Hawaiʻi takes a fresh look at state of its seafood

fish prepared Hawaiian style

Fish prepared Hawaiian style. Seafood has long been an important part of the islands’ cuisine and culture. (© Conservation International/photo by S. Kēhaunani Springer)

Editor’s note: October 2015 is the inaugural Hawaiʻi Seafood Month, coinciding with National Seafood Month and created by Conservation International (CI) Hawaiʻi and its partners to highlight the significance — and struggles — of Hawaiʻi’s rich fisheries. As CI Hawaiʻi Senior Program Manager Jan Yoshioka explains in this interview, what happens in Hawaiʻi’s waters in the coming years could ripple far and wide. An edited transcript:

Question: For a non-Hawaiian audience, how would you sum up the importance of seafood to people in Hawai‘i?

Answer: Fishing and harvesting from the sea has a centuries-old tradition in Hawaiʻi, originating with the earliest Polynesian voyagers who were heavily dependent on the ocean as a basic means of subsistence. Over the past two centuries, Hawaiʻi’s seafood culture has evolved to include the customs of immigrants from around the world that now call Hawaiʻi home. For example, our modern-day traditions of sharing catch traces back to Hawaiʻi’s Polynesian roots, while the custom of eating red fish during the New Year holiday to bring good fortune has ties to Hawaiʻi’s Asian cultures.

Q: People outside Hawaiʻi might be really surprised at the large proportion of seafood in Hawaiʻi that is imported (60%). How did it come to be this way? How would you describe the current state of Hawaiʻi’s fisheries? 

A: People in Hawaiʻi consume a lot of seafood — our per capita consumption is 2.5 times that of the U.S. mainland. This is another indicator of the importance of seafood in our culture and economy.

Part of our reliance on imports stems from the high demand for seafood relative to local supply. Hawaiʻi is the sixth-largest American commercial fishing port by value, but the 32nd in terms of volume. This is because Hawaiʻi primarily lands high-grade, high-value seafood, a portion of which is sold to export markets beyond Hawaiʻi. Another reason we import seafood is preference; people here enjoy seafood items that aren’t produced here, like salmon.

With a strong commitment to collaboration between scientists, managers and the fishing industry, Hawaiʻi’s pelagic (open ocean) fisheries are among the most effectively managed in the Pacific. The condition of our near-shore fisheries are much more variable. Hawaiʻi’s fishing community, in partnership with government and organizations like CI are working together to identify solutions for improving the management of our near-shore marine resources.


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Q: What sorts of activities have been taking place during Hawaiʻi Seafood Month? What is their long-term purpose?

A: Hawaiʻi Seafood Month celebrates the fishers, retailers, restaurants and seafood businesses working together to promote sustainable local seafood and vibrant fishing communities across our archipelago. Throughout the month, we’ve hosted numerous events at restaurants, where well-known local chefs prepare sustainable seafood.

The long-term objective of this initiative is to build a strong coalition of partners across the seafood supply chain — from fishers to distributors and retailers — that will work together to increase the supply of fresh, local, sustainable seafood in Hawaiʻi.

Q: How can people in other places learn from what is happening in Hawaiʻi?

A: There is a growing movement in Hawaiʻi and around the world that is reconnecting consumers with local food systems. Initiatives like “farm-to-table” and “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” have raised critical consumer awareness around the opportunities and constraints facing farmers and their ability to sustainably produce food for our local and global communities. Hawaiʻi Seafood Month builds on these initiatives and translates these values in the way we view seafood and ocean resources.

Through Hawaiʻi Seafood Month, CI is demonstrating that marine conservation non-profits and private-sector partners can work together to achieve positive change. This is perhaps the most important outcome of this campaign: As we’ve done with previous initiatives, like organizing family fish camps and supporting efforts to combat illegal fishing, we are creating solutions built on partnerships and investments from ocean to plate to increase the health of the oceans and support sustainable livelihoods in our island home.

Q: What is the role of consumers in this campaign?

A: By improving our awareness of our food systems, we as consumers can play an important role in guiding the way seafood is produced and how fisheries operate. It’s our belief that if we can change the way we purchase and consume seafood, we build more resilient ocean resources and more vibrant fishing communities. Supporting local restaurants and retailers that feature sustainable, local seafood is an excellent first step for consumers to take.

Jan Yoshioka is CI Hawaiʻi’s senior program manager. Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

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