Ashley Watts caught fish as a girl, studied fish in college and observed fishermen as part of her job. Now, as the sole owner and operator of Local I‘a, a distribution and subscription-based seafood business, her long days and waking thoughts still are dominated by fish.
But there’s a limit.
“I don’t really dream about fish, probably because my brain is on it all day,” she said.
On any given day, Watts is driving across the island picking up fish from independent local fishermen and delivering them to chefs and subscribers who pay for a regular share of the fresh bounty. She slices and dices fish into fillets and poke cubes, and sells them at Kokua Market and farmers markets islewide. She smokes fish and cans them. She writes about fish for a weekly newsletter — what kind she’s selling, who caught them, where they were caught and how to cook them. She’s just organized a fish-processing class and the first of a monthly dinner series centering on local seafood.
All of this goes into the running of Local I‘a, which promotes social consciousness about local fisheries and fishers while getting the product onto local plates.
THE BUSINESS promises fish that’s fresh (never frozen), local and procured responsibly. This means that the 30 or so participating fishermen minimize by-catch and impact on the environment, catch a diversity of fish and use responsible fishing methods. They follow standards that incorporate traditional Hawaiian practices alongside principles of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and the Marine Stewardship Council.
Fishermen also are required to share where they fish and the methods they use, information provided via QR codes to members of Local Iʻa’s community-supported fishery (or CSF), the subscribers who purchase shares of their catch.
In turn, Local Iʻa pays a fair-trade price to fishermen and educates the public.
LOCAL I‘A FISH PROCESSING DEMO
Go home with 1 pound of fresh fish
>> Where: Behind Kaimuki Superette, 3458 Waialae Ave.
>> When: 3 to 4:30 p.m. Saturday and April 28
>> Cost: $40, $35 Local I‘a CSF members
>> Info: 492-8331 (call or text), email@example.com
LOCAL I‘A MONTHLY SEAFOOD DINNER SERIES
>> Where: Koko Head Cafe, 1145 12th Ave.
>> When: 6 to 8:30 p.m. April 10
>> Cost: $68, includes pairings of wine, spirits and local beer
>> Info: eventbrite.com
“The ocean isn’t a grocery store,” Watts said. “We can eat fresh fish year-round, but we’ve got to be willing to eat what’s available.”
Her newsletter recipes and processing class, she said, are geared to “help tweak the market to what’s available.”
One CSF member whose attitudes need no tweaking is Nanette Geller, who began her weekly subscription soon after Local I‘a’s inception. Though a fish lover, she didn’t regularly buy fish prior to her membership.
“I had concerns around issues of how the fish were caught and who was catching them. I was worried about the environment, overfishing, human slavery,” she said. “But in this one place I could get fish with no worries. Now I can eat my fish guilt-free!”
Beyond all the ethical issues is quality.
“I know when, where, how and who caught my fish. I also know it was properly handled. Freshness is not only about when the fish was caught, but how it was handled,” she said. “I can see, smell and taste the difference.”
Most weeks, on the first and even second day after receiving her share, Geller eats the fish as sashimi. On the third day, she said, it’s still as fresh as what is sold in supermarkets.
Sometimes she cures her fish in miso for three to five days, a la miso butterfish. So as not to waste anything, she uses the bloodline to make tsukudani, a Japanese relish that involves cooking the fish with shoyu, mirin and sugar.
“Every bit is so precious,” Geller said.
JAMES HONDA, a regular at FarmLovers Market at Kakaako, moved from New York about a year ago, versed in fish sustainability issues and looking for a responsible source for regular purchases. Watts’ booth, filled with a variety of whole fish, caught his attention. He’s become a regular customer.
“Now I go in anticipation. I’m not sure what she will have … but she knows what kind of fish I like to try, so she recommends them and I go with it. I trust her,” he said. “It’s nice to (support) a woman-owned small business. … I’m rooting for her.”
Hawaii Kai fisherman Kekoa Seward, one of Watts’ suppliers, is the other side of the Local I‘a equation. A full-time commercial fisherman, he specializes in mahimahi and tuna, and bottom-fishes for opakapaka and onaga. Seward uses hooks and lines rather than nets, which means no by-catch.
Just as Honda and Geller are invested in knowing the who, where and how of the fish they eat, Seward is equally concerned with where his fish ends up.
