In 2013, Japan, South Korea, China, the United States and other countries with an appetite for bigeye tuna agreed to gradually catch less ahi in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean after studies showed they were on track to decimate the species if they did not adjust course.
That’s not what the U.S. has done though. A federal rule lets the nation’s longliners, almost all of which are based in Hawaii, extend their quota through agreements with certain Pacific island territories.
And now federal fishery managers, longliners and others are mulling ways to haul in even more tuna — potentially twice as much or more — by changing the rules.
The agreements — which include payments into a fund for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam or American Samoa to use on development projects — already have the ability to nearly double this year’s U.S. limit of 3,554 tons.
The longliners hit that quota at record pace this July, but have resumed fishing under a $250,000 deal with CNMI to use half of the territory’s 2,000-ton catch limit. Similar agreements have been made with the other territories should the longliners burn through the extra 1,000 tons from the Northern Marianas before year’s end.
The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, known as Wespac, is a 16-member body that is tasked with advising the National Marine Fisheries Service on how to minimize bycatch, protect habitat and prevent overfishing in nearly 1.5 million square miles of ocean. Wespac plans to take up the issue Thursday at its meeting in Honolulu.
But the council, whose members have strongly lobbied for additional quota, will consider the matter without direction from its Scientific and Statistical Committee, a group of roughly two dozen scientists who were asked last week to look at ways to restructure the quota agreements.
The committee, which discussed the quota issue during three days of Wespac meetings in Honolulu last week, decided not to move forward with a formal recommendation.
Wespac staff presented a number of options to the Scientific and Statistical Committee. The first was preserving the status quo — that is, continuing to use up to 1,000 tons of each of the three territories’ catch limits. The second option was to use all 2,000 tons allotted to each territory. And a third choice was increasing the territories’ limits and upping their quota even higher. The territories have not commercially fished for bigeye in years, but these plans would still be subject to federal approval.
The U.S. is allowed to catch roughly half as much bigeye as China, for instance. But with extra quota from its Pacific territories, the U.S. could surpass China, at least on paper. Committee members noted how other countries may be gaming the system too but did not elaborate.
Despite being listed as the only action item on the agenda for last week’s meeting, the scientific committee did not endorse any of the options or even a variation. Instead, the members just recommended that if the full council wants to go beyond 2,000 tons per territory, it should work with NMFS’ Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center “to conduct a new analysis that evaluates the potential relative impact on fishing mortality and stock biomass reference points.”
The committee’s outgoing chair, Charles Daxboeck, of BioDax Consulting Tahiti, said that recommendation boils down to this: “If you want to go over 2,000 tons, you better be able to justify it to the international community.”
Wespac staff member Eric Kingma, who handles enforcement and Environmental Protection Act issues, said it’s “probably unlikely” that the council will want to move beyond the status quo at this point, in part because a new stock assessment of bigeye is expected next summer. The last one was done in 2014.
“We do feel that the level of impact of the Hawaii longline fisheries is not impeding the elimination of bigeye overfishing within the region.” — Eric Kingma, Wespac
But he told the committee members that even though the U.S. is technically increasing its bigeye catch, the amount is not significant enough in the overall picture to affect efforts to prevent overfishing.
In the Western and Central Pacific, bigeye tuna has been experiencing overfishing since 2004, according to a Wespac report.
“Basically, they’re ignoring reality, and they seem to be motivated by greed alone,” Rick Gaffney, a Big Island fisherman and former Wespac member, said in an interview Saturday. “There doesn’t seem to be any conception that bigeye tuna in the Pacific are clearly being fished out.”
Japan, which hauls in by far the most ahi, had a catch limit of 19,670 tons in 2014 for its longliners, who target the valuable adult bigeye for sashimi markets. The U.S. longliners had a limit of 3,763 tons at that time.
Both must follow the 2013 measure adopted by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, a group of 26 nations that works to conserve and manage fish stocks, that determined the need for each participating country to scale back its fishing for bigeye over the next few years.
For 2017, Japan’s limit is 16,860 tons and the U.S. has agreed to only catch 3,345 tons.
“We do feel that the level of impact of the Hawaii longline fisheries, when operating under territory arrangements, is not impeding the elimination of bigeye overfishing within the region,” Kingma said, underscoring that the impact is negligible.
Committee member John Hampton, deputy director of Oceanic Fisheries for the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, an international group that helps with development issues in Pacific territories, offered an analogy to express his concerns.
“If anybody other than Donald Trump got brought up and said, ‘You haven’t paid your tax,’ and their comeback is, ‘Well, it has an insignificant impact on the total U.S. economy,’ is that a legitimate defense in not paying your tax?” he said.
Kingma replied by recounting Trump’s own comments about not paying his income taxes.
Trump, the Republican candidate for president, reported a net operating loss of $916 million in 1995, which may have allowed him to avoid paying income taxes for 18 years, according to a New York Times story. In a recent debate against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, Trump didn’t deny not paying federal income taxes; he said it made him “smart.”
Kingma said the important thing to recognize is that the amount of bigeye caught by Hawaii’s roughly 140 longline boats is “very small” when compared to nations like Japan and South Korea.
Plus, he said, the longliners don’t all fish in the same area, so the impact is distributed. Many go to areas not frequented by the purse seine fishermen, who use huge nets to catch the juvenile tuna they want for the canning market.
Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds told the committee members that they did not need to choose any of the quota-sharing options presented to them.
“That’s the council’s job,” she said.
John Sibert, a fisheries scientist with the University of Hawaii Manoa, was one of the only other committee members to raise concerns about the proposal. But he did so briefly, then backed away from his comment as the chair shifted the discussion to the next topic.
“These options seem to imply an increase in catch above the U.S. quota,” Sibert said. “I don’t know. Nevermind.”
“Moving on,” Daxboeck said. “Moving on.”
Environmental groups challenged the quota-sharing arrangement in court, but a judge ruled against them in December.
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 called the practice a “shell game” that lets the Hawaii longliners catch more bigeye tuna despite international agreements to cut back.
“It is simply nonsense to respond to an overfishing problem – and the science is clear that bigeye tuna in the Pacific are overfished – by expanding fishing effort,” Henkin said in an interview.
Meanwhile, Hawaii’s longliners are fishing harder than they ever have for bigeye.
In his semiannual review of the fisheries, Russ Ito of the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center told the committee that Hawaii’s longliners and the handful of longliners based in California had set a record 26.3 million hooks during the first half of this year, catching 110,691 bigeye in the process.
That’s despite the vessels having to dodge multiple hurricanes in the Pacific, he added.