Hawaii’s bottomfish fishermen catch their fish, and eat it too!


by Kirsten Leong

In the recent blog Onaga dai Bonkei!, we shared one of the artistic and culturally significant preparations of bottomfish that we heard during interviews for the Hawai‘i Bottomfish Heritage project. We’re collaborating with the Pacific Islands Fisheries Group to document the history of bottomfishing in Hawai‘i by listening to stories from veteran fishers. The Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council has also been a key partner and is helping us transcribe the interviews conducted over the past year. So far, 31 of 46 interviews have been transcribed, resulting in over 1200 pages of stories! To celebrate National Seafood Month, we searched the transcripts for favorite dishes and preparations from some of the most skilled bottomfish fishers in the state.

Onaga (long-tail red snapper) topped the list as the fish most people identified as their favorite. While it can be cooked many ways, it was most often described as one of the best species to be eaten raw, as sashimi and poke. Some mentioned that the smaller fish, 12 pounds or less, were better for sashimi. And of course it has to be fresh—ideally fewer than three days old! Local monchong were also mentioned as a good fish for sashimi, as it’s clean and not fishy, although many other species were mentioned as well.

The next most popular favorite was gindai (oblique-banded snapper), followed closely by hogo (scorpionfish). These species aren’t usually targeted, so they aren’t common in the market. They are typically enjoyed steamed, Chinese style. One interviewee even had a special pan for steaming fish for parties. Another explained:

…it’s steamed, red hot oil, soy sauce, ginger; steamed in ginger and onion, fresh ginger and onion, spices, cilantro on top.  It’s just silky smooth. It’s beautiful. It’s a fatty fish. It’s a real nice rich fish to eat, and steaming, of course, is the way to do that kind of fish.

Other variations included oyster sauce, garlic, or chung choi (salted turnip), but all were finished by pouring sizzling hot oil over the fish.


Edwin Ebisui Jr. prepares bottomfishing bait, with a hogo in the foreground (Photo courtesy of Kurt Kawamoto).

Of course, many said that all of the “Deep 7” bottomfishes were delicious and versatile. Other preparations included dry rubbing, slicing, and deep frying with a sauce on the side (to keep the fish crispy); oven-baking with black bean paste, oil, cilantro, and oyster sauce; Japanese nabe soup; and even just frying with salt and pepper. In fact, more interviewees mentioned variations of fried preparations than any other style of cooking. However, they also noted:

People would say, oh, that’s a sin. If you can’t catch it [yourself], then it might be sinful for you to fry it. If you can [catch] it then that’s one thing. But if you can’t catch it, you better not fry it. You better steam it or eat it with some kind of sauce, or something.


Kurt Kawamoto, NOAA Fish Biologist and key project partner who has fished for bottomfish in Hawaii for 40+ years.

In this interview segment, Kurt Kawamoto, NOAA Fish Biologist and key project partner who has fished for bottomfish in Hawaii for 40+ years, describes the first time he tasted his now favorite, hogo.

Others said that their favorite fish depended on what they felt like eating at the moment:

That’s a hard question because every fish has different texture, different taste and all of them are good.


It depends on how you want — or what you feel like — how it’s prepared also.  Sometimes, I’m really ono for steamed fish, then, okay, look for this. Or if you want miso fish, then hogo is really good. I like hapu‘upu‘u. Monchong [pomfret], I really like, too. But the local bottomfish monchong [not] the longline monchong…you can eat it so many different ways!


Nash Kobayashi and Ralph Takafuji talk about their favorite types of fish and different ways to prepare it.

A few interviewees said they didn’t eat much fish, or started to eat fish later in life. In this audio clip, Ralph Takafuji talks with Nash Kobayashi about how he learned to eat fish. Takafuji started fishing in ‘74, and Kobayashi started bottomfishing in ‘85.



We learned a lot about different ways to prepare bottomfish. This part of the interview made us all hungry!

This project was 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: pifsc.socioeconomics@noaa.gov

For more information about other research from the PIFSC Socioeconomics Program visit our website or browse recent blog posts:

Voices from the Hawai‘i Island bottomfishery
Hawaii Bottomfish Heritage Project Underway
Kaua‘i bottomfishers face rougher ocean conditions
Onaga dai Bonkei!

