Hakai Magazine

Brooks Takenaka oversees a new haul of fish arriving for auction
Brooks Takenaka oversees a new haul of fish arriving for auction. Photo by Pawel Nuckowski

Coastal Job: Tuna Auction Manager

Brooks Takenaka keeps the fish flowing at the Honolulu Fish Auction.

Authored by

As told to Emily Cataneo

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Some people work in cubicles, others work in kitchens, but the most intriguing workplace of all may be the coast. Meet the people who head to the ocean instead of the office in our Coastal Jobs series.

The Honolulu Fish Auction, modeled after the famous tuna auction in Tokyo, Japan, is the only one of its kind between Japan and the state of Maine. Brooks Takenaka took over managing it in the 1980s and helped grow it into an institution.

I was born and raised in a fishing family. I was swimming before I could walk, and at a young age, I could say the scientific and common names of Hawaiian fish. My family did not want me to go into commercial fishing, so I pursued marine sciences. But when I started working at the auction as its assistant general manager in 1979, something came over me. It was like, This is home.

The first seven years, I took no vacation. I pulled 18-hour days and spent the night sometimes. Even people who’ve visited the auction don’t truly understand the depths of the operation. We select and process fish, haul them into the auction house, and then, after they’ve sold, prep them for shipping and work with the airlines to get them to the mainland for buyers. I learned the whole gamut and got to know all the fishermen, all the characters. It didn’t get any better than that.

When I started, the auction worked with 13 longline vessels and a bunch of skipjack tuna boats. We grew this whole thing from 13 longline vessels to 140! There has always been a high demand for seafood in Hawaii—most of the fish we sell remains here, in fact—and increased demand from the US mainland has also allowed the auction to grow and support more fishers, wholesalers, and retailers.

The design of our auction is in accordance with the Japanese system. The boats return to the dock at 12:30 a.m., report to us, and start unloading. We weigh and tag the fish, use an ozonated water system to kill bacteria, and line them up on ice in the auction house. The auction begins at 5:30 a.m., when our guys ring a bell, just like in Japan. An auctioneer takes buyers down the rows of fish and auctions each one off to the highest bidder. Bigeye tuna is our primary species, then yellowfin, albacore, and skipjack, plus Pacific blue marlin and striped marlin. We go as long as there’s fish.

I ain’t the biggest guy. When I was younger, I used to pull fish, meaning I’d help unload them from the boats and transport them to the auction. A number of times, I flew off the truck because the fish were way bigger than me. I’ve had my share of aches and pains and have been told by a surgeon that I’m no longer able to move fish around. These days, I mostly coordinate operations and mentor. I’m not young, so I use my brains and experience more.

I believe America’s fishing efforts are some of the most managed, monitored, and enforced in the world. We fish responsibly. I’m always concerned about the well-being of the ocean and its resources. Global warming, acidification, and pollution also worry me. There used to be more seasonal predictability in what the fleet would catch and when. Over the past three years, that’s not been the case. Just when you think you can predict what the catch will be, Mother Nature kicks you in the you-know-what. At the auction, we went from promoting the consumption of seafood in the 1980s to promoting the protection of our species today. I hope we can continue to balance that with feeding people in a sustainable manner.