Tales of a Hawaii Longliner
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Hawaii’s longline fleet supplies much of our fresh ahi. The fishermen spend most of their year out at sea to catch it. What’s it like out there?
The list of rules on a fishing boat is long: Never put your hat in your bunk, don’t bring bananas on the boat, don’t bring a suitcase. No pea soup—it invites bad weather. Don’t say the word “horse,” because it’s the opposite of a fish. Don’t whistle on a boat because it’ll tempt the winds. Don’t leave on a Friday.
Humans have fished since biblical times. The occupation has had time to gather superstitions whose origins many fishermen don’t remember, but still follow. No reason to tempt fate, they say. But one rule that Travis Myking, an ahi boat captain, is very clear on, and its reason, too: no alcohol. “It’s not a booze cruise,” he says. “When we go out, it’s serious. It’s dangerous. Alcohol doesn’t add anything positive.”
Travis spends between 250 to 300 days, up to 80 percent of the year, at sea, which is not uncommon for a longline fisherman. At age 25, he guesses he is the youngest captain in Hawaii’s longline fleet. When he was 9, he had his first taste of fishing—or more like a full submersion: a 60-day trip for lobsters by the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. When he was 12, he used the boat’s suture kit to sew up a fellow fisherman who had sliced open his fingers.
His dad, John, age 57, has fished all his life, 30 of those years in Hawaii. John owns two longlining boats: the Marine Star, which he inherited from his father, and the Marie M, named after his mother. Most of his life has been spent on the ocean. “People say, ‘How can you leave the kids when they’re young, miss them when they’re growing up?’” John says. “My dad was a fisherman, my grandfather, too—it’s just the way it is. Dad’s gone fishing. It’s not that big of a deal. Some people think that’s weird, but it’s just normal to us.”
When a longliner leaves the dock, it is already almost $25,000 in the hole. Every fishing trip is less like a job than it is like running a small business. Half of the up-front expenses go to fuel—to run the boat and the generators that supply air conditioning and electricity. The rest of the expenses go to bait, ice and groceries. At the end of a good trip, when the boat returns to harbor, it might bring in 20,000 pounds of fish and $70,000 in gross revenue. Ten percent goes to the fish auction, and after the expenses are subtracted, the remainder is split: The owner of the boat gets half and the captain and crew gets the other half, with the captain determining how the crew, usually four other guys, is paid out.
Most fishing captains are dialed in to the ocean enough that they do better than break even. But what often catches them off-guard are the whims of the market. They can count on high demand around the end of the year and during the UH football season, especially when there’s a home game and every tailgate requires poke. But, sometimes, unexpected occurrences like a storm on the East Coast will shrink demand (by one estimate, 20 percent of fish landed in Hawaii is sold to the Mainland), or a bunch of boats will unload their catches at the same time, and ahi prices will fall. This year, auction prices for ahi have gone as high as $13 a pound and as low as $1.50 a pound.
“It’s not unlike going to the casino. You roll the dice every time you go,” says Sean Martin, who, with his partner, Jim Cook, owns six longlining ships, a fishing supply store and an ice company, all on Pier 38.
Illustrations of a sample longline setup not to scale.
Illustration: Erik Ries