In mid-February I was sitting on Craig Severance’s porch overlooking Hilo Bay. The weather was a beautiful 80 degrees with light and variable winds – perfect conditions for bottomfishing out of Hilo, Hawai‘i. So we were fortunate that 14 bottomfishers from the Hilo and Kona coast sacrificed a great day on the water to come talk with us and contribute to the Hawai‘i Bottomfish Heritage Project. Over two days, fishermen with the Pacific Islands Fisheries Group (PIFG) interviewed 14 bottomfishers from Hilo and the Kona coast. With 20-60 of years spent fishing for Hawai‘i’s prized Deep 7 bottomfish, these men had good stories to tell. And some even brought photographic evidence of the time they caught that 30lb Onaga.
One thing we were curious to know is how they got into fishing in the first place. Bottomfishing requires a lot of time and effort to acquire the skill and knowledge to be proficient. Some of the bottomfishers we interviewed learned their traditions and techniques from their fathers and even their grandfathers. But sometimes their children were not interested in fishing, so the old timers picked a few people, or perhaps even just one person to share their knowledge with. One fisher told us about fishing with a Hawai‘i Island bottomfishing legend for ten years on ika shibi fishing trips (night-time handline fishing for ‘ahi using squid as bait) before he was even invited to go bottomfishing. To this day, out of respect for his mentor, this fisher still uses the same kākā rig that his mentor taught him nearly twenty years ago:
I stick to what I was taught. You know, we use small little 22 hooks, maybe about seven or eight hooks, a little double hook set up on the bottom and a little cone bag on the top. Drop ‘um down, three pound weight, hope for the best. Watch for the little wiggle. Some guys pop a little palu ‘ahi bag with like a double hook. The way I was taught was to use they call it a kākā line. Just a string of hooks and send ‘um down. I usually palu yeah, a little bit. I use a little cone bag at the top and I’ll put a little handful of some finely chopped palu. Maybe brings ‘um up a little bit.
The kākā rig described in the quote, along with the traditional make dog bottomfishing rig, is based on ancient Hawaiian fishing practices that is still used extensively across Hawai‘i. The kākā rig is dropped to depths of 100-400 meters using weights and utilizes multiple short leaders with several hooks branching out from a main line.
We were also curious to know why people fish. Many fished to feed their family first, and were content to give away their remaining fish to friends and extended family:
[N]umber one [reason to fish] is to eat, number two, the extra give away. And I rarely sold my bottomfish because I wasn’t going out and catching big numbers. But if I did end up with large numbers, then I would sell it. And that was primarily to just make up some expenses.
This bottomfisher is describing what we would call consumption-oriented ‘expense fishing.’ While some fishers did regularly sell a majority (at least 90%) of their catch, nearly everyone reported giving away a portion of their catch to friends and family at certain times of the year. Many of those interviewed – even full-time commercial fishers – took trips to provide fish for special occasions such as the holidays, New Year’s, birthdays, graduations, or weddings. These types of trips highlight the social and cultural importance of bottomfish and the diverse motivations that trigger bottomfishing trips in Hawai‘i.
This project is just getting started. We look forward to sharing more insight from the oral histories once they are transcribed and analyzed. We are grateful to the fishers on Hawai‘i Island for sharing their time, their pictures, bringing along their fishing gear, and most importantly, sharing their stories. We’re excited to share more from the other islands soon.
This project is supported by NOAA Preserve America Initiative and a National Marine Fisheries Service Pacific Islands Region Cooperative Research grant.
For more information about this research feel free to contact us: