Hawaii longline fishers who typically are at sea hauling in bigeye tuna well into the fall months find themselves uncomfortably relegated to dry land these days.

If a new, smaller limit this year on the collective U.S. bigeye catch holds — a limit the Hawaii fleet reached weeks ago — they’ll be landlubbers the rest of the year, most of them unable to fish in familiar waters for the iconic species that shows up on our tables as seared ahi, sashimi or the main attraction in delicious poke bowls.

The 2015 U.S. limit of 3,554 metric tons — about 7 percent lower than last year — was set long ago by international agreement of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, which includes 26 member nations from east and southeast Asia to the United States.

Member nations agreed to substantial reductions, many of them larger in raw numbers than the cuts to the U.S. limit, to help brood stocks recover and enhance long-term sustainability of the bigeye.

But the U.S. limit, it seems, may not turn out to be as rigid it appears.

Ahi Poke Tuna Sashimi

Hawaii longline fishers reached the annual U.S. limit on bigeye tuna earlier this month, meaning treats like these likely will be scarce and more expensive around the winter holidays.

Flickr: Christopher Liang

Officials with the National Marine Fisheries Service are preparing regulations that would allow Hawaii fishers to resume catching bigeye, but to attribute their catch to one of three U.S. territories in the Pacific — Guam, the Northern Marianna Islands and Samoa. That would have the net effect of adding 3,000 metric tons to Hawaii’s limit, nearly doubling it.

Is that fair? The territories in question have no significant longline fishing industry, so attributing fish caught by the Hawaii fleet to them is a fairly elaborate shell game — a charade, as one critic called it Tuesday night at Civil Beat’s Civil Cafe discussion on bigeye fishing limits. Though it’s been a profitable arrangement in the past for the territories, which exact payments for essentially selling their unused bigeye limits, it sends a signal to other nations that when the rules don’t benefit U.S. interests, we simply change them.

The environmental group Earthjustice is strongly opposed to the fisheries service’s unilateral rules change, and sued NMFS and its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in U.S. federal district court over a similar rules revision last year. A decision in that case is expected late next month.

Still, we understand the plight of Hawaii longliners who bring highly desirable tuna to the marketplace. Though Hawaii fishers account for less than 2 percent of the bigeye taken from this fishery, their catch is always in high demand by Hawaii residents and the millions of visitors who come to Hawaii each year.

Without fish to bring to market, many fishing crews are left without income, struggling to pay rent, feed families and cover Hawaii’s high cost of living. At Tuesday’s Civil Cafe, several speakers shared stories of how the limit is affecting them and their colleagues. Panelist Joshua Shade of Ahi Assassins spoke of friends who have gone to Alaska to seek fishing work there.

The bigeye limit will shrink by another 200 metric tons in 2017. Longline fishers face the very real prospect of being able to fish only half the year, unless they devise a collective way to better manage the limit.

But others, such as Earthjustice attorney David Henkin, argue the catch limits were well known going into this year. Fishers might have protected themselves by showing a bit of restraint, rather than rushing to the annual 3,500 metric ton limit in seven months in what everyone agrees has been an abundant year of fishing.

It’s an important point, made more so by the fact that the limit will shrink by another 200 metric tons in 2017. Bigeye tuna fishers face the very real prospect of being able to fish only half the year, unless they devise a way to collectively manage the limit — a way that keeps them in the water year-round, particularly around the winter holidays, when demand for ahi fetches top dollar. Perhaps it’s finally time to begin allotting a portion of the overall limit to each Hawaii longline fishing enterprise, allowing each to manage its own quota over the entirety of a season.

For now, though, we are less than a month from when the court ruling is expected on the permissibility of the fisheries service’s catch attribution rule. The fisheries service should wait for that decision before determining whether to move forward on a rules change for this year.

Secondly, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission needs to take up this matter. Is the U.S. limit — by far, the lowest of participating nations — appropriate as it stands? Does the relative abundance of fish this year provide cause to reassess the status of the bigeye and determine whether any changes in catch limits is appropriate?

The commission holds its annual meeting this December in Bali, where discussions ought to take place on this, as well as on the much larger impact that purse-seine fishing is having on sustainability of the bigeye tuna population. The commission took no action last year on the latter issue, but if bigeye populations are going to be effectively sustained, it will have to more tightly regulate the huge numbers of juvenile bigeye that purse-seine fishers haul in each year.

With pressures growing on our oceans and the food we draw from them — from fishing, from pollution, from climate change – humanity’s ability to feed a hungry planet will depend in large part on how intelligently we manage these resources and how disciplined we are in sticking to necessarily rules. This year’s shortened bigeye season for Hawaii longliners is just one example of the complexity of meeting these challenges and the stakes of getting them right.

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