Transcript of Kurt Kawamoto audio clip:
Moffitt:  On the bottomfish, what is your favorite one to eat?
Kawamoto:  Probably the hogo.
And the first time I ever ate that was on the FERESA with Ed Shallenberger because on that boat what we were doing, because he didn’t have a lot of hold space, what he would do is every night after we were done fishing, we would have to clean all those fish, gill and gut all those fish and we’d hang it in the freezer.  Then after it was frozen the next day, we’d stack them all up like cordwood in the other part of the fish hold.
So while we were doing that, there’s nobody cooking.  So eventually, after being the guy who ties all the rigs, ties all the hooks, I became the cook and the observer, who got down all the information, measured every fish, everything.  So I would be cooking because we were getting tired of eating whatever we had.
To them the important fish to save was like the opakapaka, and all of that stuff.  So what’s left over is like the hogo, and stuff.  So I’d cut off the hogo and I’d dice it all up and give it a quick shake in Bisquick and fry it.  And, boy, that was good.  The texture is really nice and it reminded me of lobster.  
Transcript of Nash Kobayashi and Ralph Takafuji audio clip:
Takafuji: Like Gindai. Gindai never went to the market. No matter how much we had, it all went home.
Moffitt: That’s one of questions. What is your favorite species to eat? Sounds like maybe Gindai?
Takafuji: Well no actually, I didn’t start eating fish until…oh, when was it? ’91? No, no, not ’91. ’99, 2000…Yeah about’99 or 2000, somewhere around there. Before that I never ate fish really.
Kobayashi: He started eating fish right, his house, we were looking at him like…Ralph is eating fish??
Takafuji: Um, yeah when I was growing up I didn’t eat fish.
Moffitt: Why did you start in ’99?
Takafuji: I got married and I moved to Saipan for a little while because my wife wanted to go home to give birth. So I was fishing in Saipan. And the most hilarious thing, I come home from fishing, I wanted to get fish for eat. I was so tired, I was so lazy, I never like cook, I just ate the fish. So I started eating fish finally.
Moffitt: Did you like it?
Takafuji: Well, when I was in Saipan, we mostly targeted onaga. We’d average like 600-700 pounds a day. And onaga, blackjacks, um, and lehi, they were the three that we mostly caught. So basically that’s what my kids grew up eating, when it came to fish.
Moffitt: How did you prepare it?
Takafuji: Um, me? I like raw. Onaga, I don’t know, I don’t see what’s so great about it. It’s actually kind of a junk fish if you ask me.
Kobayashi: I agree on that.
Takafuji: We’d catch Hapu‘upu‘u’s, hapu‘upu‘u’s ch fish was always raw.
Moffitt: Hapu‘upu‘u’s raw or you cook that one?
Takafuji: You can eat them raw or actually the way Nash first time seen me eat fish was kinda like, I’m unusual okay, my mom would cut blocks out of it and she’d blanch it just so the outside edge would be cooked and I’d eat it with miso.
Moffitt: What is your favorite of the species?
Kobayashi: My all-time favorite is hapu‘upu‘u.
Moffitt: How do you like to cook hapu‘upu‘u?
Kobayashi: I like mine steamed with black beans. A great-eating fish.
Moffitt: Yeah I agree, I like that one too.
Kobayashi: Then there’s a…remember that aholehole moi that used to come up once in a while?
Takafuji: Aww, I don’t know what they actually call them, but yeah I know which one you’re talking about.
Kobayashi: Beardfish I think they call it? Some people tell it’s terrible but it tastes pretty good when you steam it with miso. But it’s a rare fish to catch. Beardfish.
Takafuji: What did we used to call them? Deep-sea moi.
Kobayashi: It looks like a moi with big eyes, blackish color. But it’s a great eating fish.

Onaga dai Bonkei!


