NAWILIWILI, Kauai – Hawaii’s sweeping variety of seafood is the stuff of greatness.

Fresh-caught mahi-mahi yield delicate filets. Octopus, also known as he‘e and tako, supply squid luau. Ahi provide poke, seared steaks and more – the list of species and dishes goes on and on.

Kauai locator map

But consumers know some local seafood is hard to come by. A Kauai-based vessel is now pursuing one such delicacy of the deep: “amaebi,” certain marine shrimp belonging to the genus Heterocarpus.

“They’re more delicate than other shrimp you can buy,” said Devin Silva, who sails out of Nawiliwili Harbor with his father Vinnie Silva. “They’re very juicy … they’re coming up from (1,500 to 3,000) feet deep.”

Amaebi are indeed prized for their sweet flesh and large size. However, only a handful of boats now participate in the Hawaii fishery.

Deepwater shrimp, or amaebi, are bright-red crustaceans prized for their large size and sweet flavor
Deepwater shrimp, or amaebi, are bright-red crustaceans prized for their large size and sweet flavor. Scott Yunker/Civil Beat/2022

Devin persuaded his father to hunt the little-known crustacean in late 2021, after learning the craft from Kauai’s last-known shrimper, retired commercial fisherman Ernest Caires.

Caires shrimped on an intermittent basis for several years, beginning in the early 1990s. His business garnered a local magazine article in 1993, which showed the waterman surrounded by large bags bulging with fresh-caught amaebi.

“The local people, they like the shrimp, right next to Kona crab,” Caires said.

After meeting Caires, the Silvas spent months building traps, upgrading their boat and learning through trial and error. They began selling amaebi in earnest this past summer to clients including local restaurants, seafood markets and consumers at farmers markets. The business, which operates as Kainoa Fishery, has since expanded to include buyers on Oahu and the mainland.

Kristy Kahananui, part-owner of Lawai‘a Fish Co. in Lihue, was one of the first to purchase the Silvas’ deep-sea catch.

“It was an untouched resource and it’s so good … They’re so beautiful,” she said.

Father and son Vinne and Devin Silva began trapping amaebi this summer, bringing a long-lost delicacy back to locals' dinner tables.
Father and son Vinnie and Devin Silva began trapping amaebi this summer, bringing a long-lost delicacy back to locals’ dinner tables. Scott Yunker/Civil Beat/2022

The business owner now receives a fresh delivery of amaebi each week. Her customers can purchase them unprepared or ready-to-eat in a raw kimchi-style salad.

Like many familiar with amaebi, Kahananui associates the shrimp with days gone by. She and her father would scour Kauai for Caires’ roadside shrimp stand.

“Back then, you didn’t have cellphones and you didn’t have social media, so we would literally drive from one end to the other end of the island, looking for him on the side of the road,” Kahananui recalled.

Up to 15 years passed between Caires’ retirement and the Silvas’ resumption of the amaebi fishery on Kauai, according to Kahananui. Many old-timers express excitement when they discover the long-lost delicacy for sale at Lawai‘a Fish Co. But others are befuddled when confronted by the meaty, scarlet-colored prawns.

“A lot of people come in and go, ‘Oh, why is this shrimp cooked already?’ They don’t realize that it comes up red,” Kahananui said. “A lot of people are intrigued by them.”

The Silvas work hard to get their catch into their clients’ hands. They often spend three days at sea, setting their traps overnight and hauling them up in the morning.

Vinnie Silva thinks some aspects of the process are easier than catching ahi. He now navigates to a predetermined location and sets his traps, instead of chasing fish all over the ocean.

Still, the amaebi present their own challenges. Unlike fresh-caught ahi, which are easily stored below decks once brought aboard, the shrimp must be immediately sorted and packed on ice.

The elder Silva has been a commercial fisherman for the majority of his adult life. He’s worked his way up from 16-foot boats to his current vessel, the 49-foot Kainoa, which he considers the culmination of a lifelong dream.

Yet despite all his years at sea, Vinnie never chose to invest in shrimping until his son persuaded him to do so. His prior lack of interest wasn’t based on market conditions or economic considerations. Shrimp simply lacked the romance associated with the pursuit of torpedo-like ahi.

