Whether buying for a game-day gathering or a day at the beach, customers in line at the poke counter know it’s well worth the wait—perhaps even the increased prices.
There’s no doubt this fish dish is a local favorite that holds a special place in Hawai‘i’s heart and belly. But have you ever thought about where this savory pupu might come from?
Most would assume that the glistening cubes of fish were hoisted from Hawai‘i’s warm, tropical waters. Although we’re surrounded by ocean, the sad reality is that Hawai‘i imports about 60 percent of its commercial seafood. It’s not apparent to the consumer where the seafood is sourced, nor do we know how fresh it is.
Local I‘a is casting a line of support to Hawai‘i’s seafoodloving consumers and fisheries. The organization, which falls under Conservation International Hawai‘i, is the first modern community-supported fishery in the state. It provides freshcaught, locally sourced seafood to consumers and, in turn, helps local fishermen make a living.
Bait to Plate
While some seafood labeling in grocery store does provide basic information about where and when the fish was sourced, many consumers have criticized the system for being ineffective and vague. For example, seafood labeled “wild-caught” or “farm-raised” from the United States could have been picked up anywhere from California to Maine. For seafood lovers, that could mean a big difference in quality and taste. There are also a few labeling exemptions that have been frowned upon, including those involving “processed” seafood— leaving more than 50 percent of seafood sold in the United States without labels. The system also exempts 90 percent of wholesale markets and other fish sellers from labeling all together.
“It’s unbelievable that we don’t really know the origin of our fish,” says Conservation International Hawai‘i Director Jack Kittinger. The program, which launched in August 2014, partners with local fishing communities, businesses and nonprofits to facilitate sustainable management of Hawai‘i’s nearshore fisheries. “Our program will tell consumers exactly where their fish is from, who caught it and where it’s headed.”
This “bait-to-plate” concept of traceability is an important issue for all foods, but seafood is of particular concern. Historically, the seafood supply chain is vague at best and tracking systems have been notorious for lagging behind other food industries, like those of beef and produce. Bringing transparency to the industry, Local I‘a staff members document each catch when it arrives at the dock and tag it with a special code that indicates where, when and by whom it was caught. The “who” factor is an especially important element to this communitysupported fishery. To underscore the importance of knowing your fishermen, Local I‘a opts to use the term “faceability,” instead of traceability, to give the person who caught it a face. “We’ll be able to say Uncle Keoni caught your fish in Wai‘anae this morning,” Kittinger explains. “It’s seafood with a story and the story highlights the local fishermen who are out there bringing in this seafood.”
Local I‘a also uses an online seafood traceability system called ThisFish to carry out this process. It helps promote fishermen who proudly stand behind their catch, combining social networking with food traceability. The way it works is simple. Seafood lovers go to the tracking website, punch in the fish’s tag number and are directed to a page providing information about where their ulua dinner came from. They can even read a short bio on the fisherman who reeled it in. Local I‘a is not the only organization to use ThisFish. The tracking system is used in more than 70 fisheries across the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, including Canada, Iceland, the United States and Indonesia.
Picking Up Fresh Fish
Back in Hawai‘i, Local I‘a not only aims to trace the origin of its seafood, but also to bring the freshest fish to consumers’ plates. It follows the same concept as community-supported agriculture in which members pay in advance for a weekly share of locally caught or raised seafood. “Just like a veggie box pick-up, there will be a cooler and bag of seafood with your name on it at a specific pick-up spot once a week,” Kittinger explains. The community-supported fishery only serves O‘ahu, but could possibly swim its way across the island chain in the near future. Every week, members should expect to get about one-anda-half pounds of seafood ranging from mahi mahi to oysters to, more importantly, whatever is in season at the time. Although the community-supported fishery concept is new for the state, Conservation International Hawai‘i studies show that Hawai‘i residents want the freshest seafood possible. Hawai‘i already eats seafood at nearly three times the national average with a long tradition and high level of raw seafood consumption. Locally caught fish are hopefully that much more enticing. Before it gets boxed up and delivered, the fresh seafood is dropped off at UpTown Events catering kitchen directly behind Kaimuki Superette. The kitchen incubator—the brainchild of Town restaurant Owner/Chef Ed Kenney and Corporate Chef Dave Caldiero—acts as a central hub for Local I‘a’s weekly catches. The Local I‘a crew processes, cleans and stores the seafood until it is delivered the next day. Local I‘a was designed to supply seafood not only for home consumption, but also to serve local restaurants that believe sustainability is an important part of their business models. Providing fresh-off-the-boat fish to seafoodies is one of the many services Local I‘a prides itself on. “Freshness of seafood is always number one for consumers and it really doesn’t get any fresher than this,” says Kittinger, who has conducted numerous consumer surveys on seafood preferences. “If you eat mahi mahi on the day it was caught, then it’s the best fish you’ll ever eat. Frozen mahi mahi, on the other hand, just does not compare. There’s a huge difference in freshness.”
