(c) Deron Verbeck
By Jennifer Stahl, January 20, 2023
© Tom Boyd
Elijah Lawson is an animated, Hilo-based fisherman that talks with his hands and brings his time on the water to life with his stories. This passion started early in life as he began fishing around Kona at age 11 and in his 20s worked on charter boats out of Honokohau. Eventually he moved to Hilo and started commercial fishing for himself and has continued for the last 11 years.
Elijah focuses on fishing the ika-shibi method and explains “ika'' means squid and “shibi” means tuna. He says that many fishers claim they fish this method, but traditional ika-shibi is not only fishing at night, but also bringing the ahi to the water's surface. By throwing bait and potentially even squid ink into the water, the ahi will come from the deep to the surface to feed on what appears to be a bait ball. Once the ahi are at the surface, then you can “pop fish after fish”. He can catch 19 ahi that are 100 lb or more in an hour and a half using this method. He uses the traditional ika-shibi rope handlines with monofilament leaders, along with a couple of electric reels. While he is running these lines, his boat drifts in the current with a parachute in the water that keeps the bow into the wind.
Elijah uses the seafloor topography to guide him to the fish. He often fishes at the koas, the underwater seamounts that were traditionally fished by the Hawaiians. At these features, eddie currents somersault up the sides of the seamount and bring up fish. This is also where you find the predators. He's found that in some areas it may be hard to predict the currents, and at times the currents in surface waters may be doing something very different than the bottom currents, making for interesting conditions. He tells a story of a turbo offshore current that he was once stuck in that was littered with palms and big tree limbs.
© Deron Verbeck
While fishing ika-shibi at night he encounters a lot of sharks of many different species. He most frequently encounters blue sharks, but also encounters with relative frequency thresher, mako, galapagos, oceanic whitetip, and “bronze whalers” (a species group that do not occur around Hawaii but are more likely a complex of the brown sharks that do occur around Hawaii and distinguishing characteristics can be found in our shark identification guide). In addition, he may rarely encounter silky sharks. He especially has a lot to share on his encounters with mako and thresher sharks, which we will get into later.
With all these interactions, Elijah has a few methods up his sleeve to prevent sharks from taking his catch. First, he dumps whatever guts he has from cleaning his catch into the water before moving locations. This is a proactive method as he says “Even if you can’t see the sharks, they are around. They are stealth, ambush predators, so they often stay out of sight, away from the light zone around the boat or under the boat. They usually take a fish before you ever see them.” But a shark may leave evidence behind of taking a fish, as the mono leader may be frayed from their rough skin rubbing it.
Sometimes he sees sharks swimming around but not biting his fish. In these cases, you have to be on guard that the shark may try to go after an ahi on the line as you are pulling it in, so he may shake guts or even feed the shark other bits while pulling in the fish. He believes it is a flip of the coin if a shark will go for the guts or the fish on the line.
If an ahi runs weird, then you know it is trying to get away from a shark. So, you need to let the line out, so it can run. He says “an ahi can outrun most sharks”. After about three to four times of the shark trying to catch the ahi, the shark will get tired, then you can quickly pull up the ahi before the shark grabs it. However, he says makos are another thing “you can’t predict their movements and they are just too fast”.
For persistent sharks, Elijah has a rule: if he catches it three times, then he moves. When “blue dogs” (blue sharks) or oceanic whitetip sharks are around, they seem to be persistent and he may have to utilize this rule more frequently.
Elijah feels sharks have their place in the ocean and help remove the weak and sick fish from the population, such as the growing number of ahi he has noticed in a compromised condition, which he speculated might be due to water quality issues. So he lets other fishers know that killing sharks is illegal in state waters and has dissuaded a lot of people from killing them. He believes that you “can’t be mad at things that live in the ocean, cause you are in their backyard”. Instead he observes them and uses different strategies to prevent them from taking his catch while fishing in their environment. He also believes it is much easier to preserve an ecosystem, which sharks are part of, than restore it. He reflects on how desolate the inside of Hilo Bay is as this ecosystem has been fished out.
Also when Elijah hooks a shark, he tries to get as much gear off to improve the shark's chances at survival post release. He also gets the hook out if its possible. Otherwise, he will cut the line flush with their mouth or leave as little monofilament as possible. All this depends on the shark species, size, and activity level, as well as if he has a seasoned deckhand on board. He has observed that blue sharks are the most mellow and don’t jump, so he can usually get the hook out. He will position a shark against the rail, so that he can get the gear off more easily. He often encounters sharks with gear attached from the commercial longline fishery, which may include a wire leader or a large amount of trailing gear that is often wrapped around the shark. He always attempts to remove this gear as well. We hope he and other fishers will encounter less sharks in the future with wire leaders and large amounts of trailing gear, as there is a recent prohibition for the use of wire leaders in the Hawaii longline commercial fishery and a requirement to remove as much trailing gear as possible on threatened oceanic whitetip sharks.
