants, fish markets, stores and other retailers, diversifying both the availability and economic impact of their catch.

As the daily market demand for tons of tuna and swordfish disappeared when the pandemic blossomed, and many workers were told to go home, folks who knew how to fish turned to the sea to feed their families and friends, to trade for fresh produce and generate some pocket money.

We had come full circle since the days before the growth of a cash economy in the early 1800s, and the later industrialization of our fishing fleet. For the first time in over 200 years, you could barter or buy fish from a fisherman hauling his boat out on a launch ramp, or returning to his slip in a harbor, or even just some guy down the street, in nearly every community in Hawaii.

And I think that’s a good thing. Spread the wealth, share the economic benefits, reduce the carbon footprint, stop relying on indentured labor on longliners to deliver two-week-old “fresh” fish to a controlled auction that contributes to fish prices too high for many to afford and creates a rapacious demand for fish increasingly threatened by nationally subsidized over-harvesting.

There is something to be said for supporting sustainable small-boat fisheries, and fishermen in your home community, rather than big box stores and national supermarket chains that are often more concerned with the bottom line than the health of the fishery.

Fishing off the Kona coast. There’s something to be said for supporting sustainable small-boat fisheries. Courtesy: Cynthia Hankins

The pandemic opened the door to a thoughtful reconsideration of Hawaii’s fishing industry and an individual re-examination of what is best for the family, the environment and the sustainability of our vast Pacific Ocean ecosystem.

Share Your Ideas

CSF’s, FishLine, local fish markets, buying from that guy in the truck on the side of the road or out of his fish box at the harbor takes us back to an earlier time, a simpler time when you knew the farmer, the fisherman, the bread maker, the okolehao distiller, and you shopped local, supported the food producers directly and were comforted knowing that their production considered sustainability and your health.


Read this next:

Give, Take, Regenerate: A Circular Economy Is Vital To Hawaii's Future


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About the Author

Rick Gaffney

Rick Gaffney is a lifetime resident of Hawaii, an environmentalist and a fisherman.


Latest Comments (0)

"The Hawaii Longline Association (HLA) appreciates Uncle Rick's article, but he misleads and misses some major points. First, there are no indentured crew working on Hawaii longline vessels. Disparaging our fleet by marginalizing our hard working crew with baseless statements is completely inappropriate.  It's true that in the late 80's Hawaii's fisheries were more diverse... more bottomfishermen, akule, ika/shibi, lobster, crab etc. The Hawaii longline fleet did not curtail these fisheries, but rather closed areas, regulations, lack of fisheries training, new construction jobs all contributed.  Rick also fails to mention the prevalence and impact of foreign imported carbon monoxide tuna that undermines locally produced tuna. Foreign gassed tuna is sold in both in retail and restaurants in Hawaii and the CO masks color not freshness! HLA applauds all of Hawaii's fishermen, but its known that Hawaii's small boat fishermen can't catch enough to meet local demand. Fishing, sharing fish, and eating seafood are major aspects of Hawaii's cultural landscape and all of Hawaii's fisheries are critical to our local food self sufficiency. Mahalo - Eric"

HLA · 4 days ago

Although I truly appreciate the sentiment of this article it falls short of truly capturing the local fisherman's largest problem.  The greatest issue facing our local fleet is the foreign imports.  Seventy six percent of all the fish consumed in Hawai'i comes from another country. Currently post Covid is a perfect example of what fisherman would be getting paid  if our state wasn't always flooded with foreign fish.  The prices have been amazing for many months now from both the auction and traditional fish houses.  The great pricing has nothing to do with the recent return of tourist, it has everything to do with the fact that the worldwide stockpile of frozen imports is diminishing.  Many of largest importers to our islands and country still have their fleets tied up due to covid restrictions in places like Thailand and the Philippines.  What many people don't know is that the United States has a law that was put in place requiring all foreign imports to meet the sustainable requirements of our domestic products.  The imports have been unable able to do that, so our officials at NOAA have now offered them several extensions over six years rather then enforcing the law.  

Viciouscyclefishing · 5 days ago

Sadly prices for local caught ahi have gone way up. Most caught are shipped to where the money is at.

kmb · 6 days ago

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