During 2017, the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center partnered with the Pacific Islands Fisheries Group to conduct an oral history of bottomfishing in Hawai‘i. The purpose of the Hawai‘i Bottomfish Heritage project was to document the rich culture and traditions of this fishery. Earlier this year, we talked about the project on Mike Buck’s radio show, and wrote about what it means to be a bottomfisher on Hawai‘i Island and on Kaua‘i Island.

Master Chef Kazuhiro Mitake

Master Chef Kazuhiro Mitake (Kazu) from Tokurri Tei Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar in Honolulu presents an onaga “bonkei” (Photo courtesy of the Pacific Islands Fisheries Group).

The following story traces the cultural importance and preparation of one of Hawai‘i’s prized “Deep 7” bottomfish, onaga (Etelis coruscans). The story was provided by Pacific Islands Fisheries Group, modified from a story first printed in their Lawai‘a Magazine.

Due to its delicate flavor, onaga is often prepared raw as sashimi. Some of Hawai‘i’s best chefs are able to create a sashimi dinner with the beautiful red fish that is a truly a work of art.

Hawai‘i’s celebrated deep water bottomfish, such as onaga and opakapaka, is rooted in tradition and culture that has evolved to become part of makes Hawai‘i special. In the late 1880s, early “Isseior first generation immigrants from Japan and Okinawa brought with them traditions and practices reflective of the time and place from which they came. One such tradition is the decorative onaga sashimi display that is often the centerpiece of special celebrations such as weddings and special birthdays.

Master Chef Kazuhiro Mitake (Kazu) from Tokurri Tei Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar in Honolulu prepares this special dish for weddings and other events. Chef Kazu clarifies that this tradition is really a Hawai‘i thing that you probably won’t find today in Japan. “It’s a remnant of the Onaga quote 1past and something that evolved based on the local resources available at the time,” Kazu explains. During the sugarcane and pineapple plantation days, everyone was struggling to make a living and celebrations were rare and likely structured around the idea of today’s potluck. People would bring food dishes from products they had available at the time. Deep sea fish, such as bottomfish and tuna, were particularly prized and difficult to get. Serving onaga or red snapper sashimi was considered a very special delicacy for any celebration back then and carries on today.

Onaga bonkei

Artistic “bonkei” with onaga bottomfish created by Master Chef Mitake (Photo courtesy of the Pacific Islands Fisheries Group).

Onaga is bright red with nice firm white meat. Its sleek body with large bright eyes and long whisking tail also said to represent longevity. The elegant display of onaga sashimi is skillfully arranged back within the filleted onaga, then adorned with specially-carved daikon (turnip), carrots, cucumbers, and other vegetables. This presentation is known as “bonkei,” a display made of food depicting decorative scenery. There are many types of bonkei. The fish display is one example of this type of food art. Kazu explained that the first part of the word “bon” literally means tray with the second part “kei” meaning scenery.

When it all comes together, the final product is an elegant onaga sashimi scenery embodying the traditional celebratory elements of good luck and longevity – the Hawai‘i way.

Listen to an interview clip with Edwin Ebisui Jr., Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council Chair, and his son Ed Ebisui III, who is learning the “bonkei” technique: 

This project was 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: pifsc.socioeconomics@noaa.gov

For more information about other research from the PIFSC Socioeconomics Program visit our website or browse recent blog posts.

HICEAS Hilite: Close encounters of the rare kind, the Longman’s beaked whale aka Indopacetus

By Suzanne Yin and Andrea Bendlin
HICEAS Lead Cetacean Observers

Disclaimer: Biologists, like other groups of people, have a lingo that we use in our daily work.  Just like “a slice to go” means a piece of pizza to take away to eat, and a “pick-6” is an interception and touchdown in football, biologists use terms meant to make our communication as clear and efficient as possible.  All animals have a scientific name in Latin and a common name, whether it is Homo sapiens (human), Phoebastria nigripes (Black-footed Albatross), or Gorilla gorilla (no explanation necessary).  Common names can sometimes be confusing.  For instance, the short-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) and the long-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus capensis) are indeed common in some locations.  But Delphinus are not so common in other parts of the world (they’re not even found in Hawaiian waters), where another species of dolphin may be the ‘common’ dolphin.  In Hawaii, the most commonly seen dolphin is the spinner dolphin (Stenella longirostris).  Additionally, we are an international community of scientists, and a common name in English may not directly translate in another language.  Thus, we often use scientific names, even in our casual everyday conversation, so that we can speak about animals using a shared language.

