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The Fishermen of Mama’s Fish House

by Heidi Pool

These Guys Are the ‘Reel Deal’

“Good morning, fishroom.” Mike Pascher, head fish cutter for Mama’s Fish House, fields phone calls from fishermen while deftly butchering a glistening, burgundy-fleshed bigeye tuna. “They call me right from their boats,” Mike tells me. “Sometimes I can hear the reel ratchets whirring in the background.”

Mama’s Fish House in Ku`au serves 1,000 customers daily, requiring Mike to purchase some 500 pounds of fish every day—most of it from Maui fishermen. “We wrote checks to 200 fishermen last year. Some came once; some came every week,” he says.

Executive Chef Perry Bateman stops by the fishroom to see how the day’s procurements are going. He tells me there are two types of fishermen: “heavies” and “lights.” “For ‘heavies,’ that’s their entire livelihood,” he says. “They fish every day to provide for their `ohana [family]. ‘Lights’ are weekend fishermen—they crack a beer and relax. If they catch, they catch; if not, no worries. It’s more of a hobby for them.”

Greg Lind from remote Hana town is a “heavy.” Greg and his family follow the traditional Hawaiian lifestyle of fishing, farming and raising cattle. He fishes his homeport of Hana Bay in his 25-foot boat, which he recently renamed Kaihawanawana after his 1-year-old daughter. He mostly fishes alone, although his 4-year-old son, also named Greg, accompanies him on weekends. He makes the 50-plus-mile drive to Ku`au on the infamous Hana Highway several times a week.

This morning, Greg backs his white Chevy flatbed truck up to the dock at Mama’s and offloads yesterday’s catch—mahimahi and ono—into a voluminous dark blue bin that Mike has placed on a rolling cart. Inside the fishroom, Mike, with the help of an assistant, hefts the bin onto a giant scale and weighs each species, noting the poundages in his spiral notebook: 78.4 pounds of mahimahi and 32.2 pounds of ono. He ducks into his cubbyhole of an office in a corner of the fishroom, prints out a check and hands it to a beaming Greg. As far as fishermen go, there’s no “Net 30” at Mama’s.

Quiet and unassuming, Greg tells me he’s learned a valuable lesson over the years: “Don’t call Mama’s until you’re done fishing for the day. Somehow, as soon as I make that call, the fish stop biting.” Greg’s next stop before returning home is to fill up with gas in nearby Pa`ia, where the price is currently $4.55 a gallon. “It’s $5.55 in Hana—I have a 50-gallon tank, so that saves me almost 50 bucks,” he says with a shy smile.

The next fisherman to bring in his catch is Jamie DeBussey, who primarily fishes off Maui’s north shore in his 21-foot vessel Blessed. Jamie moved to Maui from Florida in 1992 to surf. “I was a pro surfer,” he says. “I never dreamed I’d become a commercial fisherman.” But in 1995, he got hooked on windfishing (trolling while windsurfing), saved money from his job at a surf shop and bought his first boat—a 12-footer. A few years later, he built a 16-foot blue boat he never named. “It was such a ‘ghetto boat’ it wasn’t even worth naming,” he says. “People thought I was nuts for fishing 50 miles offshore in that boat all by myself,” he says. “I became known as the crazy guy in the little blue boat.”

A deeply spiritual man, Jamie believes a higher power watches over him every time he goes out fishing. “Deep-sea fishing is one of the deadliest occupations,” he says. Since he fishes alone, Jamie ties himself to his boat with a heavy-duty bungee cord and makes sure he’s always near the engine’s kill switch. A few years ago, he was fishing near Hana when a fierce wind came up and huge waves were breaking all around him. “I was icing my fish when an eight- to 10-footer [wave] hit my boat,” he recalls. “The boat started rolling over, so I quickly moved to high side. I knew at that moment I was in serious trouble—one more wave would roll me completely over. The engine was sputtering, and after what seemed like forever, the bilge pump kicked in. I was bailing like mad with a bucket, too, and it still took over an hour to pump out all the water.”

Today, Mike pays Jamie for 38.4 pounds of mahimahi. “You have to be obsessed to be a commercial fisherman,” Jamie says. “It’s almost like a sickness—like a young kid who wants to surf every day.”

