The Best Catch

Fishing traditionally in Hawaiʻi’s first community-based subsistence fishing area.

Text by Brittany Lyte | Images by Mike Coots

It’s a quarter to nine in the morning when Thomas Hashimoto spies a grayish-green cloud of fish on the shallow reef that fringes the island of Kaua‘i’s rugged northwest edges.

“Kala!” he announces, using the Hawaiian name for bluespine unicornfish. Hashimoto, who is standing 100 feet from shore, uncrosses his arms and points at a faint shadow in an otherwise crystalline blue sea. Overhead, the sun is blaring. The three younger fishermen huddled around Hashimoto squint in the direction of his finger. Their eyes strain and search until they, too, spot the school of fish.

“Kala,” confirms Keli‘i Alapai, Hashimoto’s son-in-law. “They’re good eating.”

Valued by ancient Hawaiians for their tastiness and toughness of skin—so tough, in fact, that it can be stretched over the shell of a coconut to form a drumhead—these algae eaters are distinguished by sharp purple thorns at the base of their tails and a long, unicorn-like horn protruding from their heads. On this warm May day, the reef at Makua Beach along the lush town of Hā‘ena is teeming with them.

With hopes of collecting enough kala for lunch and then some, the younger men peel away from Hashimoto’s side to ready the fishing net. Hashimoto remains seated on a lopsided tree stump. Under the shade of an old ironwood, he tracks the fish school’s movement.

Hashimoto, who is 82, has small, rheumy eyes framed by a constellation of sun-baked creases. Still, they are sharp enough to scout a plentiful meal. The fisherman’s body, however, tires more easily now. On days like these, he demonstrates modicums of technique to the younger fishers in hopes that the wisdom of the craft by which he eats will help to feed the next generation.

“We have to mālama this place,” he says, using the Hawaiian word that means to protect or care for. “When I am gone, it’s up to them.”

In Hā‘ena, the local style of fishing is rooted in the Hawaiian tradition of māhele. To practice māhele is to share your abundance—whether it’s avocado, taro, or fresh-caught kala—with your community. The cornerstone of this sharing tradition is a commitment to careful management of natural resources. It is difficult to maintain a thriving māhele culture when the reef is overfished or the soil is degraded. Instead, abundance must be cultivated through sustainable fishing and farming techniques. While many Hawaiian communities have lost these ancestral values, the people of Hā‘ena still uphold them with vigor.

Keli‘i Alapai throws net to catch fish in Hā‘ena waters, Hawai‘i’s first community-based subsistence fishing area—a designation Alapai vocally petitioned for.

Keli‘i Alapai throws net to catch fish in Hā‘ena waters, Hawai‘i’s first community-based subsistence fishing area—a designation Alapai vocally petitioned for.

As Alapai and the younger men launch a rowboat to set the giant net over the reef, everyone from wives to mothers and children rush to shore to help them. This tradition of fishing as a community brings neighbors together to catch many fish at once, right from shore. A bountiful catch will feed not only the fishers who are present, but also friends and relatives.

The net, which measures 35 feet deep and about 100 feet wide, is a conglomeration of smaller store-bought nets Hashimoto wove together by hand. Weights along the net’s perimeter help it sink, trapping any sea creatures beneath it.

Favored by pre-contact Hawaiians, net fishing is still one of the most efficient ways to catch small and medium-sized fish for family-style eating. Anything the fishers won’t consume can be released without harm. Nothing caught is wasted.

Hashimoto calls out a series of directionals to Alapai, who is now letting the net out over the side of the rowboat. Those on shore march into the water, surrounding the net and pulling it taut. A few fishers make splashes to spook the fish into the webbing.

At Hashimoto’s signal, the group slowly drags the net to shore. Hashimoto cracks a childlike smile as he watches his son-in-law untangle fish after wriggling fish, before tossing each into a cooler.

Keli‘i Alapai and Thomas Hashimoto perpetuate cultural fishing traditions in Hā‘ena.

Keli‘i Alapai and Thomas Hashimoto perpetuate cultural fishing traditions in Hā‘ena.

“I catch more fish than anybody else,” Hashimoto says unapologetically. As a young Japanese-Hawaiian boy growing up in Hā‘ena in the 1940s, Hashimoto learned to fish with a net from his elders, including his father, who was an exceptional fisherman. The biggest catch of Hashimoto’s life occurred off Makua Beach in 1966. To hear Hashimoto tell it, the whole net was green with kala that day—96 of them, to be exact.

In recent years, Hā‘ena waters have been less abundant. Overfishing, driven in part by commercial interests, has placed some fish populations in peril. Trophy fish have also dropped in number because they are prized by spear fishermen, explains Kawika Winter, who is the director at Limahuli Garden and Preserve. This scarcity inflicts hardship on subsistence farmers because these larger fish species, such as the ulua, typically scare the smaller fish into a ball and push them near shore. Spear too many ulua and suddenly there’s a shortage of predator fish to chase the smaller akule and kala into the nets that feed the community.

In August 2015, Governor David Ige signed into law rules designating Hā‘ena as Hawai‘i’s first Community-Based Subsistence Fishing Area, which fishers, including Alapai and Hashimoto, spearheaded with the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources. The legislation aims to help the community protect its resources by setting bag limits for urchins, octopus, and lobster, temporarily halting the harvest of threatened marine snails, and outlawing commercial fishing and the use of spear guns. Octopus can only be caught traditionally, by stick or by hand, and lobster and seaweed can only be harvested by hand; fishing poles are limited to two.

“The rules say that if you come to Hā‘ena, you have to fish like the people of Hā‘ena,” Winter says. “What this does is it perpetuates the history of abundance in this area, so that the community can perpetuate the tradition of sharing.”

MikeCoots_HaenaFishBrighter-5662If you don’t have abundance to facilitate sharing, Winter says, the social networks that bolster the community begin to erode. “Usually those networks are like a net holding everybody up,” he explains. “But when you don’t have them, you start to see conflict. So having an abundant area for fishing and keeping up the sharing traditions actually helps make this community stronger in so many ways.” If successful, Hā‘ena’s new management system could become a model for communities across Hawai‘i, serving to bolster the protection of near-shore ocean resources while also strengthening neighborhoods.

For Hashimoto and his fellow fishers of the Hā‘ena ahupua‘a, a full morning of net fishing produces the following yields: 15 kala, several dozen googly-eyed akule, and a reason to celebrate. Friends and family join the crew beneath the shade of a beachside pavilion for a feast of pan-fried fish that couldn’t be more fresh. After the meal, Hashimoto begins to strum his ‘ukulele. Quietly, he croons an old Hawaiian folk song about moonlit fishing, and three generations gather close to listen.

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