The rain started pelting down just after 3 a.m. as Evan Woodall slept under his beach umbrella. The bell on his fishing pole rang, alerting him of a bite. His friend called for him to come, but Woodall was already awake and running barefoot through kiawe thorns.

Born and raised on Oahu, Woodall caught his first fish with a bamboo pole when he was 3 years old. Though his great-grandfather owned traditional Japanese fishing vessels, Woodall became enthralled by shoreline fishing, and like many others, his all-time favorite catch is ulua.

Evan Woodall Fishing
Evan Woodall, 32, goes fishing three to seven times a week, spending the night sleeping by fishing poles and sometimes his dog. He and his brother are in charge of fish purchases and prep at a local restaurant. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

Ulua aukea, otherwise known as giant trevally, holds ecological, economic and cultural value in Hawaii. Accounts of recreational ulua fishing appear in Hilo newspapers as early as 1914, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

But experts question the health of the stock today, which some think has declined in part due to the rise of social media — especially Instagram.

The photo, video and networking platform, which launched in 2010, is the most popular social media app in Hawaii, and has hosted a plethora of both novice and expert anglers showing off their latest catch. An Instagram search for #fishing will generate over 43 million posts, almost 95,000 for #gianttrevally, and 75,000 for #ulua.

 

Ulua are vital to the reefs of Hawaii and, besides sharks, are the most important nearshore predators in the ecological system. They also hold significant financial importance, contributing as much as $31 million annually to Hawaii’s economy, and represent the state’s most popular recreational fishery, according to scientists at Honolulu-based Poseidon Fisheries Research.

Many local fishermen spend their whole life hunting ulua, and for the past decade have been documenting their experience on Instagram. Some even enjoy perks from their posting.

Bochan Johnson Instagram profile
Bochan Johnson’s Instagram profile. Instagram

Big Island fisherman Bochan Johnson receives free gear in exchange for content, sponsored by footwear and sporting goods companies.

Jesse Keohulu, a Maui fisherman who is also sponsored, said this often sparks controversy in the online fishing community, because of matters such as location sharing.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that we are in a different age in time,” Keohulu said. “Though I respect every aspect of fishing, I’ll never stop sharing what I do … because I love to do it.”

Some fishermen, such as Woodall, often conceal where they’ve caught fish by blurring out backgrounds to prevent others from flocking to the same spot. Recently though, Woodall stopped posting altogether.

“I feel that our resources are much more important than our egos,” he said. “I feel like I was straying away from that for a moment.”

Still, many are driven by the virtual recognition.

Devan Chock, another Oahu fisherman, said Instagram has prompted those who aren’t typical anglers to set their hearts on catching an ulua.

“I definitely think it’s being glorified more,” he said. “Everybody wants to catch an ulua.”

Chock said some just want to have it known that they caught one, regardless of how big it is.  “They just want to take a picture with it and post on their social media,” he said.

Evan Woodall and his father fishing in 1995
Evan Woodall and his father, fishing at Makai Pier in Waimanalo in 1995. Courtesy: Evan Woodall

Whether Instagram has made an impact or not, catching an ulua remains one of the ultimate fishing experiences.

Woodall, who has been fishing for almost 30 years, has caught seven.

Others, like Johnson, have caught more. After a decade of fishing, he’s caught over 100 ulua — releasing about 80% of the fish.

Johnson started fishing with his mother when he was 4 years old, and got his first ulua pole at 13. After a year of trial and error, he hooked his first ulua in 2014.

Dr. Alan Friedlander, chief scientist for National Geographic Society’s Pristine Seas Project, said it’s no surprise that a fisherman on the Big Island has caught more ulua than one on Oahu.

He said looking at data for ulua caught over time, most are found where there is less development.

In most habitats, ulua are an apex predator that hunts both in schools and as individuals. In some places, they have been known to use sharks to ambush their prey. Flickr: Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument

Kahi Pacarro, executive director of Parley For The Oceans, said fishing is not what it used to be. He questions the sustainability of certain modern methods to catch the coveted reef predator, and thinks social media exacerbates the problem.

Pacarro said the more environmental approaches to ulua fishing are casting near shore and spearfishing — compared to using drones, kayaks or surfboards.

Evan Woodall fishing
There’s an assortment of gear dedicated to ulua fishing — one is a 13-foot-long graphite rod that holds 250 to 300 yards of monofilament line. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

Many have set out bait far from shore for years, but Pacarro, who has dedicated his career to combating marine pollution, said his issue with most ulua fishing setups is with what’s left behind. Typically, the fishing line is attached with a lead weight and a plastic jug or bottle to prevent it from getting stuck on the reef. The point where the bait meets the weight breaks off when the fish bites, and unless retrieved, the line will remain at the bottom of the ocean, he said.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers banned drone fishing, which involved using a drone to fly the bait out on the line much farther than can be done by casting from shore.

