What do Hawaiians call tuna?

Hawaiians have several names for different varieties of tuna that are caught in the waters surrounding the Hawaiian islands. Here’s a quick overview of the common Hawaiian names for tuna:


Ahi is the Hawaiian name most commonly used to refer to yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares). Yellowfin tuna is one of the most popular fish for eating in Hawaii and is used in dishes like poke and sashimi. The term ahi is also sometimes used more broadly to refer to any kind of tuna.


ʻĀhi is the Hawaiian name for bigeye tuna (Thunnus obesus). ʻĀhi is not as commonly eaten as yellowfin tuna but is still highly valued in Hawaiian cuisine. Its flesh is particularly well-suited for making poke.


Kawakawa is the Hawaiian name for skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis). Kawakawa is a smaller tuna species that is commonly used for canned tuna. In Hawaii, fresh kawakawa is also enjoyed cooked, dried, or raw in poke.


Kihada is the Hawaiian name for albacore tuna (Thunnus alalunga). Albacore is known for its lighter colored flesh and mild flavor. In Hawaii, it may be eaten raw in poke or used for canned tuna.

Other Names

In addition to the main names above, Hawaiians may use other descriptive terms for tuna. Some examples include:

  • Aku – a more general term for tuna
  • Kaulua – older, mature tuna
  • Kawakawa haole – northern bluefin tuna
  • Kihada ume – albacore with reddish meat

The Significance of Tuna in Hawaiian Culture

Tuna have long been important to Hawaiian culture and cuisine. According to Hawaiian legends, ahi (yellowfin tuna) was considered the “fish of kings.” Tuna was traditionally eaten both raw and cooked in various preparations. Aku (skipjack tuna) was heavily salted and dried to create a preserved food called palu used on long sea voyages. Schools of ahi were also used as a navigational sign by early Polynesian sailors to find land.

In ancient Hawaii, tuna was much more than just food. Some of the first Hawaiian fishing shrines, called koʻa, were built to attract schools of aku. Massive koʻa made of piled stones were constructed along cliffs and offered a place for rituals and worship of the gods associated with fishing. Certain koʻa were strictly reserved for use by Hawaiian royalty. The remains of these ancient koʻa can still be seen dotting coastlines across the islands.

How Hawaiians Catch Tuna

Ancient Hawaiians were expert fishermen and developed various techniques for catching the fast-swimming tuna. Some of the traditional methods are still used today.


One of the most common fishing techniques used both past and present is trolling. Fishermen trail multiple fishing lines behind a boat and lure tuna to strike artificial bait or lures. This allows covering a large area to find roaming schools of tuna.

Pole and Line Fishing

Pole and line fishing involves using a single fishing line attached to a pole or stick. Live bait is used to attract tuna near the boat and fish are caught one at a time. This was the main method for catching aku (skipjack tuna) in ancient times.

Surrounding Nets

Nets were also traditionally used to trap schools of tuna near shores. Groups of fishermen would form a semicircle and pull netting around the fish, then draw the bottom closed. This net technique is called hukilau, which literally means “pulling together” in Hawaiian.


Handlining is a simple method of fishing that uses a single line with bait on a hook. Handlining requires great strength, precision and skill to hook powerful swimmers like tuna. Large yellowfin tuna over 100 pounds were handlined by experienced Hawaiian fishermen.

Difference Between Sashimi Grade and Poke Grade Tuna

When purchasing tuna for raw consumption in foods like sashimi and poke,fish quality matters. Not all tuna can be eaten raw. Here is the difference between top grades used for raw preparations:

Sashimi Grade Tuna

  • Highest quality tuna for eating raw
  • Freshly caught and carefully handled/processed
  • Sashimi comes from the leanest part of the fish (the loin/back muscles)
  • Red flesh color with little to no bruising
  • Firm texture yet tender
  • Little to no fishy smell
  • Stored at very low temperatures to inhibit bacteria growth and maintain freshness

Poke Grade Tuna

  • High quality tuna for raw dishes like poke
  • May come from parts of tuna beyond the lean loin
  • Usually freshly caught but can be previously frozen then thawed
  • Can have more bruises, fat streaking, or variation in color
  • Usually firm but may be slightly softer in texture
  • Minimal fishy odor
  • Carefully stored and chilled to preserve quality

Both sashimi and poke grade tuna must be meticulously handled from catch to plate. This ensures safety when eating raw fish.

