In lawaiʻa hi aku (fishing for aku,) “the slapping of the fish against the men’s sides and the arching of the bamboo poles as the aku bent them were like a double rainbow or the crescent shape of the moon of Hoaka.” (Maly)
A special canoe was used that served as a live bait well (malau,) it was joined by a double hulled canoe for the fishers (kaulua;) following the noio birds to the schooling aku, several canoes would form around them and the live bait released – then the lines of the bamboo fishing poles were cast. (Maly)
When the fish took the bait and broke water, the fisherman stood up straight and grasped the pole with both hands. The fish came completely out of the water and slapped against the side of the fisherman, who then shoved the aku forward in the canoe and cast again. (Maly)
In 1899, Gorokichi Nakasugi, a Japanese shipwright, brought a traditional Japanese sailing vessel, called a sampan, to Hawai‘i, and this led to a unique class of vessels and distinctive maritime culture associated with the rise of the commercial fishing industry in Hawai‘i. (Cultural Surveys)
The Japanese technique of catching tuna with pole-and-line and live bait resembled the aku fishing method traditionally used by Hawaiians. The pole-and-line vessels mainly targeted skipjack tuna (aku.)
In the modern fleet, with an average length of 75- to 90-feet, these boats were the largest of the sampans. The pole-and-line fleet generally fished within a few miles of the main Hawaiian Islands, because few vessels carried ice and the catch needed to be landed within four to five hours from the time of capture.
The modern fishing method used live bait thrown from a fishing vessel to stimulate a surface school into a feeding frenzy. Fishing was then conducted frantically to take advantage of the limited time the school remains near the boat.
The pole and line were about 10-feet and used a barbless hook with feather skirts which is slapped against the water until a fish strikes. Then the fish is yanked into the vessel in one motion. The fish unhooks when the line is slacked so that the process can be repeated.
On a pole-and-line vessel a fisherman was required to learn how to cast the line, jerk the fish out of the water, catch the tuna under his left arm, snap the barbless hook out, slide the fish into the hold and cast the line back out – all in rapid succession.
The fishery was dependent on having sufficient bait fish, nehu (Hawaiian anchovy;) a lot of the bait fish, came from Kāneʻohe Bay. Dozens of aku boats would set their nets in the Bay’s shallows; the pier at Heʻeia Kea Boat Harbor was homeport for more than 20 of them.
Initially, most sampans docked in Honolulu Harbor. In the 1920s, Kewalo Basin was constructed and by the 1930s was the main berthing area for the sampan fleet and also the site of the tuna cannery, fish auction, shipyard, ice plant, fuel dock and other shore-side facilities.
The Hawaiʻi skipjack tuna fishery originally supplied only the local market for fresh and dried tuna. Then, the Hawaiian Tuna Packers, Ltd. cannery was established (in 1916,) enabling the fishery to expand beyond a relatively small fresh and dried market.
Six sampans made up the cannery’s initial fleet. The fleet grew and before WWII the fishery included up to 26 vessels. Following the war, as new vessels were built, fleet size increased to a maximum of 32 vessels in 1948.
These vessels carried crews of 7-9 fishermen, and frequently worked 6 days a week. It was hard work and the fishing day may begin with catching bait fish at dawn, followed by fishing to dusk.
Historically, the pole-and-line, live bait fishery for skipjack tuna (aku) was the largest commercial fishery in Hawaiʻi. Annual pole-and-line landings of skipjack tuna exceeded 5.5 million lb from 1937 to 1973.
The new and expanding market for canned product allowed the fishery to grow; from 1937 until the early 1980s most of the skipjack tuna landed in Hawaiʻi was canned.
F Walter Macfarlane opened the Macfarlane Tuna Company at Ala Moana and Cooke street. By 1922, after having changed hands a couple times, the company was incorporated by local stockholders as Hawaiian Tuna Packers Ltd.
Around 1928, tuna processing started in Kewalo Basin. Nearby was the Kewalo Shipyard that serviced and repaired the local aku boats. They also had an ice house.
