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Historical Overview of the Fisheries- Hawaii

Fishing in Hawaii has its roots in many of the different cultures and ethnicities that make up the islands. Native Hawaiians depended on ocean resources for both sustenance and cultural activities. Immigrants brought to Hawaii to work on the plantations also brought with them their own fishing methods and ocean culture. From the native fishermen with a torch and spear to the large vessels fishing on the high seas, throughout its history, fishing has played a vital role in the culture and economy of Hawaii.

The ancient Hawaiians fished in accordance with the various moon phases after making keen observations of the relationship between the moon phases and fishing activities over many years. Hawaiians used a variety of methods (e.g., traps, spears, canoes, nets, natural poisons) to fish or gather resources in the near-shore areas for coral reef related species and the deep seas for bottomfish and pelagic species as well as in the thousands of fishponds (loko i`a) across the islands.

After contact with Europe and America, Hawaii became an important port for provisioning and trading for the whaling industry. With the availability of new materials such as iron and steel instead of bone or wood, fishermen were able to modify their fishing methods and become more successful while still maintaining their cultural rituals. The excess of catch and a new cash economy during this time led to the opportunities for Hawaiians, and later foreign immigrants, to participate in this new economy through commercial fishing.

After the contracts of the Chinese, Portuguese, Filipino and Japanese immigrants brought to Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations expired, many became commercial fishermen, particularly the Japanese workers that came from coastal areas and had this expertise. With them, these immigrants brought new ideas and advanced fishing techniques unbeknownst to the islands including the sampan fishing vessel, which eventually led to a major pelagic fishery in Hawaii for tuna.

As fishermen and researchers explored farther out to sea and to different parts of the archipelago, they made discoveries that would lead to new fisheries. In the 1960s, researchers discovered a pink coral bed off of Oahu and fishermen started to harvest from this bed over the next three years using dredges. At the same time, a small group of divers were harvesting black coral using SCUBA. By the end of the decade, the precious coral fishery was producing over $2 million in retail sales. In the 1970s, scientists discovered substantial quantities of lobsters in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Right after the discovery, a crustacean fishery started up with lobster fishermen, primarily from the Pacific Northwest, employing advanced technology and equipment to harvest lobsters from the NWHI. This area also began to see an increase in bottomfish fishermen looking for snappers, groupers and jacks. An increase in the harvest of these species opened up the restaurant market for fishermen and in turn expanded the bottomfish fishery in the main Hawaiian Islands.