At 35 years old, Layne Nakagawa is one of the youngest commercial fishermen on Maui, and one of only four bottom fishers. He started fishing when he was 4 years old with his father and grandfather. “I was practically raised at the harbor,” he says. His elders were demanding taskmasters, and he learned his craft well: “You can’t screw up on a boat—there’s nowhere to run,” Layne jokes.

Layne began fishing commercially while still in high school. Although he fishes alone on his 31-foot boat, named Naomi K. for his mother, he and other bottom fishers share information on wind patterns, ocean currents and moon phases, to determine where the best fishing is on a given day. “Bottom fishing is a highly skilled occupation,” he says. “You have to throw your anchor accurately within a hundred feet or so, and it’s all about pinpointing the right spot. The fish won’t come if you’re on the wrong side of the spot.”

Layne serves on the advisory board of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, which, among other objectives, protects fish stocks and habitats, and collects data to help determine how many fish are in the ocean. In addition to 27 pounds of opakapaka, today Layne has brought in a magnificent 20.8-pound long-tailed red snapper (onaga), caught at a depth of between 700 and 900 feet near the island of Kaho`olawe. Layne estimates the fish was well over 60 years old, and its brilliant scarlet hue is complemented by distinctive caudal fins that end in long, slender points. It’s the most beautiful fish I’ve ever seen.

“Mama’s Fish House gives us an opportunity to contribute to fishery science,” says Layne. Fish cutter Sean Asuncion has extracted the onaga’s reproductive organs so its sex can be determined (this one is a female who has already spawned, according to Layne), and will soon remove the otolith so the fish’s age can be verified. “The otolith is a structure in the inner ear where calcium carbonate is deposited throughout the fish’s life cycle, forming rings—much like tree rings,” Layne says. “By counting the rings, it’s possible to determine the age of the fish.”

After all fish business has been transacted for today, Mike goes back to the computer in his tiny office and updates the restaurant’s menu to reflect what the fishermen have brought in. Greg Lind’s ono will be served in a ti leaf, with coconut rice and papaya salsa; Layne Nakagawa’s onaga will be sautéed with Hamakua mushrooms, garlic butter, white wine and capers.

In May, Mama’s Fish House became the first private business in Hawai`i to fund a fish aggregation device—a deep-sea buoy that attracts pelagic species targeted by commercial, subsistence and recreational fishermen—for the benefit of all Maui fishermen, not just those who fish for Mama’s. “Mama’s asked me to build the buoy myself,” says Layne. “How could I say ‘no’? Mama’s has been supporting my business for 17 years.” Launched 30 miles off the coast near Ha`iku, Layne says the buoy will take the concept of sustainability in a whole new direction.

Chef Perry hopes other businesses will follow suit and fund additional community buoys. “There are plenty of fish out there,” he says. “Even if we had a hundred buoys, we’d never deplete the supply. Let’s all come together as a community to benefit everyone.”

Fishermen of Mama's Fish House

Seeds of Hope: A Film About Farming in Hawai‘i

By Jon Letman

It’s a well-known fact that Hawai`i imports nearly 90% of its food. Owing to geographic isolation and a heavy reliance on these imports, people in the islands are keenly aware of what could happen to the state’s food supply if transportation lines were disrupted. Greater recognition of this vulnerability has fueled a movement of people who aren’t just talking about breaking Hawai`i’s import addiction, but are paving the way to a stronger, healthier, more food-secure tomorrow.

Now their story is being told in a feature length documentary called Seeds of Hope (Nā Kupu Mana`olana). Several years ago board members of the Hawai`i Rural Development Council (HRDC), a nonprofit that supports the economic and social welfare of rural communities, decided that the best way to raise awareness of the need for greater self-sufficiency was to make a film.

The 87-minute documentary was written and directed by Hawai`i Island–based filmmaker (and former HRDC member) Danny Miller. He describes Seeds as a vision of how 21st century Hawai`i is answering the challenges of food security by drawing upon its own traditions, historical understanding of the land, and people who recognize the need to cooperate with nature in order to survive.

In 2009, Miller began three years of speaking with dozens of farmers, ranchers, gardeners, educators and local food advocates across the state. He says he was moved by how many people in Hawai`i already “get it” and are making the shift toward food sovereignty.

