Support small fishermen by making it easier to buy right off the boat

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The pandemic has changed a lot of things in Hawaii, including access to fresh fish. The rapid departure of hundreds of thousands of tourists and the consequent closure of many hotels and restaurants eliminated most of the demand for fresh fish overnight.

A large fish wholesaler has resorted to shore sales at Pier 38 in Honolulu Harbor just to keep the lights on, and some large commercial fishing vessel owners have shut down to avoid high operating costs .

Creative solutions for distribution quickly surfaced. Community-supported agriculture – direct purchase between the consumer and the farmer – began to flourish in communities across the state, providing a model for fishing. Local AI on Oahu, a self-proclaimed community-supported fishery, provided a direct link to locally caught fresh seafood.

Roadside fish sales have proliferated on all islands, and fresh fish retailers who could keep their doors open while complying with COVID-19 restrictions have built long-standing relationships with fishermen to ensure that favorite local seafood was available.

A new app called FishLine – created specifically to help consumers find fresh fish directly from anglers at no cost to either – has also surfaced. FishLine was introduced to the Big Island by the Hawaii Fishing and Boating Association.

Some savvy consumers have also learned that simply hanging out around the launch pad in fishing communities stretching from Kukuiula on Kauai to Honokohau on the island of Hawaii, especially in the late afternoon, could often reward them with very fresh fish for dinner and a new relationship with a fisherman, all for asking, “What did you catch today?”

While there has been no formal action of the resurgence of fishermen giving part of their catch to family, neighbors and friends – or the growth of an economy of trade, barter and exchange. occasional, especially on neighboring islands – anecdotal evidence suggests that many small-boat fishermen in rural parts of the state have essentially revived the Hawaiian cultural practice of sharing its catch.

The pandemic gave us a brief glimpse into how Kanaka Maoli survived before Captain Cook arrived, when the number of residents was little different from today and there were no imports.

Charles Bartlett’s portrayal of fishing in Hawaii evokes a time when the work was much more organic and understated. Wikimedia

Such a system of direct connection between the people who catch fish and the people who eat this fish benefits more than just the individuals concerned. It benefits the ocean itself.

This is because unless you buy directly from a small boat fisherman who only uses a handful of hooks to catch fish, it is very difficult to know for sure if the fish you are buying has been caught. in neighboring waters in a sustainable manner.

The opposite extreme is the unintentional purchase of part of a catch which represents a transport of tonnes of pelagic fish (with the possibility of tonnes of bycatch) landed by local longliners which employ thousands of hooks and continue to capture species threatened by overexploitation. .

On a whole different scale: For years, pelagic fish caught by longliners have been made available to buyers at the Honolulu auction. The pandemic disrupted the auction and re-established links between fishermen and consumers. Cory Lum / Civil Beat

A little history

Prior to the early 1900s, fresh seafood was typically traded, bartered, and offered in Hawaii. These practices became less and less common as the number of foreigners doing business on the islands rapidly developed the cash economy.

Occasional exchanges between fishermen and consumers gradually gave way to a commercial fishing industry. In 1832, seafood was sold in an open market near Honolulu Harbor. In 1851 a central market house opened and in 1890 a huge new building covering an acre and a half was completed.

The exceptional skills of the native Hawaiian fishermen, passed down from generation to generation, allowed them to lead this new cash economy for some time, but their leadership began to wane as successive waves of immigrants from America, China , Portugal, Japan and the Philippines have arrived. .

Octopus fishermen near Koko Head around 1900. Wikimedia

Some of these immigrants, especially the Japanese, worked through their labor contracts in the sugar cane plantations and then returned to the sea.

Japanese boat builders also arrived, and the traditional sampans they built expanded the ability of commercial fishermen to deliver fresh fish to the Hawaiian market. The addition of engines to these vessels in 1905 and the implementation of the Japanese longline fishing method in 1917 expanded the reach and productivity of the sampan fleet. Soon the sampans spread over 1,000 miles from Hawaii in pursuit of the ahi (yellowfin and bigeye). Many small sampans also sought out akule, opelu, and various groundfish for local markets.

