The Official Site

Fish Auction

At 5 o’clock in the morning, before the sun has even begun to rise over the eastern Pacific Ocean, only a handful of commuters dot Nimitz Highway on their way to work in downtown Honolulu.  Take a detour to Pier 38, however, and you’ll find not only an overflowing parking lot, but also a few dozen men in fatigued jackets and thigh-high boots, smoking what would seem to already be their second round of cigarettes for the day.  Just another typical day at work for the fishermen of the Honolulu Fishing Village.  Accounting for about 72% of the local fish sold on O’ahu, the Hawai’i Fish and Seafood Industry has been located at Pier 38 since 2004.


Bells chime at 5:30 to signal the start of this morning’s auction.  Hundreds of yellowfin and bluefin tuna, opah, swordfish, mahimahi, and marlin line the gigantic refrigerated warehouse, kept at a cool 60 degrees, each already labeled and gently sliced at the tail end to display the deep, fresh red meat inside.


“On a good day like today, we’ll sell about 30,000 pounds of fish,” says Brooks Takenaka, assistant general manager of the United Fishing Agency, “which means close to $250,000.”


At one end of the warehouse is a small group of booted men, each of whom works for either a fish market or restaurant here on O’ahu, scoping out today’s selection.  In moments, the auction is underway, and as the auctioneer blurts out numbers in rapid succession, a mere raising of the eyebrows or small grunt signifies a bid.


A yellowfin tuna is sold for $800 in less than five seconds.  The next in line, seemingly of similar size and freshness, sells for only $500.


Though these men know precisely how much a fish is worth just by glancing at the color of its meat, it is difficult for the common bystander to differentiate between one fish and the next.  Color contrast in the meat is by far the most telling factor of a fish’s freshness, but even the fashion by which it was caught can determine its tenderness, making the difference between sashimi and stir-fry.


Fish that are caught in the old-fashioned, hook-and-reel method are, for the most part, of poor quality.  Because of the stress induced on the animal moments before death, its blood reaches such a high temperature that if not properly cooled on the boat, the fish will literally burn on the inside, causing the meat to cook before its even reached the auction.  Today, most fish are caught in a much less abrasive fashion; by leaving miles of hooked line deep in the ocean, the fish merely chomp down and are caught instantly – the fishermen just have to slowly reel them up.


“We take real pride in our work,” says Takenaka, “and the captains who treat their workers well end up with the best product.”


As the sun finally begins to peak over the mountains, reaching the edge of the pier, the purchased fish are covered with mounds of ice and loaded up into various trucks and vans, eventually making their way to hungry Hawaiian mouths.


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