Honolulu Fish Auction

What is worth getting up at 4:45 in the morning for? A fish auction.

I am interning with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) at the Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) in the Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED) fully immersed in the alphabet soup that is the government. A few weeks ago all the interns got to go see the fish auction in action and a tour of the NOAA offices.

auction action

The auction starts at 5:30 with the ring of a bell but unloading of the ships can start as early as 1am.  The fish are all laid out on little platforms on ice and on some fish samples are cut out at the tail end for prospective buyers to inspect.  Core samples are also drilled and displayed to show interior meat quality.  Tunas are unique fish because they maintain warm internal body temperatures which allows them to be very active and top predators in the ocean.  Their warm body temperatures can deteriorate the quality of fish if it becomes too elevated, for example, ‘burning’ the flesh if the fish struggles for a long time on the line.  The auctioneer and potential buyers move down the rows of fish and bid on a price per pound of each fish.  The fish are all weighed beforehand and the price is dependent on a variety of factors the the 4 C’s of diamonds: color, clarity, carat (size), and cut (I forget how ‘cut’ translates to fish quality).  A variety of buyers come to the auction including restaurants, retail, and wholesale.  The fish are sold locally and also imported to Japan, Canada, and Europe.


Here you can see the tunas laid out on ice on the platforms with portions near the tail cut out to inspect.  On the middle fish you can see a small white piece of paper on the gill with the core sample.




The Honolulu Fish Auction is unique because it is a high value, low volume fish market. For 2006, Honolulu ranked 38th by weight of fish landed (20.1 million lbs) for US ports and 4th in terms of value ($54.6 million).  That morning only one ship came in with 25 thousand pounds of fish so the prices were higher.

the board shows the boats that have come in under the method of fishing

Under “longline” you can see the Sea Pearl came in with 25,000 pounds of catch.  At the bottom, “troll” is another method of fishing and since it is a smaller boat the types of fish are counted up.  “Bottom” refers to the “Deep 7” bottomfish which is closed off during part of the year to ensure a sustainable bottom fishery (more here).  Longline fishing is when boats put out kilometers of main line with individual baited lines spaced out along the length.  The US longline fishery in the Western Pacific Region is primarily in Hawai’i and American Samoa.  In Hawai’i the longline fishery is limited to 164 vessels with 130 active vessels.  Shallow longlines target swordfish while deep target tuna.  In 2008, the Hawaiian and American Samoan longline fisheries landed 14,000 metric tons.


yellowfin tuna

Trolling is a method of fishing where one or more baited are drawn through the water.  In the US Western Pacific Region, trolling is the largest commercial pelagic (open water) fishery in terms of participation with 1,404 troll vessels in Hawai’i.  Catches are comparatively modest at 1,700 metric tons in 2008 with catches dominated by yellowfin tuna, mahimahi, and blue marlin.

Longlining is  controversial because of the bycatch, or non-target animals that are caught such as turtles and albatrosses.  There are mitigation techniques in place and continually being developed to decrease bycatch.  I had a negative impression of longline fishing before I came to the fish market from bycatch and its use to catch sharks.  Although that has not quite changed the fish auction really showed that longline fisheries are much more efficient means of fishing.

huddling around the fish

Seeing all of these fish laid out on the floor also stimulated a sort of emotional response in me.  I wasn’t crying at the auction or anything but it was a little sad to see some of these majestic animals with their tails lobbed off lying there on ice.  Some of these fish were decades old and just a day ago were swimming in the ocean.  In general, people have become so disconnected from where our food comes from.  We never picture the 80 pound tuna our sushi was filleted out of or the cow that fresh lookin’ steak came from in the grocery store.  I do eat fish and meat rarely and I do think it is important for people to reconnect with the origins of our food.

Seafood in Hawai’i is unsurprisingly a very important part of the culture.  Hawaiians love their seafood and it is good.  I love seafood and am all for it when it is harvested in sustainable way.  There is a lot of science that goes into managing fisheries effectively and it was cool to see the outcome of all of that at the auction.  The Honolulu Fish Auction was was a really interesting and eye-opening experience that made me think a bit.  What else can we do but eat, live, and learn?

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*Stats were taken from “The Hawaii Fishing and Seafood Industry” booklet 2007, Hawaii Seafood Project

Info about longline and troll fishing from “US Pelagic Fisheries in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean”
handout, Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by yiwen on July 11, 2011 at 2:54 am

    exciting! reminds me of Tsujiki in Tokyo 🙂


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