Suisan opened the first fresh fish auction in Hilo in the early 1900s and a tuna cannery was built in Honolulu in 1917. By 1930 the Hawaiian Tuna Packers were producing 10 million cans of tuna per year and had opened a second cannery in Hilo.

Suisan Fish Market in Hilo with fishing boats lined up nearby. Wikimedia

Like the precipitous shutdown of commercial fishing spurred by the current pandemic on the eve of World War II, Hawaii’s fishing industry has been overthrown by suspicions that Japanese immigrants to Hawaii could pose a threat to national security, which, with hindsight, we know to be patently false.

Nonetheless, new laws prevented “foreigners” from owning fishing boats and other forms of participation in local fishing, and by early 1941 most of Hawaii’s largest sampan fishing vessels had been seized. The entry into the war of the United States essentially ended the offshore fishery in Hawaii, and after the signing of the peace treaty on August 1, 1945, many displaced fishermen chose not to re-enter the industry.

Hawaii’s commercial fishery slowly regenerated to feed both the local population and the rapidly growing post-war tourism industry, as well as the Hawaiian Tuna Packers Cannery.

Then it was radically changed again in 1988 when two longliners belonging to Vietnamese refugees arrived from the Gulf Coast of the United States. Others followed in quick succession, creating a scene that has been compared to the California Gold Rush. In just four years, the Hawaiian longline fleet has more than tripled, from 37 to 141.

Honolulu Harbor Fishing Boats 1.  23 May 2016.
Some of the boats in the Hawaii longline fleet; with thousands of hooks and the ability to travel far offshore, the fleet tackles tuna and swordfish. Cory Lum / Civil Beat

In 1989, swordfish fishing began in northern Hawaii, attracting additional boats from as far as the east coast. In 1991, it was clear that there was a need to cap the number of vessels. This cap was set at 164 longline licenses, although market dynamics and local, national and international fishing regulations prevented this cap from being reached.

Post-pandemic dynamics

Hawaii’s industrial longline fleet has significantly altered the Hawaiian fresh fish industry and greatly consolidated it in the Port of Honolulu.

Prior to 1988, Hawaii’s commercial fleet was more diverse. He moored his boats and delivered fish to ports across the state. It included many more small boats, employed more people in support industries, and disseminated its economic benefits more widely. More and more fishermen were selling directly to restaurants, fish markets, shops and other retailers, diversifying both the availability and the economic impact of their catch.

As daily market demand for tons of tuna and swordfish subsided when the pandemic broke and many workers were urged to return home, people who knew how to fish turned to the sea to feed their fish. family and friends, to exchange fresh produce and generate some pocket money.

We had come full circle since the days before the growth of a cash economy in the early 1800s and the subsequent industrialization of our fishing fleet. For the first time in over 200 years, you could barter or buy fish from a fisherman hauling his boat up a launching ramp, or returning to his boat in a harbor, or even just a guy. down the street, in almost every community in Hawaii.

And I think that’s a good thing. Distribute the wealth, share the economic benefits, reduce the carbon footprint, stop relying on longline contract labor to deliver two-week ‘fresh’ fish to a controlled auction which contributes to fish prices that are too high for many and creates a predatory demand for fish increasingly threatened by nationally subsidized overexploitation.

There is something to be said for supporting sustainable small-boat fishing and fishermen in your home community, rather than big box stores and national supermarket chains who are often more concerned with the bottom line than the health of the community. the Peach.

Fishing off the Kona coast. There is something to be said to support sustainable small boat fishing. Courtesy of Cynthia Hankins

The pandemic has opened the door for a thoughtful re-examination of Hawaii’s fishing industry and an individual re-examination of what is best for family, the environment and the sustainability of our vast Pacific Ocean ecosystem. .

CSFs, FishLine, local fish markets, buying this guy in the roadside truck or his fish crate at the port takes us back to an earlier time, a simpler time when you knew the farmer, the fisherman you, the breadmaker, the okolehao distiller and you bought locally, directly supported the food producers and reassured that their production was about sustainability and your health.

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