In addition to freshness, many consumers want to know how their fish was caught. That’s why Local I‘a has been working with the community to establish a set of guidelines for seafood suppliers. These include rules that limit fishermen to harvesting seafood that is in season and avoiding those that may be reproducing or spawning. This is crucial to sustainable fisheries because when fishermen take fish that are spawning, they inhibit the ability of the stock to replenish. Fish reproduce and spawn at different times throughout the year, depending on the species and their location. Kole, a tasty black fish with an orange ring around its eye, spawns at different times off the southern tip of the Big Island than kole on the Kohala Coast. During these times it is important for fishermen not to disrupt these cycles, which put further stress on already declining fish populations. Taking only in-season fish ensures that those species will be around for our next meal.
It’s what Jason Chow of Local I‘a refers to as pono fishing. “Hawaiians practiced this way of fishing and harvesting for centuries,” says Chow, who helps manage the communitysupported fishery. “It was needed for subsistence so that they never ran out of seafood.”
Chow credits much of his knowledge of pono fishing to his uncles. Almost every weekend as a child, Chow and his family would make the long drive from their home in Kaimukï to his grandmother’s house in Mälaekahana. The 28-year-old can still vividly recall those carefree days when he would excitedly tag along with his uncles on their fishing and diving missions. Although they stayed right offshore from their grandmother’s house, they would always come home with a bag filled with ocean fare like squid, lobster and manini. That’s when he learned, among other lessons, the importance of only taking what is needed. “Fishing was always a big part of our family,” he reminisces, chuckling at the memory of the three-prong fiberglass spear he got for his 13th birthday.
Today, through Local I‘a, Chow is trying to teach others what he has learned about pono fishing. He wants consumers to be able to make more informed choices about the quality and sustainability of the seafood they purchase, starting with education and increased transparency in the seafood supply chain. This builds awareness of the importance of local Hawai‘i fisheries in the community and economy. Although he doesn’t fish or dive as often as before, Chow still strives to lead by example when he does find the time. He tries to only fish at spots he has a connection with, like Mälaekahana and Maunalua Bay, which is part of the same watershed as his hometown of Kaimukï. “That way, I don’t feel like I’m stealing other people’s fish,” he elaborates. “I also try to only take fish that are lower down on the food chain.” Chow says he noticed a signifcant decline in reef fish populations after returning from college several years ago. Research from the University of Hawai‘i supports his claim. A team from the Fisheries Ecology Research Laboratory tracked fish populations in Hawaiian waters and found that populations of certain species have dropped by as much as 90 percent over the past century. Fish like kumu, moi and ulua are continuing to disappear, particularly in heavily populated areas off of O‘ahu and Maui. Chow say the seafood that does get snagged from Hawaiian waters mostly ends up in places other than Hawai‘i. Before working with Local I‘a, he spent countless early mornings caught up in the buzz of the Honolulu Fish Auction. He was in charge of writing receipts for every piece of seafood that came through the rickety, single-story warehouse at the end of Pier 38. Every day, thousands of pounds of seafood make their way to the auction foor, ranging from large bigeye tuna to broadbill swordfsh. At the sound of the iconic brass bell, a bidding war begins among the crowd of buyers. Some of the tuna sells for more than eight dollars per pound. “I was able to meet a lot of the big buyers and see where the fish ended up,” recalls Chow. “I noticed a lot of the really good, sashimi-grade tuna were being shipped off and it got me thinking about how much fsh from Hawai‘i actually stays in Hawai‘i.” It’s a question that many in the fishing community have been asking for some time, one that Chow and his team hope to address with community-based fisheries. “We want to keep our fish here, in Hawai‘i,” he says. “I understand that we can’t have certain fish, like salmon, but when we start importing mahi mahi, mullet and ahi, it just doesn’t make sense to me.” This is exactly where Kittinger, Chow and the Local I‘a team hope to step in.
The community-supported fishery aims to provide the missing link in the seafood market—the fishing line between the hook and the reel that connects the eater to the angler. Making that connection not only guarantees the freshness of the fish, but also supports the local fishing community and economy in the long run. Increased awareness will only help everyone; as resources grow, the more likely fishing will be handled in a pono way. It’s a win-win-win situation, a bait that none can resist.