By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Isle catches like the opah, foreground, and monchong draw high prices on the global fish market.

Restaurants around the world dish
out big bucks for Hawaii's
prized deep-sea catches

By Richard Borreca

Hundreds of miles offshore, an iridescent blue bigeye tuna gobbles one of 900 baited hooks on the 40 miles of line Tom Webster's crew carefully reeled out that morning.

The men on Webster's fishing boat, a clean-lined wooden vessel built in 1925, gently haul in the 100-pound fish.

"We handle them real careful," Webster, a fisherman with 35 years experience, said. "We land them on a carpet on the deck, they are quickly killed so they don't thrash and they are carefully iced and then re-iced to get the body temperature down."

The tuna, a warm-blooded nomad that spends its short life streaming across the Pacific in various mysterious routes from Japan to California, has become the prize catch in a local industry that is one of Hawaii's business success stories.

George Mavrothalassitis, executive chef at the Four Seasons Resort on Maui, a great fan of Hawaii seafood, still marvels at the prices paid for Hawaii fish.

"You go to the fish auction at Kewalo Basin - they ring the bell at 5:30 a.m. and you see two gentlemen pay $3,000 to $5,000 each for exceptional fish, every morning. They buy their fish and leave," he said.

The hurried departure is the key to Hawaii's fishing success story. Local fish don't stay here, but are immediately flown around the world, where they are sold by a fish broker to a fish market, which sells them to a restaurant.

Within a few hours of being sold at the United Fishing Agency auction, Hawaii's deep-sea catch is in the air, flying to Tokyo, Los Angeles, New York and London.

Fresh fish is food for the rich countries, said James Cook, president of Pacific Ocean Producers, a large fishing supply company that also owns or manages 11 longline and lobster boats in Honolulu.

"Fish needs to be flown to places where the money is," Cook explained.

There are many places in the Pacific where you can catch tuna, but there are only a few that have big airports with frequent flights to the rest of the world.

With plentiful supplies of popular fish - skipjack, bigeye, albacore, yellowfin tuna, mahimahi, ono and opah - plus daily national and international flights, Honolulu exports about 70 percent of its annual catch.

The prime market is Japan, where the sushi bar price for two slices of bluefin tuna sashimi was $80 before the Japanese economic bubble burst.

Back in 1992, the high price paid for a 716-pound Atlantic bluefin was $68,500.

Today, few fish are moving to Tokyo because of the difference in the dollar-yen ratio, said Glenn Tanoue, president of Tropic Fish and Vegetable.

The fresh fish market has become an international brokers' game, with catches landing around the Pacific.

"It used to be it was just Hawaii and Taiwan setting the tuna prices," Tanoue said.

Then the tuna started to be caught and sold in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic market picked up.

"All of a sudden Ecuador, Costa Rica and Nicaragua were selling tuna," said Tanoue, one of the state's major fish wholesalers.

But getting top price is a matter of fishing skill, marketing connections and some luck.

"A fish is not just a fish," said Jim Anderson, a fishery economist at University of Rhodes Island and editor of a fishing industry report.

"You can't handle it poorly. You look at the shape of fish, you look for burn caused by lactic acid, the fat content.

"There are definite benefits to handling a fish correctly and getting it to the airport," he said.

Tanoue agrees: He sends his tuna out in specially designed, waxed cardboard boxes, double-lined and packed with dry ice. One fish, worth upwards of $1,000, is carefully slipped into an individual box and sped to the airport.

The system works. And when the state's proposed fishing village at Pier 35 is built in two years, the fishing industry should do even better, according to those in the business.

"We are an international business," said Cook, who sells the specialized gear long-line fishers need, plus the ice needed to chill the fish.

"This industry has done reasonably well for the last 15 years. We are not a victim of the Hawaiian economy because we are more dependent on the world economy, and that market has been growing since the 1980s," he said.

Hawaii's fishing market must export to survive, according to Craig MacDonald, Ocean Resources Development manager for the state's Business, Economic Development and Tourism Department.

"At our level of production, we soon develop a surplus," he said. "While most companies would prefer to sell to the local market, some companies realize they have to export to survive."

For example, one fish that has little local interest is the broadbill swordfish, or shutome, which experts describe as having a "tender, sweet, shellfish-like favor."

