Honolulu Fish Auction – Experience The Only Tuna Auction in the United States

By Mark Wiens 12 Comments
Organized and clean fish market in Honolulu
Organized and clean fish market in Honolulu

Along with eating, one of my favorite activities to do when I travel is visit local fresh markets, and I think fresh seafood fish markets are some of the most interesting.

But, in the United States, it’s not quite as easy to visit a local fresh market, as it is to do so in a place like Krabi, Thailand, or Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.

So when my Uncle mentioned heading over to the Honolulu fish auction one morning, I was excited.

Honolulu
Palettes of beautiful tuna waiting to be auctioned

At the Honolulu fish auction you can see a number of different fish, but the majority are yellowfin tuna – a common fish used in sashimi and sushi, and poke in Hawaii.

Honolulu fish auction
Opah (moonfish) at the Honolulu fish auction

There were also a few palettes of opah fish, or moonfish, which one of the exporters at the auction told me was the fish with the highest amount of omega 3 oils per bite.

I wanted to eat some of that right then and there!

mahi mahi
Mahi mahi – a good fish for grilling

Mahi mahi, also known as a dolphin fish, is a Hawaiian favorite too.

The fish is usually cut into fillets, and either grilled as is, or breaded and deep fried. Mahi mahi is a common fish included on local Hawaiian plate lunches, and it’s mild in flavor, with excellent texture.

There were also some other giant fish and smaller fish at the auction as well, but those three seemed to be the top fish everyone at the auction were pursuing.

Honolulu fish market
Unloaded straight from the boat and into the auction warehouse

Ok, let’s get back to the actual auction part of the fish market.

The Honolulu fish auction is the only live fresh tuna auction in the United States.

Starting early in the morning, 1 am to be exact says the official website, boats dock at Pier 38 in Honolulu, and start to unload their catch next to the auction warehouse.

Directly from the boat, the fish are placed on palettes and immediately rolled into the refrigerated auction warehouse.

Honolulu seafood market
The auction warehouse in Honolulu

When I was in Tokyo (video), I wanted to go to the tuna auction at the Tsukiji fish market, but they only allow 120 tourists into the auction each morning at 5 am, and you have to be in line by 4 am, meaning you have to take a very expensive taxi ride to get there – so I didn’t end up making it to the auction part of the market.

On the contrary, the Honolulu fish auction is open to the public, not only to come and see the auction, but also to buy fish from the auction.

All that to say, it’s much easier to get into the Honolulu fish auction than the Tokyo auction.

fish auction in Honolulu
It’s very interested to watch the auction process

We arrived right at around 7 am.

The tuna auctions were taking place, and a group of about 15 or 20 men were quickly going from fish to fish, spending just a few moments at each tuna until the auctioneer sold it. It moved quickly.

Many of the people participating in the auction were seafood distributors, sort of the middle men between restaurants and stores and the fishermen.

bigeye tuna
I think that’s a “bigeye tuna”

Like I already mentioned, ahi, or yellowfin tuna, dominated the Honolulu fish market.

Much of the ahi was either purchased to consume locally in Hawaii, or shipped immediately to the mainland of the US, mostly to Japanese restaurants serving fresh sashimi.

tuan in Hawaii
Auctioning down the line of tuna

The auction moved quickly, down the rows of the fish.

However, unlike in Tokyo where you’ve got to watch out that you don’t get hit by a speeding seafood forklift truck, the Honolulu fish auction is nice and calm, with no motor vehicles, and only hand palette jacks.

Honolulu fish
The tails are cut to judge the quality of fish

On most of the ahi tunas, a piece of the tail was cut out in order to judge the quality of the meat.

Lighter colored fish
Lighter colored fish

I don’t begin to know too much about grading tuna, though it is something I would love to learn more about (considering my love affair with eating sashimi and poke), but I think it’s often the darker maroon colored tuna that is a higher grade from the lighter flesh, but it also has to do with texture.

Honolulu seafood market
After the fish are sold, a crew comes by to mark down the info

After the fish were sold and done, they would get priced and marked as sold by a crew of staff.

tuna
The deep red insides of a fresh tuna

After spending about an hour at the auction, I started to get extremely hungry for sashimi.

I wanted to pick up one of the samples right then and there, pour on a bit of shoyu and wasabi and just let it melt on my tongue… I resisted the temptation!

Sashimi
I wanted some of that sashimi!

The Honolulu fish auction is a great place to visit when you’re in Honolulu.

Very few visitors actually take advantage of this fantastic seafood market, but if you enjoy fish and eating sushi, it’s really worth adding to your morning itinerary.

Honolulu Fish Auction

Address: Located at Pier 38. Official website here.
Open hours: It’s a good idea to visit from about 6 am – 8 am
Entrance fee: Free
Tip: It’s pretty cold inside the fish auction as it’s a refrigerated building, so you might want to bring a light jacket

Do you like fish markets?



12 comments. I'd love to hear from you!

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  • tate lngdon

    8 months ago

    i want fish

  • Ellie

    3 years ago

    Great post! I’m heading to Honolulu this October and would love to see the fish auction. My travel partner though isn’t so keen on the 5:30am start time. Do you have a rough estimate as to the latest we could get there and still see some action?

    • Mark Wiens

      3 years ago

      Hey Ellie, great to hear from you, glad you’ll be going to Honolulu. I think you could go around 7 – 8 am and be able to still see some action. Enjoy!

  • Shafeen Jinnah

    3 years ago

    Great article, I had no idea these fish auctions existed. Good information to know and would be cool to check out some day

  • Meghan

    3 years ago

    Sounds like a really fascinating place … not exactly what you think of when you hear the name Hawaii, but us foodies are a different breed!

    • Mark Wiens

      3 years ago

      Hey Meghan, yah it’s a really cool to place to visit, I really enjoyed it!

  • steve

    3 years ago

    I, m like you mark , love the fish markets !
    Went to the negombo fish market in sri lanka , although smaller it was a hive of activity ! Buying and selling , just fascinating to watch !

    • Mark Wiens

      3 years ago

      Hey Steve, glad you love fish markets too. Oh, yes I visited Negombo fish market too, was very cool! Sri Lanka is still one of the most memorable places I’ve visited!

  • Francis

    3 years ago

    Wow..another great article. Whenever I visited a fishmarket, especially the ones at a dock, there would always be some places there to eat some fish aswell. How was that there?
    Keep up the great reporting Mark!

    • Mark Wiens

      3 years ago

      Hey Francis, there are a couple of restaurants, but most of them are a little upscale. I did go to one a few years back located at the pier called Nico’s Pier 38 – was pretty good! But not so many options like there would be next to a fish market in most of Asia.

      • Tamara

        8 months ago

        How much do the tuna normally go for us dollar at the auction love to join on our vacation in march