Hawaii longline fishermen are on track to haul in a record amount of bigeye tuna this year thanks to a federal rule that lets them sidestep catch limits by paying Pacific island territories for their unused quota.

The deals have kept ahi available and prices affordable here during the holiday season, a time when sashimi traditionally finds its way to many tables. It’s also preserved jobs in the industry and contributed to the local economy.

But environmental groups, still waiting for a judge to rule on their case challenging the practice, say the deals undermine international agreements designed to help overfished stocks recover in the Central and Western Pacific.

The U.S. fleet, about 145 longline vessels almost entirely based in Honolulu, hit this year’s limit of 3,502 metric tons (7.7 million pounds) last August.

Fishermen were allowed to resume fishing in October under an agreement that they made with the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The deal between Quota Management Inc. President Khang Dang and CNMI Gov. Eloy Inos involved paying the territory $200,000 for 1,000 tons of its 2,000-ton limit. 

QMI can assign its rights and obligations to the Hawaii Longline Association, a wholly owned subsidiary of QMI. HLA is a nonprofit trade association formed to advance and benefit the Hawaii-based commercial longline fisheries industry.

Honolulu Fish Auction Tuna wide1. 14 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Tuna are packed on ice at the Honolulu Fish Auction on Monday.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It’s the third year that QMI has paid CNMI for its unused quota. In 2014, the agreement called for a $175,000 payment, up from $150,000 in 2013. Civil Beat obtained a copy of the agreement through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The fishermen used up their additional allotment by Nov. 30, but were able to strike a similar agreement with Guam — $200,000 for another 1,000 tons. The fleet had caught an estimated 326 tons of that quota within several days.

“To have a reliable source of tuna for future generations, every commercial fishery, including the Hawaii-based longline fishery, needs to cut down on the amount of bigeye pulled out of the ocean.” — David Henkin, Earthjustice attorney

A deal along the same lines was reached last week with American Samoa in case the fishermen use up their extra limit from Guam before the year ends and the quota resets.

The money is deposited into the Western Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Fund, which the territories use for fishery development projects approved by their respective governors, according to Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council spokeswoman Sylvia Spalding. This includes things like boat ramps, fish markets, processing facilities, training programs and loan programs.

Wespac is a 16-member group that is tasked with advising the National Marine Fisheries Service on how to minimize bycatch, protect habitat and prevent overfishing. Wespac recommended the quota-sharing agreements with the Pacific territories that NMFS adopted in March 2014.

Given the high demand for fresh ahi in Hawaii, there’s a lot of money on the table.

The price of tuna at the Honolulu Fish Auction on Wednesday ranged from $4.86 to $6.48 per pound. That’s up from a week ago, when it was $2.65 to $3.64, but still below where it was in the weeks after the longliners hit their limit and had to stop fishing in early August.

Fishing boat dock side of Pier 38 next to the Honolulu Fish Auction. 14 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A fishing boat docked at Pier 38 next to the Honolulu Fish Auction this week.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The price per pound is on par with where it was a year ago. It ranged from $3.82 to $5.43 on Dec. 15, 2014.

The tuna prices include bigeye and yellowfin — both of which are called ahi in Hawaii. The fish auction report lumps them together.

The value of the fish landed by the Hawaii fleet each year is roughly $100 million, according to Wespac. Only 3 percent of it is exported out of state.

Pacific bigeye tuna is on NMFS’ overfishing list along with 27 other stocks, which is part of why there are limits on how much ahi fishermen can catch.

But Wespac says the amount of fish Hawaii longliners catch is just 1.5 percent of all the bigeye tuna caught in the Pacific Ocean. International fleets and purse seiners catch the vast majority, often unintentionally while targeting other species.

David Henkin, Staff Attorney for the Mid-Pacific Regional Office of Earthjustice speaks during Civil Beat's Civil Cafe - Are We Overfishing Hawaii Waters. 25 aug 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Earthjustice attorney David Henkin says every commercial fishery, including Hawaii longliners, needs to cut down on the amount of bigeye tuna being caught.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Still, Earthjustice attorney David Henkin said people in Hawaii should be concerned about the issue if they want to have ahi to feed their families in the future.

“There is no question that bigeye tuna are being overfished and that, to have a reliable source of tuna for future generations, every commercial fishery, including the Hawaii-based longline fishery, needs to cut down on the amount of bigeye pulled out of the ocean each year,” he said.

A lawsuit that’s pending in federal court in Honolulu could force NMFS to stop the practice. Earthjustice sued the agency last November on behalf of Conservation Council for Hawaii, Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network.

“Local people want Hawaii fish caught by Hawaii boats because the fishery has a reputation for high-quality fresh fish and environmentally responsible fishing practices,” Spalding said.

“Local people want Hawaii fish caught by Hawaii boats because the fishery has a reputation for high-quality fresh fish and environmentally responsible fishing practices.” — Sylvia Spalding, Wespac spokeswoman

The Wespac spokeswoman pointed at the industry’s support of seafood businesses and the tourism market, adding that it’s important for Hawaii consumers to have a fresh ahi supply maintained during the holiday season when demand soars.

Henkin said the latest science should steer federal regulators and policymakers in a different direction.

To end overfishing, he said, commercial fisheries need to reduce their bigeye catch by 36 percent compared to the 2008-2011 levels.

“Instead of respecting the science and complying with our agreement to limit the Hawaii-based longline fishery to 3,502 metric tons of bigeye, the National Marine Fisheries Service is allowing the fishery to catch 2,000 metric tons above that limit,” Henkin said.

He noted that’s nearly 20 percent more fish than the longliners caught in 2008 (4,649 metric tons), the last year before the United States was supposed to start cutting back on bigeye fishing as part of the international effort to end unsustainable practices. 

“Thus, at a time that we know we need to cut back on the amount of catch to ensure our children will have ahi to eat, the longliners, with the Fisheries Service’s blessing, are catching more bigeye than ever before,” he said. “That is completely irresponsible.”

The Pelagic Fishery Ecosystem Plan, developed by Wespac, provides a mechanism for transferring a limited amount of territory bigeye to pelagic permit holders, consistent with the conservation needs of the stock, as well as the objectives of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission to end overfishing of bigeye, Spalding said.

“This year’s allocation specification was subject to rigorous environmental review to ensure consistency with the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and other applicable law,” she said, adding that any allocation specification that is found to be inconsistent with the conservation needs of the stock is subject to disapproval by NMFS.

Here’s a copy of the agreement between the Hawaii longliners and CNMI.

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