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The Honolulu Fish Auction: The Most Tuna You’ll Ever See In One Place

If you think that that the fish tossing experience at Pike Place Market in Seattle is neat then you’ll most definitely be blown away by the Honolulu Fish Auction. Located at the end of Pier 38, this fish auction is indeed one of a kind. It’s the only fish auction that sells fresh tuna in the United States. If you enjoy tuna (or ahi as the locals call it) in your sushi then you’ve probably taken a bite out of ahi that made its way through the Honolulu Fish Auction. Because of its location in the Pacific, the Honolulu Fish Auction is the only fish auction between Tokyo and Maine. Six days a week, fisherman unload their catch in the early morning and the auctions begin at 5:30am. The best part is that you’re invited, if even to just stand in awe at thousands of pounds of quality deep sea catch. Like the vast Pacific Ocean, the Honolulu Fish Auction has a lot to offer.

Fresh Tuna. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

An endless supply of spicy ahi. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Arrive early and experience the intense madness. The fishing boats begin unloading their catch at Pier 38 in the early morning at 1:00am. Each fish is then inspected by a United Fishing Agency staff member to make sure that seafood safety standards are met. The catch is then put on plastic pallets, covered with ice, and displayed on the auction room floor. Imagine an entire warehouse floor, the length of which is lined with rows of large tuna. The sight of such enormous amounts of fish is a bit surreal and can be very thought provoking.

Of galoshes and jackets. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

The United Fishing Agency. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

At exactly 5:30am, auctioning begins. It’s sort of like Wall Street on a smaller scale. Instead of caucasians in suits yelling and screaming, you have locals (mainly asians), in galoshes yelling and screaming their bids. The auctioneer quickly moves down the rows of fish. A steadfast group of bidders surround the auctioneer and openly bid against each other and sometimes things can get nasty Remember, there are people here at that are bidding for local, national, and even international restaurants, markets and other food institutions. You think Storage Wars makes for a good auction show? Fish Wars might make for an even better one. The auction continues until each fish is sold. Upwards of 160,000 pounds of fresh fish can be auctioned off in a single day.

Mahi-Mahi, or dolphinfish. Thanks EricLauLau for the fish identification. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Hey, look at me. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

The tails are snipped so that bidders can inspect the quality of the fish. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

The experience at the fish auction turned out to be a great one. We showed up at Pier 38 not knowing what to expect. I initially thought that our presence would not have been appreciated. I mean, would Sotheby’s welcome us with open arms if we randomly showed up at their auctions? Literally, millions of dollars of fresh catch is openly displayed on the auction floor. Each fish is worth at least $1,000, probably more. Fortunately for us, the United Fishing Agency staff was not bothered by our presence (at least we couldn’t tell if they were). In fact, a few of them stopped to talk story with me. The first asked me where I was from. He thought I was from the mainland. When I told him that I was from here and work at UH, he laughed. He then replied, “I tired look at fish all day!” I guess that he was surprised that we were interested in seeing fish be auctioned off. The second staff memeber stopped and asked me a few questions about my Sony NEX-5N. He was impressed by its size and its ability to interchange lenses. He complained about bulkier DSLR’s. From my experience, I can easily say that the United Fishing Agency staff was a friendly bunch.

The fish bidding wars can get intense. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

The guy in the middle was the auctioneer that thought I was from the mainland. He’s standing next to a Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) look-a-like. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Joel and Monette acting a fool while people actual work! Photo by Coty Gonzales.

I spent most of the time there snapping photos of the fish and the bidding process. Occasionally, I would step back and just observe the range of people around me. It was interesting to wach the auctioneers and bidders square off using their very unique auction dialect. The United Fishing Agency staff rapidly moved pallets of fish in and out. Throughout our entire time on the auction floor, new fish was being unloaded from the dock.

The Honolulu Fish Auction experience is one that will not be soon forgotten. It was eye-opening indeed. I could not help but think about over-fishing. I privately wondered to myself if we, as a collective group of fish eaters, are selfish when it comes to our love for and enjoyment gained from eating fresh deep sea fish. This led me to further research the United Fishing Agency. I learned that there are laws in place that prevent overfishing. The fishing industry pays close attention to these laws both at sea and on shore. Furthermore, the Honolulu Fish Auction is regularly inspected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Still, I wonder whether the proper authorities are keeping a keen eye on tuna numbers in the sea. I can go a few days without a shoyu ahi bowl, spicy ahi sashimi, or ahi sushi. But a lifetime without ahi? The thought of my son or daughter not being able to fall in love with unique taste an texture of raw tuna? That’s hurtful.

Explorers: Monette Galario, Coty Gonzales, and Joel Sabugo.

Opah (also commonly known as moonfish, sunfish, kingfish, redfin ocean pan, and Jerusalem haddock). One of my favorite fish to eat. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Tuna on ice. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

The auction floor can become somewhat crowded. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

The fish is cut at different parts so that the bidder can inspect it for quality. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

It’s exciting to sit back and just watch the staff, bidders, and auctioneers do their thing. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Honolulu Fish Auction Tips:

  • Get there early, preferably at or before 5:30am. The best fish go on display at this time and the bidders go crazy for them.
  • Try your best to not get into anyones way. The experience is a hectic one. Auctioneers auction while bidders make their bids. UFA staff members are continually moving pallets in and out of the auction floor.
  • Be polite and smile. Remember, you’re a guest and you probably won’t be bidding on any fish. You’re snapping photos of fish that someone will eventually buy. Be nice to both the bidders and staff members.
  • Don’t touch the fish!
  • Grab lunch at Nico’s at Pier 38 or Uncle’s Fish Market and Grill.
  • After the auction, head on over to Aloha Tower Marketplace and check out the Aloha Tower Observation Deck.

Directions to Pier 38 and the Honolulu Fish Auction: The Honolulu Fish Auction is located at Pier 38. From Waikiki you will head southwest toward Kahanamoku Street. Turn right onto Kahanamoku Street. Turn left onto Ala Moana Blvd and continue on west on HI-92. Keep an eye out for the sign on the left hand sign indicating Pier 38. Turn left at this sign and drive to the back of the lot. Alternatively, you can make a U-Turn at Waikamilo Drive and Pier 38 will be on your right.

About Coty

Founder of Exploration: Hawaii, Blogger, Hiker, Foodie, Apple Aficionado, T-Shirt Enthusiast, Psychologist, and Rogue Scientist.

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