Indopacetus?!  That was my question to the other Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS) observers after I raced up to the flying bridge of the NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker.  The visual team had called on the VHF radio, informing the acoustics team and everyone who had a radio that they had a sighting.  I wasn’t on watch, but I climbed the 31 stairs from my room up to the flying bridge to find out more.  They described what they had seen through the 25-powered binoculars that we call “big eyes”—quite a few animals, all together, puffy blows, light in color, big size even though they were still distant.  And so I said it again, “Indopacetus?!”  A fellow observer nodded his head and said, “I think so.”  And I smiled.  You could feel a frisson of excitement from everyone on the flying bridge.  Most of the scientific party on the Lasker had not seen this species before.  This was going to be good!

The setting sun highlights the puffy blows characteristic of Indopacetus. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Amanda Bradford

Indopacetus pacificus, or the Longman’s beaked whale, is one of the most rarely seen species of beaked whale.  In fact, we have seasoned colleagues who have sailed in tropical waters for years and have never seen them.  If you ask a cetacean observer working in Hawaii what species is at the top of their “to see” list, for most, it’s Indopacetus.  For those of us who have seen them, you can feel the sense of awe (and envy?!) when someone asks, “You’ve seen Indopacetus?”

Until about 20 years ago, we only really knew about these toothed whales from two skulls, one from Somalia and one from Australia.  They were a mystery species, which is surprising because they aren’t small in size or particularly cryptic once you find them (which of course isn’t easy)!  For years, scientists had reported sightings of a tropical bottlenose whale (a toothed whale with a bulbous melon, which is sort of like having a big forehead).  But, it wasn’t until 2003 when scientist Merel Dalebout and colleagues, using genetic samples from stranded animals, determined that the tropical bottlenose whale and Indopacetus were the same animal.

The face of an Indopactus, a rare and exciting sight! Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Paula Olson

Indopacetus can be found in large groups, from a handful to upwards of 100 individuals.  They are large in size (up to 20 feet) and have a visible blow.  They can be tan to light brown in color and have a very distinct rostrum (beak).  They can often be found associating with short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) and several species of smaller dolphin.  In one of our recent HICEAS sightings, they were mixed with a large group of short-finned pilot whales.  From stranding and sighting data, we do know that they seem to have a vast distribution, inhabiting tropical waters in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.  Yet, we know next to nothing about their diet, diving capabilities, or reproductive behavior.  Are they more active during the day or night?   Or are they a crepuscular species that is more active at twilight?

This Indopacetus surfaces quickly and moves through the water even faster, giving us few chances to uncover their secrets. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Adam Ü

So far during HICEAS, both the Lasker and the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette have each had a few sightings and acoustic detections of Indopacetus in various parts of the study area, with some of the sightings and detections over a thousand nautical miles away from each other.  During the last HICEAS in 2010, there were only three Indopacetus sightings, but one of them involved a large group of approximately 100 animals in the northwestern reaches of the study areaWe were all hoping we might have a sighting like that again this year, and sure enough, we sighted from the Sette a similar-sized group of animals just 150 nautical miles from where they were seen in 2010.  Was it the same group?  Unfortunately, we were unable to collect genetic samples in 2010 or 2017, so we may never know.  Have we found an Indopacetus hot spot?  Perhaps.  Only further research will tell.  We can only hope the remainder of HICEAS will bring more sightings.  There is one thing we do know for sure–for those of us lucky enough to have an Indopacetus sighting as part of our HICEAS 2017 experience, it is something we will always remember!

This map of the Hawaiian Islands shows all of the HICEAS survey effort (white lines) through September 5, 2017, with Indopacetus sightings shown as orange squares. The area shaded in green is the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, with slightly lighter shading showing where the Monument was expanded in 2016.

What else will the remainder of HICEAS bring?  Find out on the HICEAS website!

All photos taken under research permit.