There is no local demand, MacDonald explained, but on the East Coast, where it is broiled, the fish sells great.

"Now, between 70 and 90 percent of the shutome is exported - and Hawaii leads the nation in exports."

Fish flavors as vast as wine varieties

By Greg Ambrose

Howard Deese would like people to eat more shutome and hebi because it's good for the environment.

Guy Tamashiro would like people to eat more opah and monchong because it's good for their pocketbooks, while William Aila wants fish lovers to eat more taape because it's good for fishermen's pocketbooks.

And Deese would like everyone to select their fish the same way they choose their wine: by taste rather than by name.

Consumers are reluctant to spend their money on fish they aren't familiar with, Deese said, so they keep buying the same few species, which are being overfished.

"There are 1,700 edible fish in the world, and there is no way you are going to learn all their names," he said.

So Deese has been marketing Hawaii's fish by its origination area and taste characteristics, the same way wine is marketed. He also has been teaching consumers to enjoy each variety of fish, just as they enjoy the varieties of wine.

Don't laugh. Deese has had huge success creating a global market for Hawaii's lesser-known fish, to the point where they have become star attractions at restaurants across the nation.

Deese, a marine programs specialist with the state Ocean Resources Branch, has used a simple technique.

He helped create a vocabulary of fish flavors, a palette for the palate that rates fish by characteristics such as aroma, texture, flavor intensity and flavor quality.

"Chicken is chicken, pork is pork, but fish is not just fish," said Deese. "There is such a huge variety of tastes, it intimidates people. I want to help them identify fish so they can ask for fish with certain taste characteristics."

Deese began sharing this classification system and special cooking techniques with chefs, consumers and travel and food journalists throughout Hawaii in 1994. In the spring, he will take his clinic to New York, Boston, Orlando, New Orleans and Anaheim, Calif.

The result has been a boom export market for Hawaii fish. And the state has begun marketing Hawaii as a seafood cuisine destination to lure tourists to the islands.

All this publicity and promotion costs taxpayers only Deese's salary, as host restaurants and trade shows pay for his travel and expenses. Locally, he teaches fish appreciation classes at the University of Hawaii and to groups of elders.

"The industry goes for the easiest one to sell and doesn't want to handle the one that has the low price," Deese said. "But if consumers ask for it, the market will respond."

And with a market for lesser-known fish, the fishermen will respond. Aila, a Waianae fisherman, sees Deese's work as a boon to fishermen.

"If we can encourage more people to eat more taape, it would be great," he said.

Taape is a snapper brought in by the state in 1959 that has proliferated at the expense of other fish.

Guy Tamashiro, of Tamashiro Market, is enthusiastic about anything that encourages shoppers to be more adventuresome.

"For the consumer, it is better to keep an open mind when they are shopping. If they buy whatever is running at that time, besides the price being good, there is a good selection and the quality goes up, too."

Tamashiro is convinced that Deese's efforts are paying off.

"Hawaii is finally catching on to one underutilized species, the spearfish, or hebi," he said.

Deese said hebi is considered gourmet fish all over the world, but it has taken some work to make it popular in Hawaii. The same is true for shutome, or broadbill swordfish, which has creamy white meat, just like Hawaii's more popular bottomfish.

Taking pressure off popular, heavily fished species is an important aspect of Deese's work.

Worldwide, fishermen throw overboard a third of the seafood they catch by long lines and nets because there is no market for it. Meanwhile, demand for popular species has increased to the point that species are overfished to extinction, or the fisheries are closed.

A shortage of seafood looms, according to marine biologists.

"If we can get people to appreciate some of the seafood that is being thrown away, we'll have a better supply of seafood, and it will last longer," Deese said.

The state isn't content with the economic activity generated by marketing Hawaii's other fish. It also has turned potential competitors into business partners by marketing and exporting the fish of Pacific island nations.

By helping these nations export their fish elsewhere, it prevents them from selling the fish in Hawaii, flooding the market and potentially putting the local fishing fleet out of business. The state's help is in return for a 20 percent commission off the flow of fish it handles.

This cooperation has the potential to be a gold mine for the state, Deese said, because the Pacific region supplies 60 percent of the world's tuna.

'This is a business that takes guts'

By Richard Borreca

You can call us independent seafood brokers, say Tom Calvert, 35, and Mary Mendonca, 37.

