This Seafood Month we talked to Dr. John Kaneko, the program manager for the Hawaiʻi Seafood Council, about sustainable seafood and the Hawaiʻi fishing industry. The Hawaiʻi Seafood Council’s mission is to support responsible fisheries and sustainable seafood on issues of food safety, quality, and sustainability.
How long have you been involved in the fishing industry? What’s changed since you started?
I’ve been involved with the Hawaiʻi fishing industry since about 1988, so that’s more than 30 years. I’ve experienced some significant changes over that time. When I started, we only had 35 long-line vessels fishing in the Hawaiʻi fleet. Two years later we had 164. The big changes have been in the number of vessels, which led to increased production locally.
We’ve seen increased demand over the years with the sushi craze in the late 80s which really started to introduce fresh tuna into the U.S. market. And today we’re experiencing an international poke craze which is really similar to what happened with sushi. The big change has been the increase in imported tuna. The other big change is in 1990 we started our swordfish fishery in Hawaiʻi. In the first two years, we became a very significant domestic supplier of fresh swordfish to the U.S. market.
What does the Hawaiʻi Seafood Council do?
The Hawaiʻi Seafood Council is concerned about the reputation of the Hawaiʻi fishing industry and also the seafood that we produce. The retail market, the wholesale market, and also consumers are becoming more concerned about not only the health benefits and the safety of seafood products but also the sustainability.
Over the years we’ve shifted our focus from research on the relationship between fishing methods and seafood quality and safety, to outreach training and education for our fishermen, seafood processors, and others. Now we want them to understand why U.S. fisheries are sustainable—it comes from the science-based adaptive fishery management system under NOAA Fisheries and the Magnuson Stevens Act.
What do you want people to know about sustainability when it comes to the seafood they eat?
We do public outreach to help consumers appreciate what it takes to catch and put fish on the table in a safe and sustainable manner. And understand the role that NOAA Fisheries plays in keeping our fishery operating within our sustainable limits.
The sustainability of fisheries is actually something that’s been defined for many years. It’s a goal mandated by the Magnuson-Stevens Act which was started in 1976. So, sustainable seafood in the United States is really not a new concept.
It’s a continuous process of improvement, and our system under NOAA management is really a model for other fisheries to aspire to.
Fishing in Hawaiʻi
What are some challenges the Hawaiʻi fishing industry has faced?
Some of the regulatory challenges that we have met over the years have included issues like dealing with protected species interactions in the fleet. In particular, our swordfish long line sector was having interactions with sea turtles and sea birds. Our focus on mitigating and reducing our protected species interactions has been very successful. It’s been science-based and is verified by intensive observer coverage.
Every time we have new challenges—either from environmental management or some of the other issues that we have facing the fleet—the fishery has always responded and has proven itself to be resilient. Working within the science-based management system under NOAA Fisheries and the Regional Council process, we continue to operate within sustainable limits. I think our fishery leads the pack for modern science-based fishery management and sustainable fishing operations.
What are some of the industry’s biggest accomplishments since you started?
One big accomplishment I’ve witnessed is the reduction of finfish bycatch and waste. And the way we’ve done it here in Hawaiʻi is to take some of the species that were undervalued and underutilized in the past and turn them into market species that are fully utilized.
For example, opah are an excellent fish to eat. They’re a very good tasting fish. But when I first started in this fleet many were discarded. Some were sold at pennies a pound. But today, they’re a legitimate and desirable seafood item on the menu and an excellent product. We’ve turned what used to be an economic discard into a market species.
What’s it like fishing in Hawaiʻi? How do you keep the fishery sustainable?
The American fishing vessels that operate in the western Pacific are distinct from others in that they are intensively monitored with observers, with mandatory vessel monitoring systems using GPS or satellite tracking. We have data collection on board, landing records, and documentation. We know exactly where they are and what they are doing at all times.
What makes our fishery unique is that we are able to use that data, analyze it, and respond to it by modifying regulations if needed. Through that continuous process, we keep our longline fishery operating within sustainable limits.
Can you tell us about local seafood in Hawaiʻi?
As an island state, we have limited land resources but a lot of ocean resources. Local seafood has been very, very important in the development and progression of our regional cuisine. It’s an important component of our tourism industry—visitors to Hawaiʻi really expect to eat local fish.
We also need to recognize that this is an important local industry. Most of the seafood that we are producing stays here to feed local people. The report that I’ve seen estimates that 80 percent of what we catch is consumed locally here in Hawaiʻi. We eat twice to three times the national average for seafood consumption per capita.
Another unique thing about Hawaiʻi fisheries and the consumers here is that the traditions of eating local (and raw) fish stretch back to pre-contact times. For instance, today eating poke is a modernized practice but it comes from an ancient preparation by Hawaiians. And the blending of cultures here in Hawaiʻi is such that as the demographics have blended, so has the cuisine.
Celebrating Seafood Month
How should people celebrate Seafood Month?
Well, in Hawaiʻi, every month is seafood month! But on a national level, what I hope people would do is support American sustainable seafood. So, go out and enjoy seafood in October and every month if you can. And ask the questions: Where did that seafood come from? Did it come from a fisherman? Did it come from a farm? Did it come from an American fisherman or from someone overseas? And then ask how sustainable was that source of seafood?
How can FishWatch help consumers make good seafood choices?
I find that FishWatch is extremely important, as we try to educate consumers and the industry about U.S. seafood. They should be able to buy and consume American seafood products that are traceable to a NOAA-managed fishery with confidence. FishWatch is the place to go for definitive answers about the sustainability of the seafood that we eat.
Well, my favorite fish to eat and prepare raw would be fresh Hawaiʻi bigeye tuna. For me, cutting sashimi is really hard. Presenting it is an art. And eating it is just pure joy.
My favorite fish to prepare and eat cooked is probably opah—it has a great texture. Even though I don’t eat seafood primarily for health—I eat it for what tastes good—I definitely feel better after I eat seafood and I attribute that to the omega-3 fatty acids that are in there.