Hawaii’s longline fishermen are back at sea in search of more ahi after extending their quota limit through an agreement with the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

The 2016 season had ended early, as it has for the past few years, when the longline fleet in late July hit its 3,554-ton limit for bigeye tuna in the Western and Central Pacific.

The deal between Quota Management Inc. President Khang Dang and Northern Marianas Gov. Ralph Torres involves paying the territory $250,000 for 1,000 tons of its 2,000-ton limit.

Commercial tuna fishers are leading the charge against the monument expansion, even though waters in the area only account for about 8 percent of their tuna haul each year.

Commercial tuna fishers are back in business after a deal was made allowing them to exceed their quota.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Under the agreement, QMI can assign its rights and obligations to the Hawaii Longline Association, a wholly owned subsidiary of QMI. The association is a nonprofit trade group formed to support the $100 million commercial longline fisheries industry, which includes a fleet of roughly 140 vessels ported in Honolulu.

This is the fourth year in a row that QMI has paid the Northern Marianas for half of its quota. The price was $150,000 in 2013 and has gradually increased thereafter.

Last year, the longliners used up the 1,000 extra tons from the Northern Marianas by Nov. 30 but struck a similar agreement with Guam for another 1,000 tons.

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 boat ramps, fish markets, processing facilities, training programs and loan programs.

Wespac is a 16-member group tasked with advising the National Marine Fisheries Service on how to minimize bycatch, protect habitat and prevent overfishing in nearly 1.5 million square miles of ocean. Wespac recommended the quota-shifting agreements with the Pacific territories that the National Marine Fisheries Service has adopted each year.

NMFS signed off on the deal to reopen the current bigeye tuna season Sept. 9 and published the official notice of it Tuesday.

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

Tuna was going for about $9 a pound Friday at the Honolulu Fish Auction. That’s up from roughly $6 a pound on the same day last year, which was almost double what it was in 2014.

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

He said that bigeye are overfished, and that every commercial fishery, including the longline industry based in Hawaii, needs to cut back.

Henkin considers the quota-shifting program to be an irresponsible scheme that lets the U.S. allocate millions of pounds of bigeye caught by Hawaii longliners to Pacific Island territories nearly 4,000 miles away.

Earthjustice sued to stop the practice, but in December a judge sided with the federal government and allowed it to continue.

NMFS has lowered the catch limit for 2017 to 3,345 tons. The agency would again have to sign off on quota-sharing agreements with Pacific island territories. 

Bigeye tuna are one of two types of fish known as ahi in Hawaii; the other is yellowfin tuna.

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