Despite pending litigation and concerns about disrupting international agreements, the U.S. government has decided Hawaii’s longline fishing fleet can reel in an extra 1,000 tons of bigeye tuna by making payments to one of the Pacific island territories.

The National Marine Fisheries Service plans to publish a rule Wednesday that sets a 2,000-ton limit on bigeye for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and allows the territory to allocate up to half of its quota to the U.S. “in exchange for payments to support responsible fisheries development.”

The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Council which recommended the rule, did not respond to a query Tuesday seeking information about the amount of the payments and what programs Wespac might support in the territories.

The deal allows Hawaii’s commercial fishermen to return to the western and central Pacific after being sidelined in early August when the U.S. hit its 3,500-ton limit on the amount of bigeye its fleets could catch this year in those waters.

Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds, right, listens during a meeting Tuesday.
Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds, right, at a meeting Tuesday. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, an international body tasked with managing migratory fish stocks on the high seas, sets the bigeye limit, which was 7 percent lower this year due to concerns about overfishing.

Wespac said roughly three dozen Hawaii longline vessels have been losing millions of dollars each month since the fishery’s closure Aug. 5.

“The sheer volume of what they were catching was phenomenal.” — Russell Ito, NOAA fishery biologist

“The Hawaii fishery lands only 1.5 percent of the bigeye tuna caught in the Pacific Ocean,” Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds said in a release announcing the rule’s approval late Monday. “Our fishery was being unfairly penalized for a problem it did not create.”

Bigeye is one of two types of tuna known as ahi in Hawaii; the other is yellowfin. The longliners go after bigeye, which feeds the islands’ multi-million-dollar sashimi market.

The price of locally caught ahi has doubled since the closure took effect, according to Honolulu fish auction data.

The average price of tuna, including yellowfin and bigeye, has gone from $3.48 per pound in July to $6.08 in October. The price was actually up to $6.56 per pound Tuesday.

The value and supply at the auction, which supplies Hawaii businesses and restaurants, has dropped over the same period. The daily average was 98,620 pounds in July, valued at $293,905, which fell in October to 51,525 pounds worth $229,975.

Still, there’s concern about the impact of the U.S. increasing its catch limit by allocating some of the bigeye to the Northern Mariana Islands, almost 4,000 miles west of Hawaii.

A lawyer representing three environmental groups that are suing NMFS over its decision to allow the transfer criticized the move Tuesday.

“We think the Fisheries Service is violating its legal duties in authorizing the Hawaii-based longline fleet to continue fishing after hitting its catch limit,” Earthjustice attorney David Henkin said. “NMFS should have waited for the court’s ruling before making this most recent, illegal decision.”

Ruling Expected Soon

A federal district court is expected to rule soon on a lawsuit brought in November by the Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Council for Hawaii and the Turtle Island Restoration Network.

The judge heard the case Sept. 25 but gave two more weeks for additional arguments to be filed. Henkin said the groups notified the judge Friday of the imminent reopening of the longline fishery.

The NMFS acknowledged the pending court case, but said it had no basis to lawfully delay action on the final rule.

“Our fishery was being unfairly penalized for a problem it did not create.” — Kitty Simonds, Wespac executive director

Wespac’s Scientific and Statistical Committee, which makes recommendations to address overfishing among a long list of other responsibilities, heard updates on the fishery’s closure during its all-day meeting Tuesday in Honolulu. The committee is set to meet again Wednesday to continue working on recommendations.

Russell Ito, a fishery biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the committee that the amount of Hawaii longliners fishing for bigeye in the second quarter of the year was the highest he’s seen in years and that they were putting more hooks in the water.

The longliners put 12.5 million hooks in the water last quarter, which is 1.5 million more than the previous year, which had set a record. This is up from several million hooks placed in 2005, he said.

A historic look at the amount of bigeye tuna that Hawaii longliners have caught.
A historic look at the amount of bigeye tuna that Hawaii longliners have caught. Wespac

“The sheer volume of what they were catching was phenomenal,” Ito said, noting ships bringing in up to 50,000 pounds of fish, much of it bigeye.

Simonds said the U.S. longline fleet had not increased its effort, but rather “it experienced a bumper crop of bigeye, apparently as a result of the El Niño weather.”

She added that the majority of the bigeye tuna is caught in the equatorial Pacific, far from the Hawaii fishing grounds, and that no other country has reached its quota, according to a Wespac release.

“Arbitrary quotas not linked to conservation objectives kept our boats tied at the docks,” Simonds said.

‘Tremendous’ Uncertainty

Henkin told Civil Beat that his clients strongly disagree with Wespac’s characterization of the catch limits as “arbitrary.”

“These limits were adopted with the United States’ agreement and are based on the best available scientific information, which establishes that all longline fisheries, including the Hawaii-based fishery, need to reduce their bigeye catch if there are going to be fish around for future generations,” he said.

“We think the Fisheries Service is violating its legal duties in authorizing the Hawaii-based longline fleet to continue fishing after hitting its catch limit.” — David Henkin, Earthjustice attorney

As a legal matter, he said Simonds’ statement is a non sequitur. 

“The United States’ international obligations limit how many metric tons of bigeye are caught, not how much effort is expended to catch them,” he said. “Long before the fishery was shut down in early August, the longliners and NMFS knew the longliners were on a trajectory to hit the catch limit much earlier in the year than usual. They were obliged, but failed, to adjust their fishing efforts to keep within the catch limit.”

Justin Hospital, an economist for NOAA, reported to Wespac on the socioeconomic effects of the bigeye tuna closure, based on a few dozen interviews with fishermen, auction staff and dealers since Sept. 5.

“There was a tremendous amount of uncertainty,” he said, particularly among Vietnamese and Koreans, who struggled to obtain information about the closure in their first language.

“There was a lot of concern about why everyone isn’t playing by the same rules for this global fishery,” Hospital added.

Wespac senior scientist Paul Dalzell said fishermen were struggling to find other jobs in Hawaii, given their limited skill sets and inability to speak English well.

A portion of Hawaii’s fleet of roughly 140 longline vessels has been able to continue fishing for bigeye in the eastern Pacific, which is under a separate international agreement.

Eastern Pacific Limit Reached Aug. 12

Dalzell said the eastern Pacific has become more important for the Hawaii longline fishery over the past decade.

He noted that other countries with catch limits may be allocating part of their quota to other nations.

Carbon-monoxide treated ahi from Indonesia for sale at Marukai in Honolulu, which Wespac scientist Paul Dalzell calls "tail-pipe tuna."
Carbon-monoxide treated ahi from Indonesia for sale at Marukai in Honolulu, which Wespac scientist Paul Dalzell calls “tail-pipe tuna.” Wespac

In 2014, China caught three times as much bigeye as it was allocated, hauling in 7,465 metric tons despite its limit of 2,507 tons, Dalzell said.

Japan gave China some of its quota to make it possible, he said. Japan caught 14,405 tons of bigeye last year, less than half of the 32,372 tons it was allocated.

The U.S. limit is 500 tons, which its fleet hit Aug. 12. Since then, the international agreement only allowed vessels under 24 meters in length to fish for bigeye in the eastern Pacific.

Wespac is gearing up for the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission’s next meeting in December in Bali, Indonesia. The council plans to strategize this week on how best to advocate for fishing rules that protect Hawaii’s longline fishery.

Only 3 percent of the fish Hawaii longliners bring back to the dock in Honolulu is exported, according to Wespac. The value of the fish landed by the Hawaii fleet is about $100 million.

“The alternative is U.S. dependence on foreign imports and the irrevocable loss of Hawaii’s iconic fishery,” Simonds said.

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