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Check Out the Honolulu Fish Auction

By Brooks Takenaka

Brooks Takenaka steers us through the high-intensity world of the Honolulu fish auction.

Honolulu’s fish auction is unique in America. Our system is based on the traditional Japanese system: we sell large fish individually to the highest bidder. We’ve been selling fish this way for more than 50 years. The Port of Honolulu receives about 28 million pounds of fish per year and ranks 38th in the nation by weight, but we are No. 4 in terms of landed value.

Our auction system rewards fishermen for high quality fish, and Hawaii’s fishermen have developed a reputation for it. That’s because Hawaii’s consumers eat about 42 pounds of fish and seafood per person per year—three times the national average—and much of that we love to eat raw. So quality is of the essence.

People have come to understand that not only are our efforts sustainable, but our fish are safe to eat. Hawaii’s open ocean fishery is one of the most intensively studied, monitored and well-managed fisheries in the world. Our longline fishing vessels are all registered and the number of boats in the fleet is capped. Our boats fish in Hawaiian and international waters, but adhere to U.S. fishery regulations wherever they fish.

Each day different vessels return to port with their catch. They are unloaded in order of arrival: first in to port, first up on the floor. As the vessels get unloaded, the fish are identified with a color-coded tag with the boat name and fish weight. They are lined up and inspected in preparation for the auction. In other ports, fish are sold by the boatload or in large lots. We sell large fish individually because from fish to fish, the value and quality may differ significantly. So you may have a $13 a pound fish sitting next to a $1.50 a pound fish.

Like traditional Japanese auctions, we start business with a bell. At 5:30 in the morning, six days a week, the auctioneer rings the bell and the auction begins. We start off with the bigeye tuna or ahi, followed by the yellowfin, albacore and skipjack tuna. We might have marlin, mahimahi, ono, opah or moonfish, monchong, walu or escolar, and other open-ocean species. We also sell deep-sea bottomfish, which would be snappers like onaga, ehu, opakapaka, uku and gindai, and sea bass or hapuupuu as well as white ulua and butaguchi.

WHAT BUYERS LOOK FOR

The wholesalers and retailers who come to the auction inspect the fish to determine quality, texture of the flesh, fat content and shelf life. The fish come in a range of species, sizes and qualities. Buyers are looking for top-notch sashimi as well as poke fish. They also need fish for grilling, frying, drying and even smoking. Buyers who have been doing this for a number of years can probably even tell you how many days ago a fish was caught.

They must judge all this in a split-second because the auction moves rapidly. The buyers decide how much they’re willing to pay for a fish. They’re competing against other bidders and in some cases may even try to affect the prices of the other company. There are subtle games that go on. It seems like a gregarious group, but in fact there is a lot of competition behind all of this. And competition is what generates a fair market price.

From my perspective, the auction buyer is one of the most important people in a seafood company. Over the years, his understanding of the market, the species and the characteristics of quality become very significant. Good buyers know the reputation and quality of fish landed by individual vessels. The captains may have more experience and are willing to fish up north, as an example, where it might be rougher, but they know they’ll get better quality fish.

Tuna vessels are out anywhere from 15 to 23 days, including two or three days travel time on either side. The reality of large, open-ocean fish is that if one were caught right now, you couldn’t eat it--the flesh would be rubbery. Like beef, it has to be properly aged (in ice, in the case of tuna). With proper fish handling at sea and plenty of ice, sashimi-quality fish can be held for up to three weeks. A typical vessel will unload some fish that might be two weeks on ice, along with others caught just a few days prior.

QUALITY OF HAWAII’S FISH

Both fishermen and the auction strive for better quality and higher returns. We work together to improve the quality of the fish from the point it’s caught. Two priorities are rapid chilling and cold-temperature storage. That means using enough ice. We've asked the fishermen to gill and gut the fish at sea, which lets them pack the belly cavity with ice and greatly increases the chilling rate.

The auction's move to Pier 38 right next to the dock in 2004 has significantly cut the time from boat to auction floor, which is kept at a cool 50 degrees to protect the fish. We’re better able to maintain the cold-temperature chain.

As soon as someone wins a round of bidding, the auctioneer places a tag with the price per pound on the fish. The winning buyer adds his company’s tag and the huddle moves on to the next fish. Each round takes only seconds. The auction ends when the last fish is sold.

At the other end of the building, workers load the fish into the buyers' refrigerated trucks for delivery to their facilities. At every step, keeping fish cold and moving is the name of the game. The fish are processed for sale, either to other wholesalers or to supermarkets like Safeway, Star and Foodland as well as restaurants and mom-and-pop stores.

More and more these days, we’re also finding our fish as far away as New York City, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. There’s a significant demand for our fish in Canada. Some find their way to Europe. And in given cases, our fish end up in the ultimate market, Japan.

We’re doing things right. People appreciate the quality of our fish.



Brooks Takenaka is assistant manager of the United Fishing Agency, which operates the Honolulu fish auction at Pier 38. He is a fisheries biologist who graduated from UH-Manoa, is an occasional auctioneer and works to market and brand Hawaii’s open-ocean species. Brooks is the education and outreach specialist and point person for tours of the fish auction.

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