As we prepared to leave the frigid cold of Calgary and escape to Hawaii we wanted to plan to do things we hadn’t done before on previous visits. The focus was to do things that would teach us more about Hawaii, more about Hawaiian culture. So in the spirit of that we booked a tour of the Honolulu Fish Auction. Fishing and eating fish are a huge part of daily life for most in Hawaii. For work or recreation, both put food on the table for a lot people on Oahu. In every grocery store fish and seafood are at the fore front: Ahi poke, lomi lomi Salmon and lau lau are some delicious local seafood specialties.
As we drive the Farrington Highway up the leeward coast of Oahu, lone fishermen can be seen all along the shoreline. Boys and men, some with camp chairs and buckets others with just a rod and reel, all are looking for the catch of the day for their own dinner table.
The Honolulu Fish Auction happens 6 days a week delivering fish for thousands of dinner tables across the islands and the main land. It is the only fresh tuna auction of its kind in the United States. It was designed to be like a famous auction in Tokyo, Japan. You can tour the auction Saturday mornings from 6am to 7:30am by reservation only. There are 130 boats in the fishing village and they deliver up to 150000 pounds a day of important, delicious fish to be auctioned off at pier 38 in the Honolulu harbor Monday to Saturday.
Sixty five percent of all fish caught by these boats are consumed in Hawaii. Customers visit the auction, some daily, some weekly to stock markets and restaurants in the Islands, all over the U.S. and beyond. The fish on auction this day were caught by 4 long line boats in the fleet: Sylvia, Miss Renee, Kath 5 and Lady Jackie. These lovely ladies delivered 70000 pounds of: Ahi, Moonfish, Ono, large big eye Tuna, Swordfish and Mahi Mahi to name a few on auction the morning we were there. When we arrived at pier 38 to meet our guide it was so peaceful in the harbor. We had no idea how big and busy the goings on of the auction was even though it was happening steps away in the state of the art auction facility.
Boats are out at sea for 2 weeks or more at a time and work tirelessly to catch fish for the auction, the catch rate is only 1%! One hundred hooks go out on the long line and on average only one comes back with a fish. When the boats arrive back in the harbor they begin the arduous task of unloading their massive catch at around 1 am. Fish move directly from the boats to the auction where they are laid out on pallets, covered in crushed ice, tagged and bar coded. The tags show which boat caught the fish, type of fish and weight. The auction begins, before bright and early at 5:30am. The auctioneer rings a brass bell and the bidding begins.
The auctioneer stands in front of the first pallet and wholesalers and retailers gather around. He yells out prices and the bidding ensues. As fish are successfully bid on they are tagged with the winning bidders information and taken away to be prepared to be taken from the action. The crowd continues from one species of fish to another as pallets are wheeled out and newly stocked pallets are wheeled in.
The fish were huge and the strange thing was we couldn’t smell them at all! Really fresh fish don’t smell fishy. Some of the other things I found interesting were how the Yellow Fin Tuna was graded: a section near the tail is carved out and a small core piece from the middle to show the quality of meat. The grades are sushi or sashimi (is of great quality to be eaten raw) and other. It reminded me of the grading of beef, being from Alberta, Canada. I love good Alberta beef and definitely understand how the grade of the meat can affect taste and texture. The other interesting thing was the nutritional values of the different species of fish. The Moonfish, or Opah, is very high in both protein and omega 3s. I would have to eat a lot more of the Talapia I love to match the nutritional value in a portion of Moonfish.
Still not a tourist draw, the Honolulu Fish Auction was definitely a different way to spend a day traveling in Hawaii. It was a cultural experience for us and it definitely was worth the 5am wake up call.