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At Work on the Bay

The fisheries of Kaneohe Bay have collapsed, but surprisingly, some boats still provide a livelihood.

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In a world of reverse-weave aloha shirts, of lattes and computer networks and car commutes, an older way of life quietly continues on Kaneohe Bay. Author Dennis Hollier spent months exploring the bay and meeting the people who manage, despite challenges, to stay afloat.

The Nisei is one of the last of its kind.

It’s still well before dawn, and the crew of the Nisei sit quietly in their skiff, killing time. Bowed by the weight of the tide, 150 feet of fine-gauge net stretches from the stern to shore, its end tended by a crewman on the jetty. Another 150 feet is still stashed in the deep belly of the skiff and serves as a lounge for the crew there. Now and then, the captain, Hiroshige Uehara, nervously shines a flashlight on the water to see how the catch is going. The rest of the crew, mostly Okinawans like the captain, pull the hoods of their slickers over their heads against the drizzle. We’re waiting for the nehu to come in.

These tiny fish are the last commercial fishery on Kaneohe Bay. They school in great numbers there, and, for generations, aku boats have come to catch them for bait. Aku fishermen need millions of nehu. Instead of dragging nets like bottom fishermen, or using baited hooks like longliners, traditional aku fishermen hook skipjack using long poles and barbless hooks. To get the fish to bite, they chum the waters with swarms of live bait. Without the nehu of Kaneohe Bay, the old way of aku fishing would die. But the old way is a hard one. Once, dozens of aku boats set their nets in these shallows; the pier at Heeia Kea Boat Harbor was homeport for more than 20 of them. Now, only two aku boats are left: the Nisei and the old wood sampan, Kula Kai.

Like many fishermen, the Okinawan crew of the Nisei are a taciturn bunch. Although they’ve worked in Hawaii for decades, they speak English haltingly and are shy to use it. David Soto, the Nisei’s engineer, the only local in the crew, acts as a spokesman. He points out that the crew is experienced. “The youngest man on this boat is 52,” he says, “and that’s me.” He jokes about working with Okinawans, but he’s been with the Nisei since it was launched 13 years ago, following Uehara from his previous boat. Most of the crew have fished together for years. Soto makes an excellent guide. Out in the skiff, the only noise is the soft baritone of Soto’s voice as he explains nehu fishing to me. Then, the captain shines his light on the net one last time and nods to the crew. He turns to me and smiles. “Plenty fish,” he says.

A crewmember of the Nisei relaxes at the dock in Kaneohe Bay.

It takes all hands to pull in a haul of nehu. We start by heading to the jetty to collect the crewman there, veering the rest of the net as we go. Once the circle of the net is closed, the captain kills the engine again, and Soto pulls on a scuba tank and slips overboard. He’s the penner; underwater, he uses his body to pen the edges of the net up against the side of the skiff so none of the fish can escape through the gap there. At the stern, the captain paces the haul, pulling in the head rope of the net float by float. Eisho, the captain’s brother, stands behind him, helping haul on the head rope, pausing every so often to organize the long net as it comes into the boat. In the center of the skiff, the brothers Hiromasa and Tetsushi Tamashiro grab for the belly of the net, shaking the nehu back into the water as they pull. They’re helped by Quentin Gohier, an old Hawaiian man from the Heeia docks who sometimes volunteers for these nehu runs.

Slowly, the pile of net under their feet grows as the circle diminishes. The nehu seethe inside. There are millions of them—so many that the weight of them begins to sink the net. Silvery swarms flush over the tops of the floats. Many more leap over the net to open water. Outside the net, schools of papio stir up the surface in a frenzy over the escaping baitfish. To keep the net from sinking, the crew stick the ends of stout bamboo poles under the float rope, cantilevering the net over the gunwale. The weight of the nehu bends the poles. When most of the net is aboard, the crew pull in the foot rope, which closes the bottom of the net, making a bag of fish about the same size as the 26-foot skiff. Soto surfaces out of the roiling turmoil of nehu and scampers back aboard.

There are eight live bait wells built into the aft deck of the Nisei. Each is about 10 feet deep by six feet wide. Sometimes, it takes two or three days’ work to fill them. This haul, though, is astonishing. The skiff pulls alongside the Nisei, penning the net between the two boats, and some of the crew jump aboard. Once on deck, they hand down large stainless steel buckets one by one, and the crew in the skiff use dip nets to fill them with bait. Then, the buckets are handed back aboard and emptied into the bait wells. Now and then, a crewman reaches into the seething net to grab an akule or a papio that’s been accidentally caught with the nehu and flings it back out into the Bay. The nehu are bounty enough.

 

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,August

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