Spearfishing: How Hawaii Chefs Honor Time-Tested Traditions

For these chefs, spearfishing has been a way of life.

He was only 6 years old when he received his first spearfishing gun from his grand uncle and he still has it.

An avid free diver, Isaac Bancaco likes to plunge to the depths of the ocean in search of uhu (bullethead parrotfish), pākiʻi (flounder), kagami (African pompano), roi (peacock grouper) and his favorite kūmū (white saddle goatfish.)

“My grandpa’s brother actually used to make spear guns using Filipino mahagony,” said Bancaco, executive chef at Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort. “For me, spearfishing is a wholistic journey. When you’re immersed in water and holding your breath, you become one with the ocean.”

Isaac Banaco

It is well-documented that ancient Hawaiians readily used spears to fish in shallow waters or along rocky ledges, later honing their diving skills to locate fish to spear. Today, fishermen will either use a pole spear—or Hawaiian sling—with a 6- to 8-foot-long shaft with a three-prong barb on one end and an elastic rubber tube connected to the other or the preferred modern spear gun, a long rifle lookalike that Bancaco and other “spearos” use.

Spearfishing with a Riffe Euro 110, Bancaco’s largest catch has been a 22-pound ulua, although he quips the fish may have been bigger. At least once a month, the Maui native will free dive with friends, swimming among 12-foot tiger sharks and what he calls “larger critters.” While Bancaco can’t prepare what he catches at Andaz’s Ka‘ana Kitchen, he does share his bounty with fellow chefs and family.

“It’s extreme fishing,” Bancaco said. “You’re at the mercy of the current and what the ocean wants to do with you … but it’s a thrill to bring home the fish.”

For Colin Hazama, spearfishing has been a longtime hobby that dates back to his high school days when he and a few friends would do night dives at various spots around Oahu. Like Bancaco, the excitement of landing a fish counters the dangers of the ocean.

Diver holding a large fish

“What I fear most is a shallow-water blackout,” said Hazama, executive chef at The Royal Hawaiian, a Luxury Collection Resort. “This happens when there’s a lack of oxygen to the brain brought on by holding your breath for long periods of time. All skin divers are afraid of this.”

At his best, Hazama could hold his breath for two-and-a-half minutes and dive as deep as 80 feet; now it’s about a minute-and-a-half and 50 to 60 feet. Still, he finds himself doing more blue-water dives, which means going four to five miles out to sea in search of reef formations that drop 140-180 feet.

“The reefs attract more predatory fish, such as ono, mahimahi, uku and ulua,” Hazama said. “The largest fish I’ve landed is 73-pound ulua, which I shared with family and friends and brought some fillets and cooked them up for the guys.”

Spearfishing is one of the most common, yet controversial, forms of fishing on coral reefs. It is highly selective, both in terms of species and size, and thus has minimal direct impact on non-target species. Additionally, breath-hold spearfishing is limited to shallow water, so the proportion of target fishes available to spearfishers is typically less than the proportion available to users of other gear types such as traps and lines. 

“I don’t catch a lot, and I only shoot what I need,” Hazama said. “I’m selective in what I spear, and I always think of conservation. There’s a misperception that spearfishers over-harvest but I don’t think that’s necessarily true since there are regulations that we must follow.”

Former Makawao, Maui, resident Kimi Werner is perhaps Hawaii’s most renowned spearfisher, gracing the covers of countless free diving magazines and capturing the United States National Spearfishing Champion title in 2008. She he can hold her breath for four minutes, 45 seconds, and reach depths of 70 feet. As shared on Riffe International’s website, her first memories of spearfishing started when she was 4 years old while being towed on a boogie board by her dad as he fished for the family’s dinner.

Kimi Werner

“From the surface, I’d watch in excitement as he’d go down and fetch my favorite catches,” Werner said. “Once he realized that the boogie board wasn’t necessary, I’d swim along with him.”

Now living on Oahu, Werner still hunts and what she catches she prepares for her family. She is, after all, a certified culinary chef and a strong advocate for sustainability and knowing the source of her food.

“Not very long ago at all, like not even a hundred years ago, anytime people sat down to eat a plate of food they would have some sort of connection or knowledge to where that food came from and how it got to their plate,” Werner said. “It’s not just the hunt that entices me. It’s the follow through—cleaning and cooking my catch, that really excites me.  If it weren’t for that, I would have no desire to hunt.” 

Simplicio Paragas
About the author

Simplicio serves as the Hawaii senior editor for Wh...