Like commodity traders, but operating from the floor of the fish auction at United Fishing Agency every morning before dawn, they buy fish to ship to customers around the world.

"Communications, that's what we are good at," says Calvert, a former vice president at Hilo Fish Co.

Both have young families and high-risk jobs, with their income riding on their savvy.

"I guess you have to have a feel for it," says Mendonca, who started working for Norpac Fisheries Export as a data entry clerk. Soon she was unloading boats, then selling fish, until she learned enough to trade.

She is the first woman to bid at the fish auction and Calvert the first haole to buy and sell fish in the small commercial fishing community, according to Glenn Tanoue, president of Tropic Fish and Vegetable Center.

"Every day is a gamble; this is a business that takes guts," Calvert says.

"Anything can happen," Mendonca agrees. "You have an order for $65,000 worth of fish and it is sitting on some runway in Dallas and all you know is the price is dropping every hour."

The trick, they explain, is to keep up with the supply of fish, know where it's going and who's buying.

You also have to know the global market.

For instance, Mendonca explains, if you know what boats in Australia and Ecuador are doing - who's got the nice catch and who's able to sell it quickly - you can bid smartly on fish in Honolulu in the morning and have it moving for a profit to wholesalers across the mainland and Europe before noon.

Tom Webster on board his tuna fishing boat, Havana.

Veteran of high seas still gets rush when his line tugs

When Tom Webster was young, growing up in California, he would slip out at night to meet a friend to go fish for mackerel. By high school, Webster was spending his summers shipping out on tuna clippers sailing to South America.

"I was the richest kid in high school - I made good money," he says.

Now, after nearly 50 years of fishing, "there (still) is a rush you get when the line is heavy and you know you have a big fish," Webster explains.

Not counting time out for a college degree and some shore work in banks and construction, Webster says he has been fishing his whole life. Ranging from Alaska to Mexico, before moving to Hawaii 14 years ago, Webster saw three sons grow up on the deck of the Havana, his 75-foot Pacific Northwest halibut schooner built in 1925 in Seattle.

"There was a period of time when we were albacore fishing," he reminisces. "It is a style of fishing that lends itself to a family - we took the kids out of school in about 1974.

"We had about four years fishing and home schooling: the boys all took correspondence courses, until the oldest boy was ready for high school."

Now, two of his sons help on the Havana; the third is a marine biologist.

Webster makes about a dozen two-week fishing trips a year out of Kewalo Basin.

"It is an unusual industry and I'm not sure why anyone would want to do this," he says.

"We have incredibly long hours, it is physically demanding. I guess over the long haul you make a little bit of money, but when you are putting in 18 hours days in an environment that is unfriendly, that is trying to kill you and your boat, it doesn't sound that good."

Webster's routine at sea has him up at 6:30 a.m., as the four-person crew baits 900 hooks and lays out 40 miles of line.

The boat drifts alongside the line, while the crew sleeps from 8:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. After dinner, the crew hauls in the line around 4:30 p.m. They finish around 1:30 a.m.

Says Webster: "If we have 10 good fish, we have had a good night."

They're fishing's jack-of-all-trades

JAMES Cook, 54, president of Pacific Ocean Producers, left his fishing boat in 1983, but that hasn't stopped him from becoming one of the largest players in Honolulu's thriving commercial fishing industry.

He and partner Sean Martin own or manage 11 long-line fishing vessels and supply the town's fishing boats with everything from bait and ice, to state-of-the-art long-line fishing systems.

They are distributors for the system in Taiwan, Tahiti and Auckland. And they run a fishing catalog and sell packaged ice to grocery stores in Honolulu, cranking out 380 tons of ice a day.

"I have been involved in sport fishing since I was old enough to swim," Cook says. "Then in 1967, I bought a small boat in Kaneohe Bay and started commercial fishing, then I bought more and I built several."

Today, he employs 37 full-time workers, with another 25 on his boats.

The local fishing business is holding steady, and because of federal regulations limiting the number of long-line boats operating here, isn't likely to grow, Cook says.

But foreign sales are a bright growth spot - and Cook says he's always looking to buy or build more boats, and to fish them.

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Community]
[Info] [Letter to Editor] [Stylebook] [Feedback]

© 1997 Honolulu Star-Bulletin