Hawaii’s commercial fishing industry, with an estimated value of $100 million, is centered around its longline fleet of roughly 140 vessels.
Bigeye tuna is the most targeted species, which is predominantly sold at the Honolulu Fish Auction. Industry leaders say most of the tuna, known as ahi in Hawaii, is consumed in the islands, where residents and visitors alike enjoy fresh sashimi, sushi, poke bowls and tuna steaks.
The longliners operate under a quota-management system established by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, an international treaty-based group that sets catch limits. For 2017, the annual catch limit was 3,138 tons of bigeye tuna for the Western and Central Pacific. The longliners have hit that limit months early for the past several years but have been able to access an additional 3,000 tons through financial agreements with three U.S. Pacific island territories — Guam, the Northern Marianas and American Samoa.
The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, comprised of 16 members and several advisory committees, has more direct oversight of the commercial fishing industry. Eight members are nominated by the governors of Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands, and selected by the Secretary of Commerce. Four are designated state officials from each jurisdiction’s natural resource department, and four are designated federal officials from the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of State.
Wespac has jurisdiction over nearly 1.5 million square miles of ocean, roughly the same size as the continental United States. Managing this massive area to ensure the resources remain available for future generations is among the council’s primary objectives, which are spelled out in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
Political and Management Issues
With millions of pounds of fish and other marine life harvested annually in the waters Wespac oversees, the council has faced increasing scrutiny since it was created in 1976 along with seven other regional councils.
The biggest critics have been environmental groups like Earthjustice who have successfully sued to force the Fisheries Service to change practices deemed harmful to endangered species. Officially, the council only advises NMFS, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which falls under the Department of Commerce.
Wespac is steered by Executive Director Kitty Simonds, who has advocated for years to loosen federal protections in national monuments and elsewhere to help the commercial fishermen access more areas and catch more fish.