Saturday, July 21, 2001

John Freitas helped at the Suisan fish auction yesterday
by removing ahi from the back of a pickup truck. Today
is the last day that Suisan Co. will conduct the auction.

Hilo firm ending
fish auctions rather
than bend to
FDA edict

Fishermen will still be able to
sell their fish, but they will have
to travel farther to do so

By Rod Thompson

HILO >> Today is the last day Suisan Co. of Hilo conducts its six-day-a-week fish auction, a business started by fishermen at the mouth of the Wailoa River in 1907.

While fishermen prepared to sell to other companies, some said the closure did not need to happen.

The company announced last week it would end the auction in the face of possible sanctions by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In a recent inspection, FDA officials found seven violations that could result in the posting of a warning letter on the FDA's Web site and could lead to further sanctions.

By closing the auction, the company may avoid the warning letter, though FDA official John Cook in Honolulu said that is not a certainty.

At issue are Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point plans that companies handling fish are supposed to prepare and abide by.

April Romero at Mid-Pacific Hawaii Fishery said companies have had to comply since 1995, when the law was passed.

Her husband, John, who regularly bought fish at the Suisan auction, said Suisan did not comply.

"This guy refused to change," he said.

Suisan General Manager Glenn Hashimoto responded, "I'm not going to debate this in the press."

Last week, Suisan said burdensome record-keeping was a problem. Fishermen are supposed to note data such as water temperature when fish are caught.

April Romero said compiling the data is simple: If 10 fish are caught -- a good catch for most fishermen -- only 10 lines have to be filled out. The purpose is to keep the fish safe for human consumption, she said.

"None of it is unreasonable. You can see how it is beneficial for the consumer and for the fisherman. It's product safety," she said.

A worker dumped ice on fish at the Suisan fish auction
prior to bidding yesterday. Today is the last day Hilo's
Suisan Co. will hold the auction.

But fisherman Kenneth Ha sided with Suisan.

"They're putting too much restrictions on the auction. We don't have any cases of anybody getting sick," he said.

Neither Suisan nor the FDA has disclosed what the violations were besides bad paperwork.

Suisan describes itself as "More Than a Fish Market." Besides the auction, it has a seafood division, a produce division and a food division that handles meat, poultry, dairy and other products.

Manager Hashimoto said the company is undecided about whether to continue buying fish in a nonauction process.

Romero at Mid-Pacific and Steve Corpuz at Hilo Fish Co. said they would continue to buy fish, but fishermen will have to truck their fish a mile or two into Hilo instead of selling right at Suisan's dockside location.

Suisan took cores of flesh of each fish and displayed it for bidders to see the quality. Fisherman Ha said the other companies do not do that, leading him to question if he is getting a fair price.

John Romero predicted the change will hurt the economy.

"It's not going to help people," he said.

But refrigeration contractor Jonathan Bockrath, who services ice-making equipment at Suisan and elsewhere, said the change will not be bad.

"Suisan always had a big grip on the fishermen," he said.

Now, companies like Mid-Pacific and Hilo Fish are providing competition.

"I don't think it's going to be a total disaster," he said.

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