“I see people bringing in their prized fish so they can flex on Instagram,” Pacarro said. “I think it’s extremely chauvinistic, unsustainable, and not a part of our culture. Maybe it’s a part of modern day culture, but I don’t think what they’re doing is traditionally pono.”

Ulua was once a popular fish to catch commercially as well, but there has been a 99% decline in commercial catch since the 19th century, according to Friedlander.

In 1898, around 2,000 commercial fishermen in Hawaii caught over 6 million pounds of ulua, according to a state DLNR report. By the late 1990s, it was just over 29,000 pounds.

Several reasons have been identified for the decline in commercial catch.

Evan Woodall fishing
Many fishermen, such as Evan, will stay out all night waiting for the ratchet to take off and feel the unmistakable strength of an ulua shaking their pole. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

In 1990, the United Fishing Agency stopped accepting ulua at the Honolulu fish auction over fears of ciguatera — an illness caused by eating fish with toxins from a microalgae.

Then when tourism became a top economic driver, people found other ways to make a living beyond fishing, Friedlander said. But what shouldn’t have changed is the catch rate.

“The harder you fish, the more fish you should catch regardless of their socioeconomic situation,” Friedlander said.

It’s unclear exactly how well — or not well — ulua are doing in Hawaii due to a lack of data.

Marc Nadon, a stock assessment researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said there is a 54% chance that ulua is undergoing overfishing in Hawaii. But he said more information on the life history of ulua is needed.

Tom Ogawa, project manager for the Hawaii Marine Recreational Fishing Survey run by the state Division of Aquatic Resources, said the stocks seem to be relatively stable according to the latest survey. But he said the state has not conducted a formal stock assessment.

Fisherman cutting bait
Evan cutting up some eel to use as bait. Other than eel, octopus is another popular choice to use for ulua fishing. Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022

Hawaii is the only coastal state in the U.S. where a recreational fishing license is not required. In an effort to collect recreational fishing data, DAR collaborated with NOAA and created the HMRF survey.

Every two months, a random selection of houses are mailed the survey. During this period, 12 DAR surveyors across the islands also visit select fishing sites to count and interview fishers.

“It’s kind of a misnomer to say that the stock is healthy,” Ogawa said. “None of the nearshore fisheries are like they were back in the day because of development …  But I don’t think ulua are in any jeopardy.”

Beyond the posting of selfies with ulua, he said DAR is aware that many people are using platforms like Instagram to sell fish without a Commercial Marine License.

“We only have so much data, and if people aren’t reporting what they’re selling, then the perspective on the fishery is going to be skewed,” Ogawa said.

Some fishermen are unconcerned.

Johnson said he’s not worried considering how hard it was to catch his first ulua, and because he releases so much of what he catches. He added that ulua are not sought after for their taste, and papio, or young ulua, are more desirable for eating.

Jesse Keohulu Instagram
Jesse Keohulu’s Instagram profile. Instagram

Like Johnson, Keohulu has also caught over 100 ulua.

“I think there’s a big misconception about all the numbers and how they’re low,” he said. “I understand that there isn’t as much as there was before, but the numbers are still really good if you know what to look for.”

Friedlander said that because good fishermen will always catch fish, it’s hard to gauge the true status of ulua. He added that information that was most likely held sacred in historical times, such as the right time of year, moon, tides, and spots, are now a click away.

According to the DLNR report, the decline of Hawaii’s coastal fisheries is a manifestation of the failure of resource management.

Ogawa said currently, the only way ulua stock is managed is through a minimum size of 10 inches to keep, 16 inches for commercial sale, and a recreational bag limit of 20.

Cassie Pardee, co-founder of Poseidon Fisheries, said her joint study on ulua and omilu, or bluefin trevally, found that at 10 inches neither fish were mature yet.

Hawaii Fishing News Kumao Saito Ulua
Kumao Saito caught this 135 pound ulua in 1954 off the coast of Oahu. The heaviest ulua on the 100-Plus Club list at 157 pounds was caught in 1984. Courtesy: Hawaii Fishing News

“We don’t know whether the stock is overfished,” Pardee said. “We just want to have the best available information out, so stock assessment managers can work with actual data to use in regulations.”

Friedlander said the issue with the minimum size requirement is that there isn’t a maximum, because a fish twice as big doesn’t produce twice as many eggs — but 10 times more. One study even showed a 27-inch omilu produced 86 times more eggs than a 14-inch one.

“Large female fish are crucial to the population,” Friedlander said. “Though even if they’re putting out keiki, there’s less habitat for them to grow.”

Beyond social media, ulua is glorified through the Hawaii Fishing News’ 100-Plus Club, a growing list of those who have caught ulua weighing 100 pounds or more while fishing from Hawaiian shores.

There are currently 438 members of the club. The earliest entries are from the 1950s; the most recent one is from July.

“Everybody wants their picture with a hundred pound ulua, and that’s not going to happen if you put a limit on it,” Friedlander said.

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