The cost of putting a plate of locally caught ahi sashimi on the table for Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations, a popular tradition in Hawaii, may be too high this year for some families to afford.

The Hawaii longline fleet has already hit its limit for 2015, which is expected to drive up prices as the holidays approach unless they get a green light to effectively expand their quota by allocating some of their bigeye tuna catch to other Pacific territories.

But environmental watchdogs are concerned about the effect this could have on international relations and the overall sustainability of the fish. Hawaii residents and visitors may just have to live with ahi from elsewhere, fork over the extra money or try eating something different until the boats are allowed to go out again.

Bigeye tuna

A panel debated fishing limits for bigeye tuna, seen here, during Tuesday’s Civil Cafe.

Allen Shimada/NMFS

The fishing limits for bigeye, one of two species of tuna known as ahi in Hawaii, was just one of the issues a panel debated at Civil Beat’s Tuesday evening Civil Cafe discussion at The Arts at Marks Garage.

Civil Beat Opinion Editor Todd Simmons moderated a talk featuring Paul Dalzell, senior scientist and pelagics program coordinator for the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, David Henkin, an attorney for the Mid-Pacific regional office of Earthjustice, and Josh Shade of Ahi Assassins Fish Company in Honolulu.

They shared their thoughts on whether Hawaiian waters are being overfished, particularly for lucrative ahi, and what should be done to ensure enough fish are around not just for the upcoming holidays this year but for future generations.

Framing part of the discussion was a lawsuit that a judge is expected to rule on next month.

Earthjustice, representing three environmental groups, sued the National Marine Fisheries Service last November over its rule that allows Hawaii’s longline fleet to fish beyond limits set by international agreements aimed at protecting bigeye tuna and other species.

Paul Dalzell, Senior Scientist/Pelagics Program Coordinator for the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council during Civil Beat's Civil Cafe - Are We Overfishing Hawaii Waters. 25 aug 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Paul Dalzell, a senior scientist at Wespac, listens during the Civil Cafe discussion on overfishing. He was one of three panelists.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Henkin described the rule, which Wespac put forward, as a “shell game” that allows overfishing to continue by letting American Samoa, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands each transfer up to 1,000 metric tons of their bigeye quota to the Hawaii longline fishery even though the fish aren’t caught in those waters or landed there.

“That charade basically just undermines the whole notion that we’re going to cooperate with other Pacific island nations to solve this problem,” he said.

A decision on the case is expected at a hearing Sept. 25 in U.S. District Court.

Meanwhile, most longline fishermen have been pau since Aug. 5 after hitting the 3,502-metric ton limit for bigeye set by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, an international body tasked with managing migratory fish stocks in the high seas. The limit was actually 3,554 metric tons, but since they exceeded the limit for 2014, the overage was deducted from the 2015 allotment.

Almost a quarter of Hawaii’s 140-vessel longline fleet has been able to go fish for another 500 tons of bigeye in the eastern Pacific Ocean, which is regulated by a different commission, but that limit is expected to be reached in September.

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

David Henkin, staff attorney for Earthjustice, considers a question during the Civil Cafe.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Dalzell said the longline fishers who sail out of Honolulu should be able to catch more ahi because the fleet only accounts for a small percentage of all the bigeye caught in the central and western Pacific.

But Henkin said that’s exactly why it matters.

The example that the U.S. is setting would let China, Japan or Korea, for instance, go to a nation that doesn’t have a big commercial bigeye market and offer to pay it for some of its quota, Henkin said.

“We depend on the larger fleets to strictly comply with the limits on their fishing that they’ve agreed to,” he said. “If they don’t, then we’re going to wipe out the Pacific-wide population of bigeye tuna and there’s going to be nothing to fish no matter how responsibly we’re doing it.”

Dalzell said he didn’t believe the U.S. was setting a bad example that might spur other nations to quit following international agreements, pointing at how much better Hawaii’s fishermen are monitored by independent observers and other strict regulations.

“Do you want the illegal, unreported and unregulated fish on your plate?” he said.

Hawaii businesses dependent on locally caught ahi also stand to suffer, Shade said.

Left, Paul Dalzell, Senior Scientist/Pelagics Program Coordinator for he Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council gestures as  Joshua Shade of Ahi Assassins Fish Company look on during Civil Beat's Civil Cafe - Are We Overfishing Hawaii Waters. 25 aug 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Josh Shade of Ahi Assassins Fish Company, right, listens as Dalzell makes a point.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to eat something if I don’t know where it comes from,” he added.

Henkin said he’s not opposed to the international community coming together and creating new limits for Hawaii if the impact truly is that negligible. That’s something he said Dalzell and fishermen could advocate for at the commission’s next annual meeting.

“My objection is unilateral action,” he said.

The panel found common ground on the fact that demand for locally caught ahi is continuing to rise.

“Hawaii is like a mini-Japan,” Dalzell said. “It’s like a black hole for fish.”

But with a decreasing supply of fresh ahi expected in the coming months, Shade said medium-grade tuna that generally goes for $10 to $15 a pound might get pushed up to $45 a pound, at which point many people can’t afford it.

At the same time, he said fishermen are forced to look for other jobs while continuing to spend money on the boats they can’t use until the next season opens Jan. 1.

“A lot of guys are going up to Alaska in search of work,” Shade said. “These are very honorable, honest, hard-working people.”

Henkin said he feels for the fishers but said blowing through their budget in the first seven months of the year is “a problem of management.”

“There’s got to be a way to understand that we all live within constraints, locally and internationally, and to respect those limits so there will be a steady stream of fish,” he said.

The bigger problem, Dalzell said, is the purse-seine fishery, which was also closed early this year after reaching its limits.

The purse-seine fleets target skipjack and yellowfin tuna, but their massive nets also catch 90 percent of the bigeyes, primarily juveniles that are used for canning as opposed to the bigger ones that the longliners hunt for sashimi.

“That’s the real devil with respect to trying to recover the population of bigeye,” Dalzell said.

The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission took no action at its annual meeting in December to reduce the amount of bigeye caught by purse-seine vessels.

The Civil Cafe was broadcast live on Olelo. The station will air reruns on channel 54 at 6 p.m., Sept. 14; 12:30 p.m., Sept. 18; 11 a.m., Sept. 19; and 1:30 p.m., Sept. 21.

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