The Pacific’s once-abundant bigeye tuna, the main species known here as ahi, is being fished to the brink of collapse — like the cod, the sturgeon and the bluefin tuna before it — and the Obama administration doesn’t seem to care, scientists say.
Bigeye catches, notably by Hawaii-based boats, are breaking records nearly a decade after the Pacific fishery’s own scientists called for fishing less, not more. As a result, the combined adult weight of spawning-age bigeyes is down to 16 percent of the original population and falling fast.
On Dec. 5 in Apia, the capital of Samoa, members of the international tuna commission that regulates fishing in the central and western Pacific Ocean ended their annual meeting without taking any measures to rein in the ever-growing haul of industrial purse-seine ships, which catch 90 percent of the bigeyes, mostly young ones, for canning. The U.S. delegation to the meeting, several observers noted, just went with the flow.
Meanwhile in Hawaii, a lawsuit filed last month accuses the Department of Commerce of actually accelerating the decline of the bigeye. The lawsuit takes aim at creative bookkeeping that allegedly aims to wriggle out of international catch limits and increase the take of the Hawaii fleet of long-liners, which supply the fresh ahi market.
And this summer, President Barack Obama announced he wanted to ban fishing in five huge but remote areas of the Pacific, but he unexpectedly backtracked on the two areas where the most bigeye are being fished after Hawaii long-liners protested. The two areas could have served as valuable refuges for this and other species.
“So far, Obama’s been very disappointing on the oceans, especially coming after Bush,” who “promised nothing but turned out to be a marine Teddy Roosevelt,” said Douglas McCauley, a professor of marine ecology at the University of California at Santa Barbara who tracks oceans policy.
Originally, native Hawaiians on canoes targeting tuna caught mostly yellowfin, which live within 300 feet of the surface. Growing to 6 feet and 400 pounds with a lifespan of 14 years, yellowfin have been clocked moving at 47 mph. When they took the bait, the woven lines flew out so fast that they would burn black marks into the canoes’ gunwales. So the yellowfin were called ahi, which means “fire.”
Later, motor boats called long-liners used fishing lines set 1,000 feet deep to catch adult bigeyes, whose warm blood and huge eyes allow them to hunt in the cold, dark depths. “The perennial star of the Honolulu Fish Auction is the much-loved Hawaiian bigeye tuna,” enthuses the fish wholesaler Hawaii Super Fish on its website. In 2012, the Hawaii longline fleet brought in nearly 160,000 individual fishes, a record, compared to 28,000 yellowfin. Most were eaten in Hawaii.
“So far, Obama’s been very disappointing on the oceans, especially coming after Bush [who] promised nothing but turned out to be a marine Teddy Roosevelt.” — Douglas McCauley, a professor of marine ecology at the University of California at Santa Barbara
Bigeyes sell for slightly more than yellowfin and are often larger and fattier. “Most people would have a hard time telling them apart, but some sushi chefs say the very best yellowfin have better flavor than the bigeye,” says Robert Bates, a documentary film director who manages Uncle’s Fish Market and Grill on Pier 38 in Honolulu. “For me, the bigeye has a more transparent flesh, like a jewel stone, than the yellowfin.”
But ironically, the bigeye isn’t being decimated, like cod or sturgeon or bluefin, for its tastiness, but for the company it keeps.
Young bigeyes, when they are between one and three years old, like to hang out with similar-sized adult skipjacks (a much smaller and leaner tuna whose flesh is perfect for canning) when these gather around objects floating in the sea, along with sharks, rays, turtles and dolphins, forming whole ecosystems of hundreds of tons of fish.
Since the 1970s, purse seiners — much larger than long-liners — have roamed the oceans, sometimes sending forth spotter planes or helicopters to find moving schools or drifting objects, hauling in up to 400 tons of fish at a time. Some, like Korean purse seiners, mostly avoid the drifting objects and the attendant bycatch of young bigeye because these fetch lower prices from the canners. A ton of pure skipjack is worth more than a ton of Fish-Aggregating Devices catch, which is typically 85 percent skipjack and 15 percent young bigeye, with sharks and other species tossed overboard dead.
So the young bigeye are not bycatch — the term for fish involuntarily caught and discarded — or a target fish because, while they still have value, they are worth less than skipjack.
In the 1990s, some ships started dropping into the sea objects built like large pallets with bits of net dangling underneath and radio transmitters to give their locations. Fish-Aggregating Devices saved time and fuel because the ships could simply go from FAD to FAD. The catch of skipjack increased and, with it, that of young bigeye.