“It’s nice working with a small company. With a larger company your fish could be shipped anywhere. I like to keep my product local,” he said. “I want to feed locals. Then we can subsist off our own resources.
“I’m glad to see Ashley succeed. As she grows and thrives, so do we.”
Then there are the restaurant owners who serve Local I‘a fish, folks like chefs Robynne Maii and Ed Kenney.
Maii, of Fete, was introduced to Watts through Kenney. She started buying fish from Watts to supplement her regular supply from another purveyor. One day she got ehu from them both.
“You couldn’t even compare the quality, even though the purveyor’s fish was fresh. What happens is, sometimes those boats are out for weeks. And the fish is kept well. But Ashley works with day boaters, so I get her fish 24 to 48 hours after it’s caught,” Maii said.
“That day, when I had the fish side by side, my chef de cuisine, Emily Iguchi, and I made a commitment to Ashley. We pay a little bit more, but you cannot compare the quality.”
Maii said Local I‘a has allowed her to showcase lesser-known species such as kamanu (rainbow runner), lehi (silver-mouth snapper) and more. Some can be more challenging to sell, she said, but “I love that the fish are coming from Oahu. I feel lucky and privileged to get such fresh fish.”
At Kenney’s Kaimuki Superette, where Watts often processes her fish, she smokes ahi in the hearth to make spreads. Kenney takes the collars and bellies and turns them into hearty, delicious soups and other dishes.
He said his conscience is clear serving Watts’ ahi and aku because they were caught on single hooks and lines that catch fish individually rather than target a whole school at once. And Local I‘a provides less commonly seen fish such as pomfret, a type of monchong, and hogo (red rockfish).
Like Maii, he’s hungry to try different varieties. “It’s a shame we eat only a handful,” he said.
But one of the most gratifying aspects of serving Local I‘a fish is that it helps shine a spotlight on fishermen who brave dangerous conditions to catch them, Kenney said.
“For some reason, we celebrate farmers and ranchers but fishermen are invisible, and that’s indicative of the fish we eat. We often don’t know who caught it or where it was caught,” he said. Choosing to eat fish procured locally in an ethical manner is no different from eating vegetables farmed ethically.
“I love the idea of having the QR code for traceability, and our customers love it,” he said. “Sometimes from the kitchen at night, I see someone in our dining room eating fish, and they send the faceless fisherman a thank-you note,” he said. “I know because I’m cc’d on it.”
This recipe was created by Ashley Watts and a neighbor, who cook together and come up with dishes using all-local ingredients. Watts says she trades for ingredients with other farmers market vendors at the end of market days.
SEARED AHI LETTUCE WRAPS
By Ashley Watts
- Avocado oil, to coat skillet (or other vegetable oil)
- 1/2 pound ahi fillet, cut into rectangular slab
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 head Manoa lettuce (or other lettuce with leaves large enough for wrapping)
- 1 cup quinoa, cooked
- >> Vegetable mixture
- 1/4 of an onion, diced
- 8 cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1/2 bell pepper, diced
- 1 teaspoon yuzu kosho paste
- Dash sesame oil
- Dash shoyu
In small bowl, combine vegetable mixture ingredients. Chill until ready to serve.
In skillet, add oil and heat over medium-high. Sear ahi on all sides, leaving center uncooked. Slice into 1/2-inch pieces.
Place a few slices on a lettuce leaf, top with quinoa and vegetable mixture, and eat by hand. Makes about 8 wraps.
Approximate nutritional information, per wrap (using 1 tablespoon each avocado oil and sesame oil, 1 teaspoon shoyu and not including salt to taste): 90 calories, 3 g total fat, no saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 100 mg sodium, 7 g carbohydrate, 1 g fiber, 1 g sugar, 9 g protein.
Visit localiahawaii.com to select how often you receive fish, how big a share you’d like and where you want to pick it up. A small share gets you 1-1/2 to 2 pounds of fish for $25; a larger share of 3 to 4 pounds costs $45. One-time membership fee is $15. Frequency is flexible, and fish are normally gutted and scaled, and may be filleted or whole, depending on size. Pick up fish at 11 sites islandwide in town, Mililani, Kailua and Haleiwa; the website also lists farmers markets and stores where Local I‘a fish is sold.