Mayor Kirk Caldwell on Tuesday announced a new “fish to dish” program to help Hawaii’s ailing fishing industry.
“Our fishing community is feeling the economic strain of this pandemic like so many other industries on Oahu,” said Caldwell in a statement. “Hawaii’s longline fisherman provide a valuable source of food to our island, and fortifying this industry not only provides our community with some of the freshest fish in the world, but sets up a sustainable network to solidify our food security ahead of future disasters.”
Due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hawaii longline vessels have experienced an estimated 50% reduction in revenue over the last four months, adding up to more than $20 million.
In an effort to help, Caldwell said the city is committing $2.6 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to help the fishing industry get back on its feet. He made the announcement Tuesday during a news conference at Pier 38, surrounded by representatives of the industry.
The city said the first objective of the program is to lower production costs for Hawaii longline fishing vessels.
About $1.7 million will go to the Hawaii Longline Association to help cover the per-trip costs for 140 active, Honolulu-based vessels, amounting to about 10% to 15% of each boat’s trip expenses. Another $275,000 will go to help the Honolulu Fish Auction — run by the United Fishing Agency — upgrade its infrastructure in response to COVID-19.
This would include the installation of an air purification system for the auction floor, an automated auction system and a freezer retrofit, among other improvements.
The remaining $660,000, the city said, would be used to develop a community fish distribution program.
The Hawaii Seafood Council — in collaboration with wholesale distribution companies and the Hawaii Foodbank — will help purchase and dole out nearly 110,000 pounds of fish fillets, or enough for 350,000 servings to the community over five months.
Hawaii Longline Association Executive Director Eric Kingma said that when the market crashed in March, wholesale companies laid off about half of their employees, and some boats have remained idle for several weeks.
Overall, the direct and indirect economic impacts amount to about $1 billion and have affected about 9,000 jobs, he said, so this program comes at a critical time for the industry.
Hawaii longline vessels operate year-round and bring in ahi, billfish including swordfish and marlin, and open-ocean fish such as mahimahi, ono, opah and monchong for local consumption as well as export to the mainland.
“The fish they land are high-quality, ice-chilled and can compete with any fish in the world,” Kingma said. “We have a premium product in Hawaii, and it’s our industry, an industry we have grown and managed over decades.”
The fleet brings in over 30 million pounds of seafood annually worth about $105 million in dockside sales. This has helped Honolulu Harbor rank among the top 10 ports in the nation in fishery economic value.
Ed Hawkins, director of the Office of Economic Development, said in addition to the city’s farm-to-car initiative and small-business relief and recovery programs, the fish-to-dish program is intended to help the local economy.