Pacific Bluefin Tuna and the Spirit of Aloha

As a kid in Hawaii, I would camp on the beach in Kona with my extended ‘ohana (family). On Friday night at sunset, my uncles and older cousins would “lay net,” affixing a 100-foot gillnet to the reef and setting it overnight. At daybreak on Saturday, it would be chock full of fish and sea life—a haul that provided us with delicious food for the whole weekend. Even then, it didn’t seem right to me that more than half the fish in the net, already dead or dying, were discarded because they weren’t considered “good eating.”

Thankfully, since that time, many fishermen and policymakers have recognized that indiscriminate fishing is wasteful and unsustainable. Laying net is now strictly regulated in Hawaii, and federal regulations require U.S. commercial fishermen to adhere to some of the strongest standards in the world to ensure sustainability. However, fish don’t know political boundaries, and many species travel beyond U.S. waters where they can be caught by fishermen from countries near and far, often leading to population declines.

Nowhere does that apply as dramatically as it does to Pacific bluefin tuna.

The ancient Polynesians who first settled Hawaii are famous for their voyages across the Pacific. Bluefin tuna make epic journeys, too. They’re born in the Western Pacific Ocean, off Japan and the northern Philippines. Some of them stay there; others, around one year of age, migrate to Eastern Pacific waters off California and Baja California. A few years later, they return to Japan to spawn, passing near Hawaii on their journey across the Earth’s biggest sea.

“We know how important it is to be good stewards of the sea, which provides us with so much sustenance. But it’s not a bottomless pantry.”

Pacific bluefin tuna are culturally, economically and ecologically important to countries on both sides of the Pacific, including Japan and the United States. Here in Hawaii, we have a stake in the future of both nations. Our way of life incorporates elements of Japanese and U.S. cultures. We know how important it is to be good stewards of the sea, which provides us with so much sustenance. But it’s not a bottomless pantry.

Right now, Pacific bluefin tuna are in big trouble. The population is at only 2.6 percent of its historic abundance, according to the latest stock assessment. In other words, fishing fleets from several nations have taken more than 97 percent of Pacific bluefin tuna out of the sea—and we’re not slowing down.

To make matters worse, fishermen are catching unsustainable numbers of both adults and baby bluefin, including fish in the spawning grounds near Japan. That stacks the deck against the species’ ability to recover. A more balanced approach would protect adults, which are the most productive breeders, along with enough juveniles to reach sexual maturity and reproduce.

Looking at these numbers, it seems unwise to eat the few Pacific bluefin that are left. It’s time for the international community—particularly the United States and Japan—to work together and make meaningful changes for the species’ long-term recovery.

Solutions only work if nations on both sides of the Pacific operate by the same rules. The U.S. and Japan participate in international fisheries management organizations that are supposed to follow the best scientific advice to set sustainable fishing levels. We have seen time and again that science is our best guide on how to recover other fisheries.

But immense market demand for Pacific bluefin tuna creates incredible pressure on countries to ignore the science. Although Hawaiian longline fishermen occasionally catch bluefin, the vast majority (approximately 80 percent) are caught by Japanese fleets in their waters, and Japanese markets consume about 90 percent of the resulting bluefin products.

Japanese fishermen are not entirely to blame. Other countries, including Mexico, South Korea and the U.S., also catch Pacific bluefin, and have to be part of the solution. However, the scale of the catch in the Western Pacific, particularly by fisheries that target Pacific bluefin in and around their spawning grounds, has no reasonable scientific justification.

Hawaii is a melding of cultures, the fiery hotspot between the U.S. mainland and Japan. Like the pairing of miso and butterscotch in my restaurants, each nation has contributed integral flavors to Hawaiian culture. That respectful coming-together is the spirit of aloha.

“Let’s come together now to do what’s right for Pacific bluefin tuna.”

Let’s come together now to do what’s right for Pacific bluefin tuna.

Bluefin delicacies like otoro and chutoro are part of Japan’s culinary tradition. Pacific bluefin are also caught occasionally and delivered fresh to our local fish auction in Hawaii. These traditions are at risk if we don’t respond swiftly to the species’ population decline. We chefs must take Pacific bluefin off our menus now, and give these powerful fish a chance to rebound.

Besides, there are delicious alternatives that are also sustainable. I encourage my customers to be adventurous and expand their seafood palates with dishes like mackerel scad (opelu) and monchong (kuro aji modoki). Hawaiians can still enjoy ahi through more sustainable tuna choices like skipjack, albacore and yellowfin.

