At Sunday’s 13th annual Tokunaga Ulua Challenge Fishing Tournament weigh-in, you’d hear a call for “Mr. Barbless Hook.” That would be Kurt Kawamoto, a fisheries biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center.
Kawamoto earned the moniker as the driving force behind the NOAA and DLNR Barbless Circle Hook Project. Each time a fish caught with a barbless circle hook weighed in, Kawamoto stepped forward to slap a special sticker on it, and hopefully to see a new record. Since initiating the program more than a decade ago, ulua and other fish caught by shoreline fishermen with barbless hooks have weighed in at one hundred pounds or more; winning more than just a few tournaments.
The Tokunaga tournament has grown from 136 entrants in 2003 to 637 this year. It’s estimated more than 50% of the contestants catch their fish using barbless circle hooks. In 2015, the winning ulua was caught with a barbless hook. This year, the winning omilu was caught by a woman fishing barbless.
Making a barbless hook is really simple. You use a pair of pliers to smash down the barb. Kawamoto explains, “Once you smash down the barbs on these hooks they become self-shedding, so that was the main idea behind it. It’s easy for a fish, or a seal or a turtle to get rid of the hook themselves.” Researchers have witnessed a monk seal actually shed a barbless circle hook and anglers have relayed stories about sea turtles also easily expelling barbless hooks.
Although it’s easier for animals to rid themselves of the hooks, research, angler reports, and actual catches with barbless circle hooks have proved their efficacy when it comes to catching target fish. During a shoreline research project, fishers used two poles; one with a barbed hook, the other with a barbless one. Kawamoto said, “We caught over 300 shoreline fish, of many different kinds. We looked at the catches, losses and misses and statistically we couldn’t tell the difference. Essentially you could catch just as many fish with a barbless circle hook.”
Michael Tokunaga, the organizer of the tournament, sponsored by his store, S. Tokunaga, regularly hosts DLNR outreach representatives from the Barbless Circle Hook Project. He would like to see acceptance of the barbless hooks for his tournament to grow to 75% or better. He said, “This is for conservation and releasing unwanted catches. It’s just a way of fishing smart. When you catch a fish, the hook is normally in the side of the mouth. The barb has nothing to do with it in my opinion.”
After observing the Ulua Challenge last year, and entering this year, Carlo Russo of Pahoa fishes from the shoreline, using barbless circle hooks exclusively. He feels there’s absolutely no downside to using them. A few hours before the tournament weigh-in, fishing with a friend on the edge of Hilo Bay, he commented, “My experience with them has been 100% positive. I caught three papio’s, nice size papio’s on them, and didn’t lose any fish. Popped them right out; all perfectly caught in the corner of their mouths.” He also likes the fact that the barbless hooks keep bait fish alive longer, because they make a smaller hole, saying, “That’s a really big plus.”
The outreach team from the Barbless Circle Hook Project regularly attends fishing tournaments around the state to provide information, encouragement, and free barbless circle hooks. Kawamoto concluded, “Since starting the project I only use barbless hooks in my personal shoreline fishing and I’ve caught all the same species. I couldn’t in good conscience ask fisherman to try something that I don’t use or believe in myself. I have guys on every island who are only using barbless hooks and they’ve seen it doesn’t make a difference…and allows the big one that got away…to reproduce, to grow and possibly to be caught another day. This helps enhance the reputation of fishermen and women as practicing conservationists.”