Hawaii’s longline fleet is about to hit its 3,554-ton limit for bigeye tuna in the Western and Central Pacific, prompting a closure date for the fishery of July 22, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The longliners had caught an estimated 98 percent of their annual quota by Wednesday, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service reported. The feds had been predicting longliners would hit their bigeye tuna limit by Aug. 14.

But the closure will likely be short-lived thanks to a federal rule that proposes, like in years past, allowing U.S. Pacific Island territories — American Samoa, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands — to each allocate up to 1,000 tons of their 2,000-ton quotas to U.S. longliners under a “specified fishing agreement.”

Workers move fish onto plastic pallets then iced and placed onto floor for auction start. 16 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Workers move fish onto plastic pallets that are then iced and placed onto the floor for an auction in Honolulu. Longliners were closing in on their bigeye tuna limit for the year by Wednesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In April, the Hawaii Longline Association reached such an agreement with the Marianas that involves paying the territory $250,000 in each of the next three years for up to half of its quota. That’s $50,000 more than the association paid the territory last year.

The money is deposited into the Western Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Fund, which the territories use for fishery development projects approved by their respective governors, according to Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council spokeswoman Sylvia Spalding. These includes boat ramps, fish markets, processing facilities, training programs and loan programs.

Despite the agreement and proposed rule, Spalding said Thursday that “there is nothing definite at this point.”

NMFS says in its proposed rule, which was published in the Federal Register last week and is open for public comments until July 22, stipulates that these “catch limits and accountability measures support the long-term sustainability of fishery resources of the U.S. Pacific Islands.”

Last year NMFS closed the fishery Aug. 5 when the initial quota limit was reached. But the agency reopened the fishery in October to let the longliners go for another 1,000 tons under their agreement with the Marianas.

Hawaii’s fleet, which has roughly 140 vessels, caught the 1,000 tons by the end of November, but NMFS let it keep fishing through the end of the year after it worked out a similar agreement to use an additional 1,000 tons of Guam’s quota.

David Henkin, staff attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, calls it a “shell game” that allows overfishing, but the courts have so far disagreed. A U.S. District Court judge ruled in December that federal regulations allow Hawaii fishermen to continue sidestepping these international catch limits.

As of Wednesday, the Hawaii longliners had caught 38 percent of their 500-ton quota in the Eastern Pacific, which fewer vessels are able to access.

Bigeye is one of two types of tuna known as ahi in Hawaii. The other is yellowfin.

Pacific bigeye tuna is on the NMFS overfishing list along with 27 other stocks, one of the reasons why there are limits on how much ahi fishermen can catch.

Wespac says the amount of fish Hawaii longliners catch is just 1.5 percent of all the bigeye tuna caught in the Pacific Ocean. International fleets and purse seiners catch the vast majority, often unintentionally while targeting other species.

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