In the past few years, a new type of FAD has emerged. It contains sophisticated sonar that shows and broadcasts the density of fish at various depths, and it has revolutionized the industry, turning it into a gigantic video game where onshore managers tell the skippers which FADs to set their nets around to maximize the catch and minimize the expenditure of time and fuel.
Catches of skipjack and juvenile bigeye soared. In 2012 and 2013, purse seiners were spending about $1,100 to haul in a ton of skipjack and bigeye, and selling it for between $2,200 and $1,800. The population of adult bigeye fell from 20 percent to 16 percent of its unfished size in five years.
A few years ago, members of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission imposed two-month bans on harvesting FADs, broadened to three months this year. But the FADs, left to their own devices, continued attracting fish as they drifted because the tuna commission members didn’t mandate their removal from the water during the ban. The 26 members include Asian and European nations with long-distance fishing fleets as well as Pacific island nations in whose waters these fleets operate.
Despite the temporary FAD ban, the catch continued to rise and, in 2011 and 2012, it spiked right after the end of the ban period. Prices stayed firm. But more boats were using them: some 80,000 are thought to be in the water now, and perhaps 12,000 are actually fished each year. Their useful life is about 10 months.
On Oct 1, 2013, the FAD-ban season ended with thousands of additional new, sonar-equipped FADs in the water, and the fleet immediately headed for the ones with the most fish. Atuna.com, a Dutch website that follows the tuna industry, reported that more than 200 seiners, some larger than 1,400 tons, scooped up the bounty and headed simultaneously for the nearest transshipment ports. “Around 350,000 tons of mostly skipjack was shoved into the pipeline” in six weeks and prices dropped from $1,800 to below $1,200 a ton, Atuna reported.
The prices haven’t recovered. Indeed, 10 more vessels joined the fleet of 295 purse seiners — already up from 125 in 1992 — and more are under construction. “Vessels are under significant pressure to catch enough tuna every day just to cover their expenses,” Atuna reported. Past experience shows that it will require prices to fall “well below cost for vessel owners to stop fishing,” it added.
If the fishing continues at this level, the remaining stock will be halved by 2010, but scientists say it’s impossible to determine at what point the bigeye will disappear from stores because the catch is too small to be worth the expense of fishing.
“Nothing bad might happen immediately, but things get less predictable the lower you go,” said John Hampton, the Western and Central Pacific tuna fisheries’ chief scientist.
The North Atlantic cod caught scientists by surprise when it fell below 1 percent in 1992, and it has never recovered. The population of Pacific bluefin tuna, which swims in colder waters than the bigeye, is now at less than 4 percent of its unfished size, or a fourth of bigeyes’, yet 12,000 tons were legally caught last year. The caviar-producing sturgeon was decimated in the U.S. in a couple of decades at the turn of the 20th century, as was the Caspian population at the turn of the 21st.
To avoid a similar fate for the bigeye, Greenpeace repeated its call at the tuna commission meeting in Samoa — to little avail — for a complete ban on FADs, which scientists say is the simplest and fastest way to stop the slaughter of juvenile bigeye.
“There are so many FADs now, and over such a huge area, that it’s impossible to monitor them, let alone control them,” said Phil Kline, a Greenpeace oceans campaigner based in Washington, D.C.
However, Kline pointed out, when purse-seiners set their nets around free schools of skipjack, yellowfin, albacore or bigeye, the entire catch is made of up larger, older and thus more valuable members of just one species. “There’s almost no by-catch or juveniles, so the fishery becomes much more sustainable,” he explained.
In addition, consumers in Europe are already paying more for FAD-free tuna under the Pacifical co-brand and the MSC logo. “Sure, it takes real skill to find those schools, whereas anyone can look at a computer screen and go from FAD to FAD,” Kline said.
The biggest users of FADs are the Spanish and the American fleets. Michael D. Tosatto, administrator for the Pacific Islands Regional Office of the National Marine Fisheries Service, wrote in an e-mail to Civil Beat that the U.S. opposes a FAD ban and “will co-chair a FAD management working group to thoroughly examine the issues and recommend needed management measures.” He declined a formal interview.
The Pew Environment Group and the WWF, the two other major non-profits with programs to save the tuna, also oppose FAD bans. “Banning FADs is not the only way to reduce bigeye mortality,” wrote spokesman Justin Kenney in an e-mail that said reducing them by 36 percent would be appropriate. “Our position is that the use of FADs, like any fishing gear, must be tracked and well managed.” He declined to elaborate.
In Samoa, conference participants said the members of the commission, who traditionally make policy changes only by consensus, declined to take any major measures to reduce the bigeye catch, which is expected to further increase next year. They also ignored a proposal from Japan to reduce the catch of skipjack, the most fecund and abundant tuna now at 40 percent of its unfished population, so it could be brought to 60 percent and thus produce more in the future.
