Spearfishing champion paves the way for women divers, sustainability

Mitsuki Hara hides in the midst of undulating kelp forests 30 feet below the surface of the ocean. In her arms is a 4-foot-6-inch rifle, almost as tall as she is, which is being trained on white bass, the elusive “gray ghosts” of California.

The real fight begins after she pulls the trigger. The pierced silver bass struggles to escape both its hunter and the chill of the soup sharks that begin chasing the bloody fish. Squeezing the window tighter, Hara hunts with a single breath. That gives him only about 90 seconds to work with each time he sinks into the murky Pacific.

On this hunt, the fourth free dive does it, and finally Hara emerges with the 73.4-pound beast in one piece. More than that, the giant broke International Underwater Spearfishing Assn. register catching white bass with a woman’s rifle in weight. Hara hardly rested on her laurels before pitching another world record kelp bass just a month later.

Mitsuki Hara in a wetsuit stands in shallow water with a rifle and fins.

Mitsuki Hara assesses conditions while out spearfishing in December. 8 off the coast of Los Angeles County.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

“It’s one of the bright new faces of spearfishing in California,” he says Lance Lee Davisa scuba and spearfishing instructor record.

“It’s an incredible success,” says Addrianna Reitenbach, president of SoCal Dive Babes – a spearfishing and freediving women’s organization. “He caught the white bass on a shore dive, which means he had to take that thing to the cliffs. The world record requirements don’t allow anyone to help you either.” That means Hara had to catch the fish in 60-degree water with all her gear: a 10-pound weight belt, tube, fins and a 2-pound EduSub rifle.

Even more impressive is that Hara, 26, looks nothing like your typical spearfisherman. He is 5 feet 105 pounds. This makes operating a rifle underwater a challenge, as significant upper body and back strength is required. “The gun I use is almost my height,” he explains. “It’s so unwieldy that I have a Power Tower [a fitness apparatus used for building muscle strength using body weight] in my living room to do push-ups every day.”

Hara is part of a local women’s movement spears – slang for spearfishers – devoting themselves to participating with the abundance of the Pacific Ocean where they live.

The rise of spearfish (and sustainable fishing)

Mitsuki Hara's fins are seen above the water as she dives deep under the seaweed while spearfishing.

Mitsuki Hara sinks deep under seaweed while spearfishing off the coast of Los Angeles County.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

“There’s been a big change in the demographics of fishing here in LA,” says Davis. “I’m teaching a lot more environmental and sustainability-driven female spearfishing instead of testosterone-driven male anglers.”

In addition, the Los Angeles Fathomiers, one of Southern California’s oldest spearfishing clubs, reports that eight of its roughly 30 members are women, up from just three in 2016. “We also have more women claiming world record catches in the [International Underwater Spearfishing Assn.] web site than in previous years,” says Sheri Daye, former president of the organization. The founding of SoCal Dive Babes in 2020, in addition to the pandemic and the need for socially distanced activities, has contributed to a notable increase in spears in Southern California, Reitenbach explained. It’s a small but passionate community.

Mitsuki Hara charges her spear.

Mitsuki Hara loads his spear while spearfishing off the coast of Los Angeles County.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

These spears are also part of a growing push around the world locally caught seafood harvested sustainably, without threatening the ecosystem, other wildlife or the stability of the species caught. Although California is one first seafood exporter with abundantly delicious marine life, it imports the majority of its seafood consumed, approximately Between 70% and 85% seafood Americans consume is imported, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Hara is also an advocate of this vision, celebrating the abundance of her local bounty in a march Instagram post. In the picture, she is smiling from ear to ear as she sits next to her husband on a boat, with the bodies covered in 28 California lobsters. Hara believes Californians should be eating these local creatures instead of importing lobster from Maine.

Mitsuki Hara shows off a California sheepshead he caught while spearfishing.

Mitsuki Hara shows off a California sheepshead he caught while spearfishing.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

But not only local fishing is important. Spearfishing can be harmful if not approached with a sustainability mindset. Hara explained, “The spearfishing community has many unspoken rules to protect the fish population.” For example, the spears save the dive sites where they scored their prize fish, to “avoid attracting too many people to a specific site, possibly depleting marine resources.” Also, Davis says, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife “is one of the most tightly regulated fisheries in the world. Basically, if it’s a legal catch in this state, it can be considered sustainable.”

When practiced consciously, spearfishing can be an alternative to longline fishing as there is minimal bycatch – accidentally catching and killing other species in fishing nets. In addition, no bait is used in spearfishing, and there is no debris from fishing gear and fishing nets. “I can carefully select and shoot only the fish I want to eat,” explains Hara.

Using every bit, down to the bones

Hara used every bit of the 73.4-pound white bass, “WSB” in speares, down to its bones. Shortly after capture, local artist Dwight Hwang, which has a cult following among restaurateurs and art collectors, commemorated his prize fish. Using the 19th-century Japanese art of gyotaku, Hwang carefully brushed onyx pine soot and water calligraphy ink onto one side of Hara’s WSB. She then delicately pressed the fish onto a piece of washi paper to create a realistic print to commemorate her catch, honoring the food she took from the ocean. The meat from the fish was made into weeks of dinners, as well as gifts for friends, and the rest went to his in-laws’ wedding venue and seafood catering restaurant.

Mitsuki Hara swims in the ocean with a spearfish as seaweed gathers around her

Mitsuki Hara catches fish while spearfishing off the coast of Los Angeles County.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Hara even reused the fish skull art of taxidermy. “I follow the tradition of itadakimasu, a Japanese belief with roots in Buddhism, which teaches respect for all living beings. That thinking extends beyond mealtime by appreciating every part of the animal you’re slaughtering,” he explains. For this time-intensive project, he had to carefully deconstruct the fish’s skull to clean each part separately before using a glue gun to reassemble it.

It was the mentality of this patient, detail-oriented investigator that helped Hara catch the WSB. She says, “Before anyone started diving this past season, I was already in the water, taking detailed notes and records of ecosystem changes, moon tides, temperatures and times of day when the bass was swimming. I often dived five days a week. Yes, I was lucky the day I caught it, but I spent tens and maybe hundreds of hours in the water chasing this species.”

Inspiring more women to dive

His mission is to motivate even more speares to jump into the ocean. “It makes me happy because so many women would come in spearfishing messages that would frustrate me, asking, ‘How do you do it?’ It doesn’t work for me, the gun is too strong and I can’t load it.” I have a lot to share because I had to figure out unique techniques to compensate for my size.”

Mitsuki Hara looks forward with a slight smile as she adjusts her mask

Mitsuki Hara adjusts her mask while going spearfishing.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

In addition to strength training, Hara recommends finding a community and mentors. “There are so many people who are willing to help,” she says, pointing to organizations and groups like SoCal Dive Babes, OC Spearos, Fathomiers and more on Facebook and Instagram. “I have made lifelong friends from this community. Eating together creates a special bond and we often end our dives with a dinner of fishing and cooking together.”

Hara met his mentor, Matthew Hoang, at a local fishing and cooking dive, a game changer for his spearfishing. “Since he took me under his wing, I started to see a different world underwater, and suddenly I saw more fish, and I even used my muscles and breathed differently,” he says . In fact, they made such a deep connection that the two ended up getting married two years later.

Their wedding was on the ocean at Avalon in Catalina, and their wedding dress was a wetsuit by Riffe International. One of his diving friends got his official license for the occasion. “When it was time for our kiss, we went under the water with all 30 of our guests,” she recalls. “Instead of throwing flowers, we threw fish food.”

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