Mama’s Fish House is starting a new FAD making life easier for Maui’s fishermen

Yes, it’s true. The iconic 40-year-old Mama’s Fish House in Kuau is starting a new FAD.

That is, “fishing aggregate device,” to assist local fishermen with an effective deep-sea helper.

“Our chefs Perry Bateman and Mike Pascher have been working on something really big, something we don’t think any restaurant here has ever done before,” said Karen Christenson, Mama’s vice president and daughter of founders Floyd and Doris Christenson.

“We are funding a fishing buoy!” she continued. “There are so many reasons this is the right thing to do, including supporting the local fishermen on which our business relies.”

On Tuesday, Christenson and Mama’s chefs hosted an informational breakfast meeting, inviting fishermen, vendors and retailers to hear all about it. More than 40 people showed up.

The dining room was a literal sea of who’s who in Maui’s commercial fishing community. As they sipped coffee and ate scrambled eggs, French toast and more, many said they should be out fishing as the ocean was flat as a lake.

Oftentimes, they boat in harsh weather conditions. They typically brave the elements from dawn to dusk or even for days at sea, with wind whipping about, salt spray, relentless sun or stormy skies, and giant Pacific swells.

Plus, fishermen must invest time and money for gas and boat maintenance, not knowing whether they’ll bring home the bacon, er, ahi.

That’s why Mama’s is lending a hand.

“We are proud to announce that we estimate on or about May 15, in cooperation with Maui fishermen and WESTPAC, Mama’s will be deploying a new fishing buoy in waters approximately 30 miles off the northeast shore of Maui,” Bateman told the crowd.

Also known as the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, WESTPAC has already deployed three buoys, or FADs, in deep-sea Maui waters. It also manages and regulates fisheries in federal waters off of other Hawaiian Islands, along with those in American Samoa, Guam and the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands.

Mama’s FAD will be named MFH1 and will be anchored to the seafloor at a depth of more than 15,000 feet. It will be located in a permitted position in offshore waters that is a habitat for pelagic species, those that live in the open ocean, such as tuna, mahimahi, ono and billfish.

So the next time you dine at Mama’s on fresh-as-it-gets mahimahi caught by Jamie DeBussey along the north shore of Maui, stuffed with lobster and crab and baked in macadamia crust, know that it mostly likely was caught at a FAD.

Ditto for the ono troll caught by Mike Holley north of Maliko Bay made with caramelized Maui onion, Haiku golden tomato and forbidden black rice.

So how does a FAD work, anyway?

“Fishermen in Hawaii and other parts of the world have long known that pelagic fishes are attracted to floating objects,” said WESTPAC council staff member Eric Kingma, who flew to Maui from Oahu for the meeting.

Russell Sparks, biologist for the state Division of Aquatic Resources, agreed.

“Anytime there’s something floating on the ocean, small fish like to hang out, or aggregate under it, whether it be buoys, logs, coolers or whatever. Bigger fish know that and come to feed,” Sparks said.

For generations, Native Hawaiians have tended “ko’a,” or fishing shrines, in the ocean to attract fish such as opelu.

Since 1980, the state has maintained a network of FADs with federal funding to promote recreational fishing opportunities. Currently there are 55 in near-shore waters across the state, including 18 in Maui County waters.

What makes the latest FAD different from state-funded buoys is that it is the first partnership between private business, fishermen and WESTPAC.

In addition, it will be deployed farther out to sea than state-sponsored FADs, making it more effective, according to studies.

In recent years, some fishermen have illegally deployed their own private FADS, not approved by the Coast Guard or the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, and they pose navigational hazards. No one can guess how many are actually out there, making it a safety and fisheries management issue.

FADs are popular because they reduce search time for fish, and given the current fuel prices, it means less money out of pocket as well as a smaller carbon footprint.

But data collection is critical to ensuring sustainability for local Hawaii fish stocks, and Mama’s encourages fishers to submit their catch reports to the state and to WESTPAC.

“We turned bottom fishing around by providing good data,” said one of Mama’s lead fishermen, Layne Nakagawa, who sits on WESTPAC’s advisory council and who will deploy the MFH1 buoy.

“We used to be able to only bottom-fish five months out of last year, but we proved there’s enough around, and now we can fish 12 months this year.”

So data is key for future FAD funding. Launch ramps are also important, because they provide fisherman with access to the ocean.

“We’d like to push for a cooperative at Maliko Gulch to fix the ramp,” Christenson said of the structure, which has fallen into disrepair. “We are also hoping that this MFH1 buoy is the start of bringing the fishing community together to cooperatively support additional FADs and to ensure that this unique Hawaiian way of life can continue for generations to come.”

* Carla Tracy can be reached at