Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Tuesday, June 18, 2024 75° Today's Paper


Change in catch limits helps create healthy supply of New Year’s staple ahi

CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Many of the buyers at the Honolulu Fish Auction on Tuesday were buying fish in preparation for the upcoming New Year’s weekend, when local consumer demand is high.
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CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

Many of the buyers at the Honolulu Fish Auction on Tuesday were buying fish in preparation for the upcoming New Year’s weekend, when local consumer demand is high.

CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                A chunk of ahi is cut from the base of the tail for buyers to inspect.
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CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

A chunk of ahi is cut from the base of the tail for buyers to inspect.

CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Bigeye tuna was up for sale Tuesday at the auction.
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CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

Bigeye tuna was up for sale Tuesday at the auction.

CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                The fishing boat Janthina docked with others at Pier 38.
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CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

The fishing boat Janthina docked with others at Pier 38.

CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Workers loaded sold ahi into trucks Tuesday.
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CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

Workers loaded sold ahi into trucks Tuesday.

CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Many of the buyers at the Honolulu Fish Auction on Tuesday were buying fish in preparation for the upcoming New Year’s weekend, when local consumer demand is high.
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                A chunk of ahi is cut from the base of the tail for buyers to inspect.
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Bigeye tuna was up for sale Tuesday at the auction.
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                The fishing boat Janthina docked with others at Pier 38.
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Workers loaded sold ahi into trucks Tuesday.

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Abundance of ahi for the New Year

The news for New Year’s is good for Hawaii’s ahi-loving population, whether it be consumers, the fishing industry or everyone in between: there should be plenty of the tasty, “lucky” fish around, for the holiday and beyond, thanks to an easing of catch restrictions on bigeye tuna.

“We got almost double what we had before,” said Michael Goto, assistant general manager of the Honolulu Fish Auction, which is run by the United Fishing Agency and is known as “the only fish auction between Tokyo and Maine.” “So going forward we should have a steady supply year-round, which is great.”

Since 2008, Hawaii-based longline fishermen by international agreement had faced an annual limit of 3,554 metric tons of bigeye tuna, the variety commonly sold as ahi. With Hawaii’s insatiable appetite for the fish, the quota was often reached well before year’s end, and so local fishermen had to “buy quota” from other fisheries, raising prices, said Eric Kingma, executive director of the Hawaii Longline Association, an umbrella group representing some 150 longline fishing boats that supply fish for local consumers.

Recently, in a little-noticed action, the quota on Hawaii’s bigeye tuna catch was raised to 6,554 metric tons, a nearly 85% increase. That should end the need for buying quota from other fisheries, Kingma said.

“It’s recognition of the sound, comprehensive fisheries management that we have here. It’s highly monitored, comprehensively regulated,” Kingma said, noting that other countries in the Asia-Pacific region cannot get their quotas raised unless they beef up their monitoring practices and policies. “It’s a big win for Hawaii. The bigeye stock is considered healthy. It’s in fairly good shape and it’s not subject to overfishing.”

Kingma said the fishing industry adds about $800 million to the local economy, distributed among fishermen, fish markets, restaurants and grocers. “People don’t come to Hawaii to eat shrimp,” he said. “They want to eat fresh, Hawaii-­caught premium fish.”

At the fish auction early Tuesday, about 20 buyers, mostly representing seafood wholesalers, gathered to bid on the day’s catch, which had been brought in by six fishing boats. Many were buying fish in preparation for the upcoming New Year’s weekend, Goto said, and so the fishermen came prepared.

“The fishermen target this week to come in,” he said. “They know the market will be strong. … There’s just so much demand.”

Each fish had a notch of meat cut out from its tail fin area; larger fish also had a skinny core sample taken from the body of the fish. Buyers would check the samples for color, an indicator of fat content, and otherwise look at the eyes of the fish and other details as an indication of freshness. Some fish had small wounds from shark attacks long ago, which tends to lower the price, Goto said.

One of the buyers at the auction, Sam Seo, was expecting to buy up to 3,000 pounds of fish, some for mainland markets, some for other wholesalers in Hawaii and some for his two restaurants, McCully Buffet and Honu’s Kalbi &Sushi, which he said feature “100% Hawaii tuna.” He checks the eyes of the fish and tests the firmness of the flesh for freshness. “We can even tell if the fish has been caught on the north side or the south side (of the islands),” he said.

“I’ve been here almost 30 years, so I figured out what is No. 1, No. 2 grade,” he said. “And also, the price (goes) up and down, up and down. So you have to decide what you’re going to pay, high, low, demand, supply, all of that.”

Looking on was Andrew Otani, whose great-grandfather started the fish auction in the 1950s, basing it on a famous fish auction in Japan. A recent graduate from the University of Hawaii at Hilo, Otani is learning the ropes of the business. He explained the subtleties of fish auctioning, pointing to an auctioneer working the crowd and saying, “He’s grading the fish himself, and he’s thinking, ‘If this fish is going to sell for $6, you’re not going to start the bidding at $6.’ He’s gonna start at maybe $8 and bring it down, and the first person to jump will get the right to buy the fish.”

If the fish is obviously of premium quality and size, the auctioneer might use a more typical approach, asking for bids and seeking to drive them higher, Otani said.

David Lewis, captain of the fishing boat Jennie, said he was pleased to see some of his fish sell for $13 a pound, which is “good for this time of year.”

He was extremely proud of how his crew handles the fish they catch, saying he had an excellent “ice guy,” a crew member who keeps the fish fresh-frozen. “That makes a big difference. He makes sure the fish are taken care of once you catch them,” he said.

Lewis also trains his crew to take care of fish to make sure they are not bruised or damaged once they are caught. “We pay our crew a percentage, so they know the more we get, the more they get,” he said. “And so we take care of the fish.”

Goto said ahi, along with other varieties of fish with red meat, are in particular demand around New Year’s because red is considered a symbol of prosperity and good fortune. “It really goes back to the old culture of Japan, the red color, the cultural significance of seafood in Hawaii,” he said. “Everyone wants their chunk of ahi for the new year.”

There is another source of fresh local fish in Hawaii, made possible by Ashley Watts and her fish market, Local I‘a in Kaimuki. She also runs a seafood subscription service, negotiating fixed prices with fishermen rather than subjecting them to a bidding war.

“I try to value fish as a resource and not a commodity, so I pay the fishermen the same price year-round no matter what I can sell it for,” she said. “I’m pretty much getting their fish at the same price that I’m selling it at the same price sometimes, so if the market does go up drastically, I either give them a little bit more and then charge a bit more, or I tell them to go and get the money they can for it, because I know they’re trying to support their families. That’s generally what we do the business for.”

She usually finds a good market this time of year for aku, another fish with red meat, as well as for the prized specimen to for a New Year’s feast.

“A lot of people do whole fish this time of year,” she said.

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