A more sustainable food future for Hawai`i, Miller says, is rooted in its past. He points to the Hawaiian land management system based on ahupua`a land divisions that fed a pre-contact population comparable or greater than today.

HRDC Chair Alan Murakami says the making of Seeds helped him appreciate how Hawai`i’s resource base already contributes to sustaining small communities by growing their own crops, hunting and fishing. He hopes the film will advance the discussion of food security.

“We’ve got basically no warehousing except for those containers on the ocean between California and Hawai`i. If something happens to that pipeline, we’re out of food,” Murakami says.

For Seeds co-executive producer Kevin Chang, one of the most poignant moments in the film is when Moloka`i activist Walter Ritte describes paddling away from the island until he can look back and see the physical limits to available resources.

“In a lot of ways people on the continent aren’t able to appreciate that perspective, but there’s a lot to learn about what a small system like Hawai`i is doing to deal with these issues. People say the Earth is an island … it’s just that you can’t see it until you actually look at an island on the Earth.”

Like her fellow HRDC board members, Seeds co-executive producer Mona Bernardino hopes the film drives home the point that everyone in Hawai`i needs to support the farmers by buying locally grown produce. The filmmakers hope the movie forces people in Hawai`i to consider what kind of agriculture they want to support.

Seeds brings together a diversity of voices from small family-owned farms and organic farmers to multi-national biotech giants like Monsanto and even a Hawaiian professor who led the production of GMO papayas. In doing so, the film raises questions about whether remaining agricultural lands, infrastructure and vital resources like water should be used strictly for growing food to feed people here or for producing experimental genetically engineered seeds for export and other crops for biofuels or other nonfood items.

“That balance is going to be critical to whether we achieve greater food security,” Murakami says.

Seeds of Hope is proof that talk of food security is not merely pie-in-the-sky. The more than 45 people Miller interviewed for the film—the farmers, ranchers, teachers and community leaders—are the real deal and they’re creating Hawai`i’s food future.

They are people like Kamuela Enos, a director at MA`O Organic Farms in Wai`anae. Enos says Seeds speaks to more than simple questions of sustainability but also examines the depth and complexity of Hawai`i’s community-based food systems. He believes the film can spark discussions about environmental and social justice and sovereignty—both cultural and community—and about revitalizing indigenous agricultural models.

On Kaua`i, lifelong farmer Jerry Ornellas says Seeds of Hope imparts a wealth of knowledge from people who aren’t just what he calls “Google experts” but from people who live and breathe agriculture. He says the film has broad appeal because its topics are universal and, in an increasingly urbanized world, “people everywhere are in interested where there food is coming from.”

During a recent visit to the East Coast, Ornellas noticed that people in large urban areas had the same interest in local food and farming as people in Hawai`i. A major difference, he says, is that in Hawai`i everyone can grow food year-round, even if it’s just something small in a backyard garden or on a lānai. “If nothing else, gardening teaches you what farmers have to deal with,” he says.

Director Danny Miller sees plenty of reason for optimism. “It’s happening now. This shift, away from imported food dependence to a future where we have control over our own food sources, is coming—and it will come—from the people. It’s really a grassroots movement, in every way.” Making this move will mean Hawai`i is better off economically, environmentally and socially, says Miller. “I believe the people will lead and, eventually, the government will follow.

Big Island farmer and educator Nancy Redfeather also appears in the film. She says support by State agencies like the Department of Education is imperative to the success of transitioning to a more sustainable food model. Redfeather, director of the Hawai`i Public Seed Initiative (a project of the Kohala Center), says the State has a key role in making sure land and water are available for small farmers and that it invests financial resources in the education of future farmers.

Besides maintaining higher standards of land stewardship, Redfeather says it’s critical to have children in school seed-to-table garden programs beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school and college.

Redfeather believes part of the solution may be to, instead of having one 1,300-acre farm, strive for 1,300 one-acre farms which is closer to the traditional Hawaiian model.

“When Captain Cook sailed into Kealakekua Bay, his botanist recorded looking up on a hillside of green, small gardens where the Hawaiians grew food for what is thought to have been 100,000 people that might have lived on the Kona Coast of Hawai`i Island.”

Watching a film like Seeds of Hope is important, Redfeather says. “Sometimes when you know the story, it influences your behavior.” She hopes the film will inspire the government to support a farming renaissance that is rising from the community. “This is an opportunity now. It’s not something that needs to be created—it’s already there.”

