Environmental groups are considering their options after a judge rejected their effort to cut how many bigeye tuna Hawaii longline fisherman can catch. 

The groups sought to overturn a federal rule that lets Hawaii fishermen sidestep international catch limits for bigeye by allocating extra tons of their catch to quotas for Pacific island territories.

“It was a real disappointment,” said Marjorie Ziegler of the Conservation Council for Hawaii, one of three plaintiffs in the case.

“As a society we seem to be more concerned with four days from now having sashimi than being able to have tuna for our kids and grandkids,” she said Monday.

The ruling from U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi in Honolulu came down Wednesday, wrapping up 13 months of litigation.

The longliners initially hit their 3,500-ton limit in August for the amount of bigeye they could catch this year in the Western and Central Pacific. But they were allowed to resume fishing in October for another 1,000 tons under an agreement that they made with the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Honolulu Fish Auction starts after a bell rings in the distance. Bidders crowd around touching small filet of each fish examining the quality. Some evening smelling the small ahi filets. 14 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum

Ahi (which includes bigeye and yellowfin tuna) being prepared for bidders at the Honolulu Fish Auction.

The deal includes Quota Management International making a $200,000 payment into the Western Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Fund, which the territory can use for fishery development projects approved by its governor. 

Under the agreement, QMI can assign its rights and obligations to the Hawaii Longline Association, a wholly owned subsidiary of QMI. HLA is a nonprofit trade association formed to advance and benefit the Hawaii-based commercial longline fisheries industry.

A payment of $175,000 was made in 2014 for 1,000 tons of CNMI’s catch limit. Environmental groups who filed the suit pointed out in their filings that this amounts to only 8 cents per pound, which is not commensurate with the benefits the Hawaii longline industry receives; but the court rejected the argument.

The longliners made similar arrangements this year with Guam and American Samoa, which  allowed the longliners to continue fishing after they used up their additional 1,000-ton allotment from CNMI in November.

The lawsuit was filed in November 2014 by Earthjustice on behalf of the Conservation Council for Hawaii, Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network.

Earthjustice attorney David Henkin has said the practice allows Hawaii longliners to catch nearly 20 percent more bigeye tuna than they did in 2008, the last year before the United States was supposed to start cutting back on bigeye fishing as part of the international effort to end unsustainable practices.

The quotas are set by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, an international body that represents 26 nations.

“We are pleased that the Court recognized our clients have a legally protected interest in ensuring the sustainability of the bigeye tuna fishery and that the federal courts have the ability to ensure the Fisheries Service’s compliance with the United States’ international obligations,” Henkin said in an email Tuesday. “We respectfully disagree with the Court’s conclusion that the Fisheries Service’s regulations, which allow the Hawaii-based longline fishery to ignore mandatory catch limits, are legal.

“We are consulting our clients regarding our next steps,” he said.

Michael Tosatto, the Pacific Islands regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, told the Associated Press that the agency is “pleased that the fishery remains on a stable footing without the need for further action.”

Read the court ruling below.

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