Honolulu Fish Auction: Selling Prized Pacific Catches to the Highest Bidder

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Fish Honolulu

The sun still hadn’t started to rise when our bus pulled up to a dockside building and we met Brooks Takenaka outside the Honolulu Fish Auction. It was just after 5:30 a.m., but fishermen had been offloading fresh catch from boats since 1 a.m., and the auction’s Assistant GM led us on a tour.

Fish Honolulu
The United Fish Agency started the auction in 1952 on Pier 38 and has since increased their commitment to sustainability, which includes limiting by-catch. The only fish auction in Hawaii sells 25 million – 28 million pounds of fish per year, accounting for 3% of the Pacific catch. Fishermen who want to participate pay the auction 10% for selling fish. They also have to be TSA certified, and must adhere to government regulated permiting, licensing and health concerns.

At the time of our visit, swordfish season just ended, but vendors sold big eye, albacore and yellowfin tuna, sorted big to small. As Takenaka said, “With the cultural diversity we have in Hawaii, there’s a fond appreciation for the species.”

Fish Honolulu
Last year, they fulfilled their bigeye quota by November 22, meaning they had to sacrifice holiday sales if they wanted to stand strong to their mission. They did. Takenaka said, “It’s not so much about sustainability, per se, as it is, how do we be smart moving forward?”

Fish Honolulu
We walked past pallets topped with large fish like mahi, monchong (aka pomfret), big orange opah (aka moonfish), each fish tagged with a UPC code, boat name and weight.

Fish Honolulu
On top of each fish, we found two cuts from the tail, which are designed to demonstrate color, freshness and age to potential bidders. They cut two parts from near tail, which are displayed alongside a core sample from the center of the fish. A fast-talking auctioneer initiated each opening bid, rapid fire.

With bluefin, albacore and yellowfin tuna, a blue ring around the eye indicates freshness, and marbling in the loin = fat = flavor. Bluefin and bigeye migrate in deeper, colder waters than yellowtail or skipjack, resulting in higher fat content, more robust flavor, and a bigger price tag.

Fish Honolulu
Takenaka estimated that a particular 162-pound bigeye swam the ocean for about 8-10 years. Earlier this year, a fisherman caught 754 pound bluefin in Sea of Japan, and it sold at Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji seafood market for over $300,000, showing how much Japanese value seafood.

Fishing Boat Honolulu
Fishing vessel operators have to state their objective before they leave the harbor, and 100% of voyages have a Federal observer on board to ensure compliance, another measure that limits overfishing. With long lines, which can travel 20-40 miles long, it causes less stress than purse seine net fishing, since struggle can create heat and lactic acid, neither of which is flavor friendly.

Fish Honolulu
We passed by three species of marlin, plus an aku with a crater in the side, taken by a hit and run from a cookie cutter shark. We also saw black escolar, aka oilfish, which probably won’t enter my diet anytime soon. Takenaka said, “Fisherman used to say, you eat too much of it, you get the runs.”

Fish Honolulu
After our tour, Brooks Takenaka joined us next door at Nico’s Pier 38, where chef Nico Chaize celebrates the market’s best seafood. Education’s great and all, but with Nico’s next door, that doesn’t have to be the only payoff.

The Honolulu Fish Auction runs Monday – Saturday from 5:30 a.m. – 9:30 a.m., except for final two weeks of the year, when it starts at 3 am. Takenaka said, “As long as you’ve got cash, you can buy.”


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

Blog Comments

LOVE Nico’s! Haven’t been able to get up early enough to check out this market though..

Funny you should mention, Nico’s, Darin. That’s my next post. It’s a pretty great one-two combo, if you can rise early the next time you’re in Honolulu.

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