“We don’t have to gather more research,” says Redfeather. “We just need to act and that takes will, intention, direction and focus. It seems like we should be able to do it. This is really a time to act.”

Learn more about Seeds of Hope (Nā Kupu Mana`olana)at and watch it on PBS Hawai`i in September 2013.

Seeds of Hope: A Film About Farming

To Catch Uhu, Be an A‘ama: Traditional Hawaiian Fishing Methods

by Kainoa Horcajo

“Stay low. Crouch down. Look the a`ama crab, how it moves on the rocks. You gotta be the a`ama, move like the a`ama.”

Today we call it biomimicry, mimicking other parts of nature to solve our human problems, but to a people who survive off their connection to the ocean and the land it is just called paying attention to what works. Traditional fishing practices were varied and multitudinous as Hawaiians found almost every way possible in which to access the ocean and live off its bounty. And in the same patient and deeply connected way they divided, categorized and named every part of the ocean, its inhabitants and the various ways to secure them for your family’s next meal.

Out of the many ways Hawaiians of old invented to catch fish, by hand and string and spear and net, strangely enough the Hawaiian throw net is not one of them! But if there’s one thing that can be said about ka po`e kahiko, the people of old, it is that they were intelligent, ingenious and constantly looking to improve. So when the first Japanese immigrants came to Hawai`i in the 1800s some of them must have brought with them their practice of throw net, often called cast net outside of Hawai`i.

It didn’t take long for this practice to catch on here in the islands. So much so that many think it is a traditional Hawaiian practice, just another testament to Hawaiians’ ability to adapt new technology to their needs.

Now made for the most part from synthetic materials, throw nets come in a variety of diameters and mesh sizes. State regulations mandate throw nets must have at least a two-inch mesh, the size of the holes in the net. Regardless of the diameter, it needs to be a perfect circle, with weights around its border to ensnare the fish.

Whether you can actually throw the net so it forms that circle when it lands is another story. There is a certain way to prepare, or load, the net in preparation to throw it. This is nearly impossible to describe without seeing it done. And even when seeing it with your own eyes, it looks deceptively simple for what is truly a delicate and practiced process.

Any hiccup in the grasping and looping of the net in your hand, in the parsing of the sections of net onto and across your body and both arms, or in the full-body rotation as you toss and release the net towards its intended target means the net will not open correctly. To spend so much time physically making this net only to misthrow and have it snag on rock or reef would cause immeasurable frustration. And so the wise man waits, and observes, and learns.

Says Kelson Kihe, a Hawaiian fisherman on Maui, “You gotta know the ocean, and the reef, and the tides, and the way the water moves over the rock. And you gotta know the waves; count and time the waves. You gotta know the fish; see the fins pop up, the color under the water, how they move.”

So, mimicking nature, you take the time to observe, to understand and connect with your surroundings. You try to release the mistaken thought that you are separate from nature. Kihe, like many, learned to throw net from their `ohana; fishing families who adopted this once-Japanese tradition and made it uniquely Hawaiian. “Plenty different kinds of fish to catch with throw net,” Kihe notes. Some favorites are uo uo, moi, manini, kupipi, kala, weke, ahole, nenue and the prized uhu. The uhu, of all the fish, was the most difficult to catch with the throw net and required the slow, dedicated stalking and low crouch of the a`ama crab.

It is said that the uhu are so smart, they can see your skin through the surface of the water, that they can smell you as soon as you step into the ocean. It is said that they are so intelligent they can feel the vibrations of you running on the rocks and will evade capture almost all the time. So you crouch like the a`ama. You stay low, knees bent, net draped over you, entire body flexed and ready. The a`ama doesn’t move fast all the time; it carefully creeps across the black lava rock, timing its movement with the oncoming waves. Using the whitewater as camouflage, it moves with the ocean surges.

And so do you, hiding behind the rock, as much sensing the movements of the uhu as he is sensing yours. And when the wave crashes, sending cloudy, speckled sea foam across the surface of the water, you spring. Twisting upwards and outwards, methodically releasing and unfurling the throw net, allowing it to open into a circle, it sinks its weights around tonight’s dinner. Tonight, the a`ama eats uhu.

Throwing a Fish Net