January 1, 2014 | Vol 70, No 1

Honolulu Fish Auction

Selling One Large Fish at a Time

Honolulu's early morning fish auction is more than just a marketplace for fishermen in from the high seas to sell their catch. It's a focal point, a hub where the entire fresh seafood community can meet and work together for everyone's mutual benefit, said Brooks Takenaka, the hands-on manager of the Honolulu Fish Auction.

John Michael Moore
Based on the famous Tokyo auction, where large fish are sold individually, the Honolulu Fish Auction provides a marketing service for fishermen and helps them get the best prices for their catch.

The Honolulu Fish Auction is the anchor of the Commercial Fishing Village on Pier 38. It's the only fish auction between Tokyo and Maine. In fact, it's the only fresh tuna auction of its kind in the United States. Fishing boats tie up and unload their catch just a few feet from this modern, state-of-the-art facility.

The United Fishing Agency started the Honolulu Fish Auction on August 5, 1952. They still operate it today at the new facilities located dockside on Pier 38. In other parts of the world, fishermen sell their fish to wholesalers who generally dictate prices. The United Fishing Agency came up with a better way that allows the independent fishermen to sell their catch at a fair price and, in turn, enables auction buyers representing the wholesale, retail and restaurant sectors to get the freshest fish. Open competitive bidding rewards higher quality fish with higher prices. It also produces fair pricing for the range of fish species and quality based on market conditions supply and demand.

The Honolulu Fish Auction is based on the famous Tokyo auction, where large fish are sold individually rather than by the boatload to a wholesaler. The auction provides a marketing service for fisherman and helps them with quality improvement to get the best prices for their catch. The auction also makes certain that fishermen are paid the same day for their catch. It's an innovative system that has kept everyone working together for more than 50 years.

The day starts at 1:00 am. That's when unloading begins, 6 days a week. The fishing vessels are unloaded in order of arrival. Fish are weighed, tagged with the vessel name, displayed on pallets, and kept clean and cold. Before being offered for sale, each fish is carefully inspected by the United Fishing Agency staff to ensure fish quality and safety. Buyers arrive before the auction begins to inspect the day's landings. By tradition, the auctioneer rings a brass bell at 5:30 am and the bidding begins.

Hundreds of fish are displayed on pallets on the auction floor. The United Fishing Agency auctioneer moves down the rows of fish surrounded by buyers who openly bid against each other for value, the best prices and quality fish. The majority of fish are sold individually. This competition continues until all the fish are sold. Up to 160,000 pounds of fish can be auctioned in a day.

Buyers are invoiced for their purchases by United Fishing Agency and fishermen are paid that day for their fish. Some of the fish are packed at the auction facility and shipped across the country and around the world.

The rest of the fresh fish are picked up by the buyers for processing into dressed fish and fillets. The fish are sold locally, or flown to the outer islands, the US mainland, with some exported to Japan, Canada and Europe.

"Most of the fish sold here stay in Hawaii," said Brooks Takenaka. "About 65 percent is consumed in Hawaii, between 35 and 40 percent goes the mainland US, and a small percentage is exported."

The United Fishing Agency system allows for the efficient sale of the range of fish species, size and quality to suit each special market niche. There is very little bycatch because Hawaii fishermen keep what they catch and all fish can find a market use.

The United Fishing Agency quality control staff inspects the fish so seafood safety standards are met. Auction buyers then inspect each fish before bidding.

Hawaii's fresh bigeye tuna, swordfish, mahimahi and deepwater bottomfish are among the highest quality available anywhere and are appreciated in the most discriminating seafood markets.

The fishing industry pays strict attention to proper fish handling and quality control at sea and on shore because Hawaii consumers know fish quality and love to eat fish raw. Hawaiians eat nearly 3 times the national average of fish per person.

Takenaka actively encourages Hawaiian fishermen to engage in best practices to ensure that the fish sold at the market meet the highest standards of quality.

"We tell them to keep the fish on the same side as it was when they bring it on board," he said. "They should not turn it over from the time they lay it down on the boat until it's sold and shipped. In Japan, the top chefs ask for the top side of the fish – it brings a premium.

"We work hard to do things sustainably and get the best value for our fishermen –they risk their lives to bring in the catch – we have to get the best we can for them."

The market also serves as place industry professionals, from culinary students to top chefs, can learn what truly fresh, high quality fish tastes like.

"We bring them in and let them taste the difference between $11 a pound fatty yellow fin and $7 a pound non-fatty yellow fin," said Takenaka. "You can see the lights go on when they taste the difference."

The Honolulu Fish Auction and Hawaii fish companies are inspected by the US Food and Drug Administration yearly. The auction has been proactive in developing and implementing a science-based and effective seafood safety control program customized to the Hawaii fishery and its seafood products. This and the careful attention to proper fish handling from fishermen to retailers make Hawaii Seafood some of the best-handled seafood available.