Elijah also had some great stories and insights to share on thresher sharks. We are very interested in thresher's and we are beginning to shift some of our focus to understanding habitat use and seasonality of both the pelagic and bigeye thresher sharks around Hawaii. He illustrated that these powerful sharks deserve respect as he tells a story of his friend and deckhand getting knocked out by a thresher shark tail. The head of the shark was on one side of the boat while the tail stretched over the rail on the other side of his 21-foot boat and slapped his friend across the face. This left his friend both knocked out and with a purple streak!
Elijah encounters both the pelagic and bigeye threshers at a similar ratio. Interestingly, he notes that, pelagic thresher sharks are generally swimming solo and bigeye thresher sharks will be together in a pair or group of three or more. He will sometimes even see bigeye thresher sharks congregate with swordfish. He consistently encounters larger numbers of bigeye thresher sharks when fishing a long plateau that is offshore of Hilo, which he speculates may attract thresher sharks to feed due to upwelling. Which is all news to us and why we love sitting down with our fishers to talk story and learn about what is happening on the water! This local ecological knowledge also helps us interpret some of the tag and environmental data that we are seeing. Elijah told us it is easy to differentiate between the two theshers under his blue boat lights as the pelagic thresher appears gray and the bigeye thresher brown. Check out our shark guide for more identification tips: https://www.sharktagger.org/sharkidguides.
Elijah also had interesting stories about encounters with mako sharks, which he often interacts with as they are active at night while he is fishing. He even feels he has some PTSD from one mako encounter when a 120 lb mako jumped into his boat and hit him from behind in the shoulder blades. Makos are solo predators that are warm-blooded and have the energy and momentum to jump out of the water. This mako wasn’t even hooked when it jumped into his boat. He said the entire experience was completely hectic, and he ended up eating the intruder. But now he feels a bit nervous when he hears a big splash and is always on the lookout for flying sharks! This might sound like a freak incident but he told me an even bigger “fish tell” that shows that this kind of thing happens relatively frequently. He received a call one night from a distressed friend fishing near him off the east side of the Big Island about five miles or so out of Pohoiki. A 400 lb mako jumped into his friend’s boat and was eating his electronics. The shark was too big to get out of the boat. And during the 45 minutes it took to die, the boat was totaled and his friend had to be towed back to port! As he gets going about makos it seems he could go on all day with stories that bring about imagery from Jaws and Sharknado. One time a 500 lb mako got wrapped in his parachute, which proved to be extremely challenging to untangle! And another time a mako jumped clear over his boat! One day he even went into battle with a mako when one swallowed the entire tail of a 180 lb ahi that he had on the line. He had his fishing buddy grab his shoulder while he pulled in the ahi. Luckily this time he won and was able to sell his fish sans a tail!
Elijah’s stories don’t end with sharks trying to take his fish or jump into the boat. He recounts many interesting fishing stories, some which sound magical. He says the one thing that is certain about the ocean is that it is unpredictable, and you never know what is going to happen. Like the day he found himself surrounded by a pod of over 100 pilot whales, including calves, that were just resting at the surface. At other times he has encountered whale sharks that come to his boat to rub their backs. They are so big that they could lift the boat! He’s had to turn on the motor to encourage them to leave, but most times they are harmless. In these cases, he lets them hang around and may even use his scrub brush to give them a back scratch. One year he encountered clouds of what looked like krill-sized kona crab that were so thick they blacked out his boat lights. He collected about 100 lbs of these organisms and used them as chum and gave them to friends and family to try out for the potential benefits of the omega-3 fatty acids. In addition, he often catches large squid with one as big as him! He says the larger the squid, the more ink they have, which stinks and can leave an inky mess all over the boat. One time he cooked up a giant squid and made ~ 9-10 lbs of calamari! In retrospect, he felt that was a bit too much!
Elijah is excited to spend some of his time on the water tagging sharks. He is interested in finding out more information on their migration patterns. He is curious about the distances they cover and whether the sharks are resident or just tourists. He also wants to know how deep they go as he has recorded thresher sharks on his line to at least 900 ft. So far, he has put out a couple of satellite tags that we suspect will answer some of those questions. He would like to get out more satellite tags and some spaghetti tags to be able to more easily identify if the sharks he and other fishers encounter are the same individuals or not.
As we talked, it was clear that Elijah was hungry for more of the adventure that occurs while out on the water. He lights up as he mentions he will be going fishing in a couple days. We can’t wait to hear more about his experiences and what he discovers out of Hilo! Elijah, we appreciate your enthusiasm to participate in shark research and be an ambassador to shark research and conservation!