“The United States delegation could have taken a leadership role but it didn’t,” Kline said. “It was very disappointing.”
While the purse-seine catch of juvenile bigeyes continues to rise, so does the number of hooks the long-liners set deep to catch adults — from 620 million in 2000 to 1.4 billion in 2012, of which 45 million hooks were set by the Hawaii fleet, most based in Honolulu’s Kewalo basin, according to official figures. Since 2009, the catch has increased from 120,000 bigeyes, nearly all adults, to 160,000, according to official statistics.
Glenn Hurry, an Australian academic who served four years as the tuna commission’s executive director, argued forcefully and in vain with the membership that the bigeye and bluefin fisheries should be closed immediately. In an unusually frank Power Point presentation earlier this year at a tuna trade conference in Bangkok, where much of the Pacific tuna canning takes place, he said, “What do you want out of this fishery: A fishery forever or a train wreck? It’s your choice!”
Against this backdrop of increasing overfishing of bigeye, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced in the federal register of Oct. 28 that it was in effect nearly doubling the 3,763-ton yearly catch limit imposed by tuna commission rules on the Hawaii longline fleet. (Hawaii has no purse seiners.) The doubling was proposed by Honolulu’s Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, known as Wespac. The tuna commission, which is based in Micronesia, sets fishing rules in the entire western and central Pacific, including in U.S. federal waters.
The U.S. move drew howls of protests from environmental groups and prompted a lawsuit that was filed on Nov. 20 by Earthjustice on behalf of three of them. “We should be leaders in fisheries management, not cheaters,” said Doug Karpa, of the California-based Turtle Island Restoration Network, noting that the U.S. is one of the few nations that ban the fishing in its own waters of overexploited stocks unless they are recovering. The other two groups suing are the Conservation Council for Hawaii and Center for Biological Diversity of Tucson, Arizona.
The rule allows Samoa, Guam and the Northern Marianas, which have no significant bigeye fisheries of their own, to sell to the Hawaii longline fleet yearly quotas of 1,000 tons each — even though commission’s rules forbid such trading of quotas and do not allocate any quotas to the three territories. The tuna commission management measures, which the U.S., as a member, is committed to obey, stipulate is that the quota of 3,763 tons applies to all U.S.-flagged vessels.
The new rule published in October replaced and made permanent a similar rule passed by the U.S. Congress at the behest of the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye. It allowed members of the Hawaii Longline Association, headed by former Wespac Chairman Sean Martin, to exceed its international quota for the past three years. According to the Federal Register, the Hawaii long-liners brought from the territories 628 tons in 2011, 771 tons in 2012 and 501 tons in 2013 — above their 3,763-ton quota. That rule expired last year just as the tuna commission was trying to reduce the catch of adult bigeye caught by long-liners.
“I do not expect any significant change in fishing effort than had occurred in 2011, 2012, and 2013,” Tosatto, the federal fisheries administrator, wrote in an e-mail. The Federal Register text says the rule “will result in no more than 1,000 tons of bigeye tuna catch annually under territory agreements.” But the rule does not prevent all three territories from each selling their entire excess 1,000 tons to the Hawaiian fleet. The fleet has about 140 active vessels but could legally expand to 164.
The new limits, the Federal Register text asserts, “will help ensure sustainability of the stock” and is consistent with the tuna commission fishery management plan’s “objective of ending overfishing of bigeye tuna.”
“That’s patently absurd, you never end overfishing by fishing more,” said David Henkin, the Earthjustice lawyer in charge of the lawsuit. “Whether it’s a Democratic or Republican administration,” Henkin added, “Wespac always seems to get its way.”
“This is not the time to be gerrymandering bigeye fishing quotas,” added McCauley of the University of California.
Henkin pointed out that the U.S. on Oct. 24 closed the 2014 bigeye fishery by U.S. vessels in the Eastern Pacific, which begins 150 miles east of the Big Island, because, the Federal Register said, “The 2014 catch limit is expected to be met.”
And yet in the Eastern Pacific, these stronger restrictions are being imposed on a population that is healthier. The bigeye stock is estimated at 19 percent of its initial size, compared to 16 percent for the fish in the western and central Pacific, and the current allowable catch is a prudent 20 percent below a level that is considered sustainable, while the western and central stock is being fished at an officially unsustainable 35 percent above it.
Scientists are unanimous that record-breaking breaking catches can’t go on forever – and when they end, they will soon be followed by record-breaking low catches. “It reminds me of the story of the guy who jumps off the Empire State Building,” McCauley said. “As he passes in front of a first-floor window, he says to somebody standing there, ‘So far so good.’”