Hawaii’s longline fishermen will be able to go after similar amounts of bigeye tuna next year under a policy passed last week by the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council.
But some have their sights set on doubling or even tripling their annual catch limits through new quota-sharing agreements with Pacific Island territories that don’t currently fish commercially for ahi.
Before that can happen though, the fishermen will need to demonstrate that the species is no longer subject to overfishing and convince federal officials that the pending arrangements with Guam, American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands do not violate international agreements to conserve fish stocks.
“We are right at the level of overfishing,” said Jarad Makaiau, a scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We are right on the razor thin line.”
Wespac manages 1.5 million square miles of ocean in the Central and Western Pacific Ocean and advises the National Marine Fisheries Service on catch limits, endangered species mitigation and stock assessments.
Scientists advising Wespac say the U.S. can increase its fishing effort without impeding international efforts to eliminate overfishing, pointing at countries like South Korea and Japan that have quota limits four or five times higher.
The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, a 26-member international body that sets the tuna quota limits, has determined that overfishing has been occurring in the region since at least 2004.
Hawaii longline industry leaders are hopeful they may be able to pursue more aggressive fishing efforts after a new tuna stock assessment comes out next year. Scientists presented 2016 bigeye stock projections that showed no further decline.
They’re also exploring new ways of breaking up the catch data to show where the U.S. longline fleet’s impact is compared to the U.S. purse seine fleet and that of other countries.
The U.S. longline fleet, comprised of roughly 140 vessels predominantly ported in Honolulu, targets adult bigeye tuna for sashimi markets and restaurants. The U.S. purse seine fleet, which is mostly based in American Samoa, goes after skipjack and yellowfin tuna for canning markets, but pulls in thousands of tons of juvenile bigeye tuna as bycatch.
The council heard recommendations from the three Pacific Island territories and their scientists on what quota limits to recommend for 2017.
The current limit for the U.S. is 3,554 tons. The longliners hit that in July, but are out fishing again under a $250,000 deal to use 1,000 tons of the Marianas’ 2,000-ton limit. Similar arrangements have been made with the other two territories should the U.S. fleet burn through the extra 1,000 tons before year’s end.
The U.S., along with China, Japan, South Korea and others, agreed to reduce their quotas again next year. The U.S. limit will be 3,345 tons in 2017, minus roughly 200 tons that the longliners exceeded this year’s limit by, according to Wespac members.
The recommendation approved by Wespac last week will continue the status quo of being able to use an extra 1,000 tons per territory.
Looking farther ahead, council members discussed options to use all 2,000 tons of each territory’s quota or upping the territories’ limits and then taking even more. This could triple the amount of tuna the U.S. had agreed to catch.
The territories each have their own ideas of what they want to do.
The American Samoa advisory panel members, who met last month, discussed the 2017 bigeye quota specification and the unanimous consensus was that the territory’s quota should be increased to 3,000 tons and the transferable amount should be upped to 2,000 tons in an effort to provide more funding for the territory’s fisheries development capability.
The money in the quota-sharing agreements, which has steadily increased over the past few years to $250,000 this year, is deposited into the Western Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Fund, which the territories use for fishery development projects approved by their respective governors, according to Wespac spokeswoman Sylvia Spalding. This includes boat ramps, fish markets, processing facilities, training programs and loan programs.
The Northern Marianas advisory panel recommended Wespac explore the impacts of increasing its quota to 3,000 tons, with all of it potentially transferable to the U.S.
Guam’s advisory panel was content with the status quo. Its members were concerned about finding a way to get the U.S. government to expedite approval of the quota-sharing agreements.
“If that’s the intended direction, beware and be cautious.” — Fred Tucher, NOAA general counsel, referring to consideration of expanding the territories’ quota limits
Nathan Abe, who serves on the Hawaiian archipelago advisory panel to Wespac, said during a meeting last month that he understands the rationale and science behind the quota transfer but said that it looks bad to the public, according to the meeting’s minutes. His solution was that the council should be increasing the Hawaii-based longline quota instead.
Prior to Wespac members’ vote to keep the status quo for now, Fred Tucher, section chief of the NOAA’s Office of General Counsel, said that as important as developing the fishing industry in the territories might be, it’s not as important under federal law as protecting fish stocks.
“If that’s the intended direction, beware and be cautious,” Tucher said, referring to consideration of expanding the territories’ quota limits to 3,000 tons with the option to transfer all of it away.
He said there are also serious considerations when it comes to the environmental impacts of doing so, which could trigger the need for an environmental impact statement.
He said that even if it’s the purse seiners who are killing more bigeye tuna than the longliners, the cumulative effect must be considered.
Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds said the Hawaii longline industry has been “disadvantaged” for years and is not getting the help it needs from federal officials.
Michael Tosatto, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, acknowledged the catch limits have been “unbalanced” and that officials are working to improve the situation.