The Hawaiʻi aku fishery (skipjack tuna) 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.
This near-surface schooling tuna is widely distributed across the Pacific Ocean. Historically, the pole-and-line, live bait fishery for aku boats 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. From the beginning, Hawaiian Tuna Packers label was Coral Tuna or Coral Hawaiian Brand Tuna.
Aku was historically the most important single commercial fish species in terms of landed weight and value in Hawai‘i, as well as throughout much of the central and western Pacific. (DBEDT)
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.)
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 aku.
They 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.
Most of the aku catch in Hawai‘i is landed by commercial pole-and-line fishermen who induce aku to bite on feathered hooks by chumming with live bait. The live bait the aku boats used was nehu (a small anchovy).
Aku fishermen need millions of nehu. (Hollier) Nehu spawn all year long and spawning peaks in summer although this peak may shift to late winter and early spring. Nehu eggs are planktonic, and incubation is about 24 hours. Very few nehu live longer than one year. (NMFS)
Kāne‘ohe Bay, located on the Windward side of O‘ahu, served as the leading baiting ground in Hawai‘i, producing, according to statistics compiled by the Territorial Division of Fish and Game, approximately 60 per cent of the total commercial catch. (Hiatt, 1951)
The aku boat went into Kāne‘ohe Bay about sundown and anchored in the bay outside the mouth of the Kahaluu River near the old Libby’s pineapple wharf. The boat was usually anchored fore and aft, with the bow facing the mountains.
“We waited for the tide to drop and that was when the nehu came downstream into the bay. That’s when you catch them with nets. The best time was when the tide started going out around sundown or shortly after sundown.”
“We’d fill the tanks with nehu and then take the boat farther out and anchor near the reef where the waves would keep the water in the bait tanks moving constantly in and out, circulating, so the nehu were kept alive.”
“Daytime scooping was different. You worked with a surround net. I’d stay on board and the rest of the crew would go out with the motorboat and the nets and catch the nehu here and there with surround nets.”
“Then they would bring the nehu back to the boat in the motorboat and we’d scoop them into the tanks with buckets. If we didn’t have enough nehu … we would anchor in the bay that evening and drop submarine lights that night around the boat. The lights attracted the nehu? [Yo Kondo, April, 1976]
Aku fishermen spend 3-5 days catching bait for few hours fishing. (Honolulu Record) A specialized bait well in amidships allowed them to carry live nehu, as well as provide ballast for stability.
When the crew spotted a flock of seabirds – the telltale sign of a school of aku – they would chum the waters with nehu, causing a feeding frenzy. (Hana Hou)
The important thing is to have enough nehu so that with plenty of bait in the water, the tuna can be kept around the fishing boat. (Honolulu Record)
Fisherman dipped lines with a single barbless (and baitless) hook into the water. Within seconds an aku would take the hook, and with a combination of physical strength and good timing, the fisherman would jerk it up, flick it over his shoulder and onto the deck, and drop his line back into the water. (Hana Hou)