“When you’re growing up, when you’re young, tuna has more action,” Vinnie explained. “I was thinking about shrimping, I’ll wait until I’m older … It’s not easier, but it’s different.”

Now that time has come. And Vinnie, standing aboard the boat he built with his son at his side, looks like a very happy man.

The Silvas’ predecessor, Caires, wishes them well in their new endeavor.

“If you don’t enjoy doing it, it’s the hardest job in the world,” he said.

State Of The Fishery

Hawaii’s commercial fishing regulations encompass eight species of Heterocarpus shrimp. But only two – H. ensifer and H. laevigatus – predominate in the state’s small amaebi market.

Regulators took notice of the deepwater shrimp in the 1980s and ’90s, according to Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council staffer Josh DeMello. At that time, a pattern had formed. Alaska-based vessels were venturing south to harvest amaebi on an intermittent basis, forming a “pulse fishery.”

“These boats were coming down every three years or so,” said DeMello. “There wouldn’t be any catch, then someone would come and catch another 10,000 or 20,000 pounds, then there’d be no catch again.”

The 49-foot Kainoa, based out of Nawiliwili Harbor on Kauai's East Side, was constructed by the Silvas themselves. Vinnie Silva considers it the culmination of a lifelong dream.
The 49-foot Kainoa, based out of Nawiliwili Harbor on Kauai, was constructed by the Silvas themselves. Vinnie Silva considers it the culmination of a lifelong dream. Scott Yunker/Civil Beat/2022

The Heterocarpus species were added to what is now the Hawaii Archipelago Ecosystem Management Plan developed by Wespac in 2009. Policy requires owners of vessels pursuing deepwater shrimp within the Western Pacific exclusive economic zone that includes American Samoa, Guam, Hawaii, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Pacific Remote Island Area to possess a federal permit. In addition, vessels must submit a logbook to the National Marine Fisheries Service within 72 hours of landing.

The Alaskan pulse fishery in Hawaii has petered out within the past decade. There are often fewer than three fishery participants per year, according to NOAA Fisheries’ Pacific Islands Regional Office. Indeed, only two vessels in Hawaii currently possess federal deepwater shrimp permits. (NOAA Fisheries declined to name these vessels’ home ports, citing the fishery’s small size and permit-holders’ rights to data confidentiality.)

The deepwater shrimp fishery’s annual catch limit totaled 250,733 pounds in 2021. That number, determined by historical averages, exceeds actual catch totals.

“Average catch has been about 20,000 pounds, so it’s not very close to that limit,” DeMello said.

Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council sign on door
Based in Honolulu, Wespac has 13 voting members who manage more than 1.5 million square miles of ocean. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Different Heterocarpus species are found at different depths in the ocean. H. ensifer is usually found in more shallow waters than H. laevigatus, which is considered more desirable due to its larger size. Relatively little is known about the crustaceans’ undersea lives.

Most published research on deepwater shrimp occurred in the 1980s, “when the fishery was really going off,” according to Kauai-based aquatic biologist Heather Yitalo-Ward, of the Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources.

Heterocarpus shrimp around Hawaii appear to spawn in the fall and winter seasons, when sexually mature females – which can carry more than 30,000 eggs – mate via external fertilization.

“Females reach sexual maturity at around 4 years old, so these guys can actually live for a pretty long time,” Yitalo-Ward said.

Such a lifespan is not unusual among species of deepwater shrimp. As a rule, they are larger and longer-lived than their shallow-water cousins. And unlike midwater shrimp, which spend their time flitting through the water column, mature amaebi dwell on the ocean floor.

“They’re just going to live their lives probably eating detritus: dead things on the bottom of the ocean,” Yitalo-Ward said.

Seafood aficionados aren’t the only ones who enjoy amaebi. Squid, octopus and other predators almost certainly consume them as well.

Yitalo-Ward claimed anything able to catch deepwater shrimp would gladly eat them. But the aquatic biologist has never had the opportunity to taste one herself.

“I’d love to try it,” she said. “It’s definitely something that I’ve heard about … people reminisce about eating it in their childhood.”

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Stupski Foundation, Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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