Explore Oahu

Hawaii's Honolulu Fish Market and Brackish Ponds Are Fishing Game Changers

Chefs and fishmongers arrive early to snag the best and freshest fish

It’s 5:30 on a Tuesday morning and the clang of a brass bell echoes, signaling the start of the bidding war at the Honolulu Fish Auction on Pier 38. Huddled around pallets of freshly off-loaded fish, chefs and fishmongers bid on thousands of pounds of big-eye and yellowfin tuna, marlin, opah, swordfish, mahimahi, ono and much more. Some of the fish is destined for nearby restaurants while others will be exported to the outer Hawaiian islands, the mainland and other countries.

“There is a method to the madness,” says Brooks Takenaka, general manager of the United Fishing Agency, which has operated the auction since 1952. “And the auction doesn’t end until all the fish are gone.”

As fish are sold, pallet jacks dart in and out of the auction area. Local fishmonger Guy Tamashiro does the same. His family’s popular namesake market in Kalihi carries some of the freshest fish on the island, thanks to the auction. “I’m here at 5:30 in the morning, six days a week,” says Tamashiro, whose grandparents, Chogen and Yoshiko, opened their first market in Hilo in 1941. “The auction is great because I get to select the fish I want. I get to physically see and touch the fish.”

Fishing was vital in old Hawai‘i. Skilled  lawai‘a (fishermen) were deeply revered in the community and those who could supply large amounts of fish from ponds or catches at sea were believed to possess mana kupua, or supernatural power, to attract fish at will or make them multiply. Some fish were harvested in loko‘ia (fishponds); others were pulled from the ocean. In their infancy, fishponds were built by ali‘i (chiefs) so they could stock the brackish waters with fish and raise them for later consumption during the winter months when deep-sea fishing was perilous.

“The loko‘ia wasn’t to replace fishing; it was to supplement it,” says Angela Hi‘ilei Kawelo, executive director for Paepae o He‘eia, a private non-profit organization that works in partnership with landowner, Kamehameha Schools, to manage and maintain He‘eia Fishpond in Kāneʻohe Bay for the community. “It was sustainable aquaculture, although I doubt kupuna (elders) were thinking green when they built these ponds.”

Staff members of Paepae O Heeia maintain a kuapa-style (walled) fishpond. (Courtesy Paepae O Heeia)
Located on the windward side of the island, He’eia Fishpond is a kuapā-style (walled) fishpond enclosing 88 acres of brackish water. Built approximately 600-800 years ago, the fishpond is possibly the longest in the island chain measuring approximately 7,000 feet long and 12-15 feet wide, and forms a complete circle around the pond. By allowing both fresh and salt water to enter the pond, the water environment is brackish and therefore conducive to the growth of certain types of limu, which can feed schools of herbivorous fish, such as ʻamaʻama, awa, pualu, palani, aholehole, moi, kokala, kākū and papio. The 25-year, long-term goal is to be able to stock the pond and have it serve as a model of sustainability, while simultaneously restoring the eco system in the ahupua‘a (land division) of He‘eia.

“Who knows if we can reverse the environmental damage already done?” Kawelo asks. “But we’re pretty stubborn and we’re just going to do it. It’s a question of what is it that we want our kids to remember? Do we want to tell them that we were part of restoring this fishpond? Or, do we want to tell them that we didn’t do anything to help?”

Chefs lure in guests with a variety of fresh island fish. (©Isaac Arjonilla)
Local chefs are also doing their part to support the local seafood industry. In addition to popular ahi, opakapaka, ono and mahimahi, they are starting to use the lesser known fish, such as monchong (sickle pomfret), opah, hebi, nairagi (striped marlin), uku (blue-green snapper), hapu‘upu‘u (sea bass), onaga (long-tail red snapper) and ulua. Each has a unique taste and texture. So whether you choose sashimi-style with shoyu and wasabi, grilled with garlic or pan-fried in a buttery basil sauce, you’re sure to find a taste to suit your palate.

Fishing for some types of local fish is restricted at times by the state, so availability may be affected. Ask your waiter if opah, ulua or hebi is a catch of the day. If so, place an order. And don’t wait for dinner. Island fish and eggs make a great breakfast; a fresh fish sandwich on the beach can’t be beat; and raw fish, sashimi, is our all-time favorite pūpū.

“We’re lucky because we’ve got some of the best fish in the world,” Takenaka says. “And the auction is one of the best venues to show people the quality of Hawai‘i’s fish.”

Sidebar: Fish Watch

Ahi (yellow fin tuna), available year-round, is ideal for sashimi and poke.

Hebi (shortbill spearfish) tastes like swordfish. Try it broiled or sautéed.

Mahimahi (dolphin fish) means “strong, strong” but tastes mild mild. The meat is white and flaky.

Ono (wahoo) is a long, white fish available in the summer and fall.

Opah (moon fish), is full-flavored and best as sashimi or when broiled.

Opakapaka (Hawaiian pink snapper) is light and pink with a delicate flavor.

Ulua (giant trevally) caught in rocky deep water or near the shore, is tasty steamed, sautéed or as sashimi.

Honolulu Fish Auction tours are available, by reservation only, on select Saturday mornings from 6-7:30 a.m. Cost is $25 for adults and $20 for kids 8-12 years old. Tours are not generally scheduled mid December to mid January. Honolulu Fish Auction Tour