From the beginning, Hawaiian Tuna Packers label was Coral Tuna or Coral Hawaiian Brand Tuna.
By the 1930s, the Honolulu cannery employed 500 and produced nearly ten-million cans of tuna per year. For several years Hawaiian Tuna Packers also operated a smaller cannery in Hilo.
About ninety percent of the output was shipped to the mainland; the remaining ten percent was sold in Hawaiʻi. (The cans for packing the tuna are furnished by the Dole Company.)
Fishing stopped during WWII because the larger sampans were used by the military for patrol duties and the Japanese fishermen were not allowed to go to sea. (Wilson)
With the entry of the United States in the Second World War came the imposition of area and time restrictions on fishing activities in Hawai’i that virtually eliminated offshore harvesting operations. Many fishing boats were requisitioned by the Army or Navy. (Schug)
The tuna cannery was converted into a plant for the assembly of airplane auxiliary fuel tanks and the shipyard was converted to the maintenance of military craft. Hawaiʻi’s fishing industry was forever changed. (Schug)
In 1960, Castle & Cooke bought out Hawaiian Tuna Packers and made it a part of Bumble Bee Seafoods out of the northwest. They operated the cannery until late-1984, when it ultimately closed.
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I had the privilege of working as a fisherman on “Tradewind” on the early part of 80’s.
Under Captain Grace I had the most unforgettable adventures on this traditional “old school” Japanese sampan or “Aku boat”, as the local people called them.
Starting from the Kewalo Basin very early hours of the morning, we would first head around Diamondhead, destination Kaneohe Bay, where we would arrive still early hours of the morning and lay nets for the bait fish.
Then head straight out to sea, while both the Captain and the First Mate of the vessel would scan the horizon for seabirds to locate the large schools of tuna.
As the boat slowly got closer and closer to the schools of Tuna, the First Mate would climb down from the high cockpit where Captain Grace continued to steer the vessel.
The first mate would then open several valves around the sides of the vessel each creating a shower around the entire boat.
The entire boat was under a beautiful shower of water reflecting rainbows everywhere.
He would then open the tops of the deep containers where the living bait fish was swimming alive and fresh.
With a small net he would then start throwing the live bait fish sparingly on both sides of the boat.
During all this was happening, all the fishermen, myself included were getting ready for the main event.
First putting a wide rubber belt around the waist with a “puka” (hole) in the front where the end of the long heavy bamboo pole would be placed.
Barbless hook with some small feathers were carefully tied to the end of each fishing line as all the men finally, upon command, took their places in the very back of the boat, about 10 men right next to each other, lowering the barbless hook carefully right under the surface of the water.
Birds were now surrounding the boat as all the men, under intense concentration while balancing themselves in rough seas with absolutely nothing to hold on to.
They came from nowhere, HUGE tuna fish with incredible speed, all at once from the back of the boat.
By the hundreds, with such force, size and speed that my instant first concern was how to survive alive if I would slip and fall overboard and be hit by the huge schools of the fast torpedoes.
My fellow fisher man ( a much younger local teen) quickly calmed my concern by saying that falling overboard was not part of the game, then reminded me to be sure, once the huge monster tuna was on my hook to make sure not to allow the fish swing all over the place and mess up others fishing lines but to remember to bring it towards myself and swing it precisely between the fisherman on either side of me, then lower the the tuna on the bottom of the vessel behind , shade the bamboo pole this releasing the barbless hook from the beasts mouth and controllably swing the hook over me immediately back to water, as the frenzied action lasted only a limited time.
It was the undoubtedly the hardest and the most exciting event that I had ever experienced. Now as I’m living the year 2013, none of these original Aku boats exist anymore, I am saddened to realize how important and treasured part of the Hawaiian culture and history this yet primitive but extremely effective fishing these boats represented.
And what is even more astounding to me is the wonderful interest and excitement is shown by the even the youngest local youth, as I share my experience.