Honolulu Fish Auction Exports Aloha

Its 4:30 AM when my alarm goes off. In the dark early morning light, I crawl out of bed and knock on the bedroom door of my visiting Mom. She and I are headed off to an experience that few places can offer in the same way Hawaii can.

Coffee firmly in hands, our animated chat fills the space between the alarm and our final destination on this early, early call.   Past the suburban Honolulu homes, most of whom only have one light on, if any. Swiftly moving through town on a near empty freeway. Making our way past Chinatown and the promise of early morning deliveries, to our final destination: Pier 38.

For sushi aficionados and Pacific fish lovers in the USA, Pier 38 is a magical place, whether they know it or not. Home to the Honolulu Fish Auction, where over 72% of all fish caught in Hawaiian waters begin their journey to your plate (and mine). The expected intimidating activity of boat docks (huge ships, massive cranes, profane dock workers) never materializes at this intimate fish auction. Approaching the building, we’re greeted warmly by a man with an orange vest. He’s all smiles as he tells me I’ll need to go get some boots because I can’t go into the auction in my slippa’s (flip-flops). Stepping into a perfect size 7.5 pair of wellies, I’m transported. I’ve never been closer to my food, except at a Farmer’s Market.

Once we’re property geared, my Mom and I prepare to stay out of the way of hundreds of people and forklifts. Instead, inside the auction are hundreds of fish, about 25 people and one forklift. The auction feels laid-back, if cold. We didn’t bring much to keep us warm, but at first, our adrenaline is all we need. Inside the auction, there is no smell. None. Everything is in pristine condition and there isn’t any of the seediness one expects from fishing docks.  No one seems panicked or stressed. Looking at the hand-written white-board, I can see what boats came in this morning and their catch. All the boats that deliver fish today, starting at 1AM, will be paid by the auction today and be able to return to the waters this afternoon. While the fisherman are returning to waters, much of the fish is repacked in ice for delivery as far away as New York. John H. of JFF Exports explains that some of the largest and best quality fish goes to mainland USA. His company can get it to New York in as few as 13 hours from leaving the auction, but even with that short time frame – he still needs to buy the biggest, freshest and highest quality fish to survive the journey. John explains that each tuna has samples laying out for the buyers to review. A sample from the tail, the core and the the belly. From these samples, the buyers can see things like color and oiliness and fat content which tells them about the quality.

Hawaii’s fish auction isn’t the largest US auction in terms of tonnage (38th), “only” 20 million pounds move through the Honolulu fish auction but it ranks number 4 in terms of value: over $54.6 million a year. To put John’s business into perspective, he says he sells about $8 million a year. He moves some serious fish. John got his first fishing vessel right out of high school, and he spent most of his 20’s and 30’s on 10-day fishing stints. He loved the life. Until he met his future wife, who suggested that he start selling Hawaii’s fish to restaurants in her native Toronto. John’s proud of his fishing past, he says it helps him know what fish to buy and from whom.

Rows upon row of Ahi, Mahi Mahi, Opah and Swordfish are already cleaned, tagged and sitting on ice. Each tag shows the weight and the boat that caught it.  Every step is monitored for quality, every part of the auction videotaped. Hawaii fish is expensive, even for those who live in Hawaii. I ask John why? With pride, he explains that all the fish caught and sold here at the market is caught in a sustainable fashion and there is no comparison for quality. Hawaii’s fish standards are among the highest in the world, from handling at sea to the auction itself, Hawaii takes its fish very seriously. John reminds me that its important to purchase the fish caught here, in Hawaii, not only because I live here, but because it contributes to the support of local workers. Its a discussion I’ll remember later in the day.

At 5:30AM the bell rings and buyers line up on either side of the fish pallets, tossing their bids out to an auctioneer whose unique dialect is so fast and foreign, only the buyers and the auctioneer understand each one another. The whole scene is incredibly civilized, not the loud and robust exchange of my imagination, but quick, quiet exchanges with hand movements. As each pallet sells, its immediately removed and separated by buyer. Each fish has a handwritten number on white paper (the price paid for the fish) and a colored slip of paper indicating the buyer. I watch John carefully review each fish and decide whether its good for his clients or not. As I stand, another gentleman in an orange vest, which covers his parka but not his Aloha shorts and boots, approaches to give my Mom a sweatshirt (she’s wearing only a t-shirt and shorts!)  and quietly explains that every piece of fish here today will sell, and it will all be over in less than an hour. Nothing is wasted here. Ever.

Watching each piece of Ahi find its buyer, I wonder which of them will find their way to my sushi plate. The best sushi in the US comes from Longline fishermen in Hawaii, because Hawaiian fisherman know their fish. People in the state of Hawaii eat 42lbs of fish a year! We know good fish, so the fisherman take care of the fish from the moment its caught.

Up and down the rows the buyers move.  My Mom and I return our borrowed sweatshirt and boots to the office and say “goodbye” to the market. We’re feeling warm, well, it is about 40 degrees warmer outside than inside the auction, but its isn’t just that. The Honolulu fish market doesn’t just export fish, they export Aloha. Everyone was so kind to us, so willing to share their story.

Later in the day, I go to my local fish store (which John confirms is a great place to buy Hawaii fish) to purchase Hawaiian Red Snapper. I’m not really looking hard at the fish when I tell the fishmonger that I want three of the best whole fish they have. He asks me if I want the Tongan fish or the fish caught in Hawaii. I think back to my morning with the Aloha fisherman and I don’t even have to think about it. The people who caught this fish are my neighbors. The guy who packs it talked with me, it was caught sustainability and treated with respect throughout the process; its well worth the extra $3/pound for me.

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For more information on the Honolulu Fish Auction, please visit their site. And if you’re ever in Honolulu, don’t be shy about getting up with the sun and spending a morning there. You’ll be glad you did.  In fact, if you go, shoot me a note – I’ll meet you there!

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About Tara DeWitt Coomans

An aspiring cook and an accomplished eater, Tara is inspired by the world around her and the food on her plate. "When you can't jump on a plane and take a vacation to an exotic destination, chances are you can whip up a dish or go to a restaurant that will take you there." says Tara. She often eats out at a restaurant after trying to accomplish a given dish at home. None the less, she enjoys food and what it says about the human experience. Tara is a full-time freelance writer and blogger. She specializes in writing about food, cooking and travel. You can find her in the kitchen, on the plane or at her computer.