Fresh Off The Boat

They say nothing good happens after 4 am…but not at Pier 38. Hours before the sun rises a whole other world is in action. Honolulu Harbor is alive and rumbling long before most of us can press snooze. 

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Starting at 1 am, boats return to dock after weeks at sea. Lucky for us, we didn’t have to arrive until 6 am. As we park the car, the sky is still dark; the full moon glowing over water.

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Honolulu Harbor is home to the United Fishing Agency, where 85% of Hawaii’s commercially caught seafood is delivered fresh, 6-days a week. The longline fishery was the first in the US to limit its number of boats. Today there are approximately 140 boats in operation, with a cap of 164 permits total. Along the perimeter, men are busy unloading thousands of pounds of fish–Opah, Aku, Mahi, and of course Ahi.

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In terms of ranking, the fishery proudly notes: Hawaii is ranked Top 35 in terms of volume, but also Top 5 in terms of “value”–meaning the amount paid for product. This means we produce some of the best fish available. Hawaii Seafood is a brand name, recognized for quality around the world, sought after even by Japan.

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While it’s everyday life for these fisherman, it’s an amazing performance to watch. You’re front and center as they unload creatures from another world. In the backdrop, the sky turns from night to day, revealing the city skyline.

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I know nothing about fishing besides the part where I eat it. I’ve had lunch at Pier 38 numerous times without realizing, just yards away all of this happens hours before. It’s hard to stay out of the way, but the guys are more than patient. In true Hawaii style, the Aloha spirit is here, and even on boats hundreds of miles from home.

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As the sun rises, continue on to the main event. From the dimly lit harbor, the bright lights and chilled air are an instant wake-up. Once again we’re in another world.

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Like Wall Street, the auction serves as an open market, fueled by supply and demand. The opening bell rings at 5:30am and the bidding ends when all the fish are sold. In peak seasons, the auction can sell up to 100,000 lbs. of fish.

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As it’s unloaded, each fish is inspected for quality. Any that do not meet the mark is rejected. The fish is tagged by weight and color-coded to show which boat it came from. It’s then brought to the auction floor and covered in ice.

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Hawaii’s fish buyers are experts. They know their fish and demand a high quality product. Fourteen+ varieties of fish are sold at the auction on any given day, each one a gift from the sea.

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The majority on the floor is Ahi. Pieces of the tail are cut so bidders can inspect for color, texture, and marbling.

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Traditional fish auctions such as this are hard to come by. According to Their Website, it’s in fact “the only fish auction between Tokyo and Maine (and) the only fresh tuna auction of its kind in the United States.”

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In other places, fish is sold by the boatload to wholesalers, who then set the price for retail markets. In contrast, the Honolulu Fish Auction is similar to Tsukiji–where fish is sold individually based on quality. However unlike Tsukiji, Hawaii’s auction is open to the public. If you have the nerve you can purchase fish just like any other buyer, but be warned, you won’t understand anything they’re saying.

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Bidders line up in rows and sweep down the block at a fast pace. The auctioneer sets a target and the price is adjusted up and down by the dime. No time is wasted. You have to know what you’re doing and what fish you want. See the Live Auction in Action.

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Once the bid is finalized, the fish is marked with the buyer’s tag. An employee enters the information into a computer and an official bar code is made. The fish are then hauled out for shipment locally and around the world.

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As you follow the fish outside, it feels like you lived a lifetime, but you still have the whole day ahead. The sun is shining and it’s only 7:30am.

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With all that fresh fish, it’s impossible not to want a taste. Just next door Nico’s is open for breakfast every tour day, Mon-Sat 6:30-10am. They offer a handful of local favorites including loco moco and spam and eggs. My recommendation–get couple types of poke with side fried rice, over easy eggs and Kona coffee.

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While Honolulu’s auction is based on Tsukiji, their auction can be seen only from afar. Viewing is restricted to a small area and limited to 120 per day, on a first come, first serve basis. Plan to arrive between 3-4am to guarantee your spot and be prepared for a long wait. When you consider all this, our local tour is a deal at $25/person, starting at an easy 6am Mon-Sat. Make your reservation and if you’re lucky you’ll get Brooks Takenaka as your guide. *For more Salt & Sand, subscribe below.

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