Tales of a Hawaii Longliner

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Unloading fish for the auction.

Photo: Ryan Foley

The average trip on one of Hawaii’s longliners lasts three weeks. Almost half that time is spent traveling to fishing sites or returning to Honolulu with the catch. During travel days, three to five days of just straight cruising, the crew members spend most of their time in their bunks, resting, reading, watching DVDs, listening to their iPods. John reads a book a day, picking up paperbacks for a quarter apiece at the Kailua library. He reads so many books he can’t remember the titles, and sometimes he gets tricked by a new cover on a book he’s already read. Travis reads magazines and newspapers: National Geographic, surf magazines, Hawaii Fishing News, whatever’s in the stacks the boats trade with each other. On his last trip, he finished an entire season of CSI.

On the 70-foot Marie M, six bunks are crammed into a room barely bigger than a Kakaako condo bathroom. Each bunk has a window, but light is blocked out by car windshield shades. Time in the bunk is not treasured for its ocean views. The captain’s bed is above the deck, next to the ship’s steering wheel in the cockpit. Somebody is always awake on the boat. John’s boat insurance requires the installation of a little black box that beeps every 15 minutes. If someone doesn’t push a button to reset it, the box sets off every alarm on the boat, to make sure someone wakes up.

“Fishing is boring, long periods of travel,” says Cook.
 



But it’s also “grueling, exciting, dangerous work,” Cook says.

If the crew did not rest before fishing, they’d wish they had. Once they start, it can be 10 straight 20-hour days. They’ll start at 7 in the morning; two men take five hours to bait and set up almost 3,000 hooks over 40 miles of line, the entire length of Oahu from north to south. They’ll rest for a few hours, then start pulling in the line, a process that often takes 12 hours, working through the night. Out of the thousands of hooks out there, hauling in 20 to 30 fish is a good night.
 



When there’s a fish at the end of the line, the fishermen pull it up with gaffs—long sticks with hooks at the end—dug in around the gills. Once on the boat, a deckhand anchors the ahi upright between his legs, quickly drives a stake through the top of its head, and the fish gives a last spasm. Another deckhand guts the ahi, bleeds it and lays it in the hold. “When you land them, you try not to scratch them, really baby them,” John says.
 


At the Honolulu fish auction, the only fresh tuna auction of its kind in the U.S.

Photo: Steve Czerniak


The clock starts ticking when the first ahi hits the deck. From that time on, captains want to bring their boats back into harbor within 15 days so that the fish is still fresh. (The fish are cocooned in ice in the hold, a below-deck compartment that can keep 20,000 pounds of fish.) The boats can travel about 200 miles in 24 hours, about eight miles an hour. Twenty-one days and 1,000 miles from the Islands is about as far as a boat can push a trip before it starts hitting the upper limit of fish shelf life.

“Once the crew starts fishing, they try and fish every day,” Martin says. “If it really falls apart and you have to skip a day to relocate, then you’re putting additional time on whatever first fish you might have had.”

Most of Hawaii’s longline fleet—about 130 boats—targets bigeye tuna, which is the moneymaker. Everything else—opah, marlin, mahi—is just collateral damage, but it all sells.

 

 



When the boats come back in, the crew unloads the catch around 1 a.m., so the fish is ready for the auction at 5 a.m. When it’s all over, when the bidders have determined the price of each fish based on swatches of flesh displayed on each fish, the fishermen collect their pay, like cashing in chips in Vegas. The catch is dispatched throughout Oahu and beyond: Whole fish are broken down into quarters and then blocks, ending up as a deli container of never-frozen poke at Foodland, a spicy ahi bowl at Ahi and Vegetable, nori-wrapped tempura ahi at Alan Wong’s.

Travis will go home and walk Nala, his bull mastiff—“to just be able to walk in a straight line for a couple of hundred yards feels good,” he says. He’ll sleep, he’ll catch up with friends he missed and others he didn’t. In about a week, he’ll be back on the Marie M. “I miss stuff that I used to have more time to do when I was younger—surfing, playing guitar, art,” he says. “But, then again, I love doing this more.”