A growing chorus of people around the world, including some Japanese fishermen, are worried about the future of Pacific bluefin tuna. I want their children to be able to carry on Japanese fishing traditions, just as I want Hawaiian fishermen to continue catching bigeye tuna to support our local markets. In both cases, it has to be done in a sustainable manner. And that means we need to follow scientific recommendations and adhere to international agreements.

Japan, the U.S. and other Pacific nations will come together in late August in Fukuoka, Japan, for a critical international negotiation over the future of Pacific bluefin tuna. It is time to make science-based commitments to recover this species, including serious harvest reductions and the closure of fishing in their spawning grounds.

The Hawaiian word aloha doesn’t translate neatly to English. It’s a word that represents a spirit—of love, of peace, of respect and mercy. But when followed by ‘oe, it means goodbye.

Please: Let’s have aloha for Pacific bluefin tuna, the magnificent and powerful spirits that share this vast ocean with us—without saying aloha ‘oe.

ed_kenney_001r-2Ed Kenney

After receiving a business degree from the University of Colorado and spending four years in corporate commercial real estate, Island-born Ed Kenney took a contemplative year off to backpack across the globe, immersing himself in the myriad cultures, aromas and flavors that make up life on this planet. On a street corner in Hanoi, over a steaming bowl of pho, he experienced an epiphany: “Food is the unifying fabric of humanity, connecting us to the earth and each other.”

Kenney spent the ensuing decade absorbing everything he could about cuisine, completing the Culinary Institute of the Pacific’s reputable culinary arts program, and training in some of Honolulu’s top restaurants. He took the leap and opened his first restaurant, TOWN, in 2005, followed by Kaimuki Superette, Mud Hen Water, and Mahina & Sun’s. His restaurants are lively gathering places guided by the mantra, “local first, organic whenever possible, with aloha always” and have received accolades in local and national press. In 2015 he founded FoodShed Community Kitchen which provides incubator kitchen space for small local food-centric businesses. And in 2016 he made his television debut as the host of PBS Food’s latest national food/travel/genealogy series, Family Ingredients.

Ed sits on the Board of Directors for MA’O Organic Farms and the Kokua Hawaii Foundation and is a member of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program’s Blue Ribbon Task Force.


  1. Juliana
    August 24, 2016, 9:03 pm

    This article is misleading. If you are concerned about the bluefin and overfishing why are you mentioning Hawaii? Hawaii fishery does not target bluefin. If you mention Hawaii, why not share the fact that the Hawaii fishery is internationally recognized, AAA rated and given 94% by the United Nations Ethics code. Walking the path of sustainability, Hawaii’s fishery leads the way. Now lets ask the rest of the world to follow our lead.

  2. Juliana
    August 24, 2016, 8:56 pm

    Ed, your article about bluefin and Hawaii is missleading. While your statement about Hawaii culture “we know how important it is to be good stewards of the sea” is true, saying it is not a bottomless pantry would suggest that Hawaii would contribute unrestrained extraction of fish, even bluefin. This simply is not true. Let it be known that the Hawaii Fishery is internationally recognized with a AAA rate and given 94% in the United Nations code of environmental ethics. On the path to sustainability, Hawaii fishery is the leader. Share that with the National Geographic readers!

  3. jordan nagasako
    maui hawaii
    August 20, 2016, 2:20 pm

    i owned a wholesale fish processing plant on Maui for 25 years (currently retired) and as far as I understand it, in Hawaii we do not have many Bluefin tuna. For every five thousand Bigeye or yellowfin tuna we may see one come to market. For all the millions of pounds of tuna sold on the Honolulu auction per year I think we get half a dozen Bluefin. I am not sure where Ed gets his information from but its not accurate

  4. Murphy
    Santa Cruz
    August 18, 2016, 11:43 am

    thank you so much for this article, it was really well written and very informative. Is there a petition that we can sign to show at the international upcoming negotiations?
    Thank you 🙂

  5. Kamu
    August 16, 2016, 2:08 pm

    Laying net is still legal except around Maui and some parts of Oahu. No can lay net at night though

  6. Kamu
    August 16, 2016, 2:08 pm

    laying net is still legal except around Maui Island and a few parts of Kane’ohe Bay. Laying net at night is illegal, however.