(c) Deron Verbeck
By Jennifer Stahl, August 22, 2022
© Tom Boyd
We recently had the pleasure of catching up with John Ah-Chong, one of the first and few Hilo fishermen currently participating in our Hawaii Community Tagging Program. He and his wife were on a visit to Oahu, where he grew up and had his first encounters with sharks in Kaneohe Bay. He remembers hooking a lot of baby scalloped hammerheads—as they use the Bay seasonally as a nursery area. He also recollects observing hammerheads on the south shore embayments near Hickam airfield and Sand Island.
In 1981, John graduated high school and moved to Hilo. Working at a gas station, he would meet fishermen that were getting ice and gas before heading offshore to go fishing. Friendly, and curious, John quickly talked his way onto a couple trips as a crew. There he experienced the open water for the first time and the thrill of catching big, powerful ahi! Since then, he has been fishing the choppy, windward waters of the Hilo side of the Big Island, and has shared this passion with his son, Noah, who has been fishing with him since he was a toddler. According to his parents, 24-year old Noah is completely hooked and even doodles pictures of fish and fishing reels with extreme accuracy.
© Deron Verbeck
The father-son duo fish weekends, usually heading out on overnight trips. They troll on their way out and back from the fishing grounds and then fish ika-shibi all night. At other times they will bottomfish or fish for ahi at fish aggregating devices (FADs) during the day. With this large variety of fishing methods under their belt, they interact with a lot of different species of sharks, which seems to be a greater diversity of pelagic species than reported by our Kona fishermen. Interestingly, John speculates that he may be seeing different individuals as they haven’t noticed any previously tagged sharks or any sharks with old hooks in their jaws since they began tagging last year. This also differs from reports from our Kona based fishers who often encounter sharks with old hooks in their mouths. We are eager for this team to get more tags out to see their sharks’ movements, and if they do indeed differ from what we observe around Kona. So far, they have put out four identification tags. Along with more identification tags, we are hoping they can deploy a satellite tag programmed for a 1-year deployment period on a thresher shark, which are captured seasonally in the ika-shibi fishery, and an acoustic tag with a 3-year lifespan on an oceanic whitetip shark.
This father-son fishing team commonly interacts with blue sharks and bigeye threshers while ika-shibi fishing at night and sometimes run into hammerheads or pelagic threshers when in shallower water. The sharks they encounter at night, eat their bait, tangle their lines, and potentially interfere with fishing by competing with ahi for the bait. John believes the blue sharks are weaker than other sharks, because they generally don’t break the monofilament line once hooked. In their efforts to escape, the line gets tangled up and causes a huge headache.
During the day at the FADs, they often see oceanic whitetip or galapagos sharks (when inshore), and sometimes see silky or mako sharks. They haven’t seen any great whites yet, but are on the lookout as our Kona fishers sometimes run into them! When they encounter sharks in the day, they will chase after the ahi on the line if the fish is under 50 lb with a 20 lb ahi being an easy meal. John also stated that they often see more than one shark at a time with up to a couple oceanic whitetips or up to four galapagos sharks.
John was interested to hear about what we have learned about the vertical movements of particular sharks from the tagging data from other fishers. But as an observant fisherman that fishes both ika-shibi at night and at the FADs during the day, he already knew that oceanic whitetip sharks are at the surface during the day and deeper at night while thresher sharks are shallow at night and deeper during the day.
John acknowledges that sharks have their place in the ocean, but he would definitely like to reduce negative interactions with sharks for himself and other fishers. If they encounter issues with sharks at the FADs, they will attempt to distract them by throwing out fish parts (ahi guts/gills) and moving away. In the past he would attach a jug to the shark, which would cause the shark to leave the area. However, he learned that the jugs were fatal to the sharks, and he stopped using this method. He was excited by the news we shared about galvanic releases, a weak link attachment that would release the jug after a couple hours. Satellite tags attached to sharks released with a jug rigged with a galvanic link have demonstrated 100% survival after 30 days in our preliminary research.
Even though John has had sharks and marine mammals take his catch and bait, he still seems to enjoy reflecting on some of the interesting sightings and encounters he has experienced over the years on the water. He sees sperm whales in the winter and sometimes cuvier beaked whales. He also has spotted whale sharks and one time had a close encounter with an 18 footer coming right to the lights next to the boat. In addition, he has witnessed a giant school of pilot whales and dolphins of about 100 individuals!
Through our conversation, you can really tell that John and his family have a deep connection with the ocean and care a lot about the health of the marine ecosystem. He expresses concern about the purse seine fleet and the drifting FADs they release. Prior to 1990 the beaches were littered with netting and floats until the drift net fishery was outlawed. He hasn’t yet seen the purse seine FADs wash up yet, but has had friends that have sighted them. He is hoping that fisheries managers will address these issues with FADs in the near future.
John noted that catch rates have changed dramatically over the years that he has been fishing. Fishing successfully has become more challenging and less lucrative. Fifteen to twenty years ago he would see more bigeye tuna—they would come in closer to the Islands, and he and other fishers would commonly have trips where they landed 2,000 to 5,000 lbs of ahi. Now they don’t see many bigeye tuna but they still get reliable numbers of yellowfin tuna. However with expenses doubling with gas, ice, and bait, he says they have to be smart about when they go fish. He likes ika-shibi fishing as you can save money on gas while drifting with your parachute in the water. He focuses ika-shibi fishing on times and locations where there is upwelling, such as particular topographic locations or the right prevailing current. When a current with an inward angle to the Island either in the north or south direction persists for a couple weeks then he knows the fishing will get good. John also saves money by catching his own bait when he can, including squid, sardine, opelu and halalu (small akule) that are used together as palu (chum). He believes the fish prefer it, but the sharks don’t seem to care if the bait is fresh. John also can catch swordfish in May and June, but can only keep the reasonably sized fish. They have caught swordfish so big that they are too large to pull over the rail with just their father-son team. Anyways, John is happy to send the large gals back into the water as he has seen one with a basketball size of eggs and knows those are contributing to future stocks!
Although fishing is challenging, he loves it! Every day is a new day, and you never know what you will catch or see out there on the water! John jokes that Kona fishermen fish out on a lake! But he still chooses to fish the rough waters off of Hilo with 4-6 ft waves that come with the prevailing trade winds in exchange for the green and relatively cool air of Hilo. Thanks for talking story with us and your enthusiasm and involvement with the Hawaii Community Tagging Program! We look forward to seeing what interesting data you and your son deliver from tagging sharks out of Hilo.