Popular Ways to Eat Tuna in Hawaii

Hawaii’s culinary traditions showcase the versatility of its exceptional local tuna. Here are some favorite Hawaiian ways to enjoy tuna:


Poke bowls are now famous worldwide, but the raw fish salad originated in Hawaii. Thinly sliced or diced ahi or other tuna is mixed with seasonings like sea salt, seaweed, and inamona (roasted kukui nut) to make the classic Hawaiian dish.

Ahi/Tuna Poke Bowl Recipe

Make this easy ahi poke bowl at home using sashimi grade tuna:


  • 1 lb sashimi grade ahi tuna, diced into 1/2″ cubes
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced onion
  • 1/4 cup diced mango
  • 2 Tbsp chopped green onion
  • 2 tsp sesame oil
  • 2 tsp soy sauce
  • 1 tsp sesame seeds
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • cooked sushi rice
  • optional additions like avocado, cucumber, chili flakes, etc.


  1. Pat ahi tuna cubes dry and place in a bowl. Gently mix in onions, mango, green onion, sesame oil, soy sauce, sesame seeds and salt until evenly coated.
  2. Let poke marinate 5-10 minutes in the fridge.
  3. Divide sushi rice between bowls. Top with marinated poke. Add any other desired toppings.


Sliced raw tuna and other seafood is served as sashimi, often with a dipping sauce. Tuna for sashimi is carefully sliced across the grain into thin pieces to showcase its texture and color. The leanest cuts of ahi are ideal for sashimi.

Seared Ahi

Seared or pan-seared ahi rapidly cooks the outside while leaving the center rare. Top grade tuna is lightly seasoned then quickly seared on high heat. It develops a delicious caramelized crust while maintaining a soft, buttery interior. Seared ahi is served in high-end Hawaiian restaurants and backyard luaus alike.

Grilled Tuna

Meaty cuts of ahi are popular for grilling, especially when marinated in Hawaiian-style preparations. Grilled tuna is basted with glazes like teriyaki, soaked in salty seawater, or rubbed with minced kukui nut for flavor. Grilled tuna is served in sandwiches, plates, and salads.

Canned Tuna

Canned tuna is a Hawaiian staple, thanks to huge skipjack tuna fisheries established in the early 1900s. Local varieties like chunk light skipjack in soybean or sesame oil are popular in Hawaii households. Canned tuna is eaten straight up or used in tuna salad sandwiches, patties, pasta, and potato salads.

Sustainable Hawaiian Tuna Fishing

With demand for seafood high, managing tuna populations sustainably is incredibly important in Hawaii. Here are some keys to keeping Hawaiian tuna plentiful for the future:

  • Science-based catch limits – Strict quotas help prevent overfishing based on up-to-date fish population data.
  • NOAA monitoring – The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration closely tracks and regulates fishing activity.
  • Full retention policies – Requiring whole tuna retention, instead of finning or tossing unwanted catch, helps accuracy.
  • Marine sanctuaries – Protected areas allow tuna breeding grounds to recover.
  • Seafood guides – Hawaii Seafood Council guides help consumers choose sustainable options.

Traditional Hawaiian values teach balance between needs of people and the natural world. Fishermen and consumers adopting sustainable practices honors that balance and protects tuna for future generations.


For native Hawaiians, tuna species like ahi, aku, and kihada have long shaped culture and cuisine. Names reflect differences in size, color, taste, and habitat. Tuna frequent Hawaiian waters due to ideal conditions. Ancient Hawaiians became masters at catching these strong fish using techniques still practiced today. Raw tuna dishes like poke and sashimi showcase Hawaiis exceptional quality. Careful management ensures Hawaii’s treasured tuna fisheries continue providing a bounty to share far into the future.

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