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Professional beach volleyball player Kevin Wong relaxing in Waikiki
Vol.12, No. 2
April / May 2009

  >>   Architect of Stories
  >>   Life on the Fringe

38 Special 

story by Sheila Sarhangi
photos by Brad Goda

Pier 38 in Honolulu Harbor doesn’t have a lot of things. There’s no roller coaster, like at the Santa Monica Pier. You won’t see guys in rubber aprons heaving fish around like you would 
at Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, and if you’re looking for kitschy tourist shops like those at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf or Monterey’s Cannery Row—well, that’s what Waikiki is for.

No, Pier 38 wasn’t built for tourists; it’s the nexus of Hawai‘i’s fishing industry, and it looks that way. It has an industrial vibe: big box structures, a tidy paved-over landscape, scattered parking lots and a panoramic view of cargo containers across the harbor. Roughly 140 long-line fishing boats land at Pier 38 after spending twelve to fifteen days at sea. They offload their catch—‘ahi, mahimahi, ‘opakapaka—and wheel it directly over to the Honolulu fish auction for sale. Not the sort of place to go for an evening stroll along the waterfront.

But the powers that be saw opportunity at the pier. In 1988 former Gov. John Waihe‘e met with some of the kingpins in the fishing industry about transforming Pier 38 from a location with rusting gantries and fuel storage tanks to a showplace for Hawai‘i’s fishing industry. At the time, United Fishing Agency, which runs the fish auction, had been operating out of a 
3,000-square-foot building at Kewalo Basin. Back then, flatbed trucks had todrive to a half-dozen piers, unload the fish and transport them on ice to the auction house—not ideal for an industry that relies on freshness.

After several fits and starts, the auction finally moved into its new building in 2004. Things moved swiftly after that: A month later the pier’s second tenant, POP Fishing and Marine, a commercial fishing and boat supply store, opened next door in its new 27,000-square-foot-building. Shortly after, the restaurant Nico’s Pier 38 rented out a corner of POP’s building. Fresh Island Fish, a wholesale fish distributor, moved into its new building in 2006 and opened Uncle’s Fish Market & Grill in July 2007.

There’s still more to do; the pier hasn’t yet realized its full potential since only three of its ten lots are filled. But for now, locals have responded by coming in droves to eat at the pier’s two restaurants. And for good reason: Their proximity to the auction ensures the freshest fish on the island.