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Honolulu International Airport is a ghost town. It’s 1 a.m. Sunday, hours past the routine blitz of interisland travelers and down to the handful of passengers heading to far-off lands plus a few others sleeping off the disappointment of a canceled flight.
I hand over my passport to the woman working at the Fiji Airways counter, throw my luggage on the conveyer belt and hope it arrives in Nadi, where I’m going to cover the weeklong meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission.
The commission — a treaty-based group composed of 26 members including Pacific Island nations, the United States, the big tuna players from Asia, the European Union and others — decides how to manage and conserve highly migratory fish stocks while reducing bycatch and ensuring the overall sustainability of one of the world’s biggest sources of protein.
Over the course of five full days, hundreds of scientists, government officials, nonprofit leaders and others will debate the myriad issues facing the health of tuna populations, the safety of fishing observers, the effects of climate change, the value of marine protected areas and the impact of new policies on local economies and international relations.
I was mulling this over on the plane while waiting to take off when the Boeing 737’s captain interrupted my thoughts with an update on what to expect on our way to Fiji.
“Forecast en route is … mostly good,” he said with a less-than-reassuring chuckle before sharing directions on the course he planned to take there.
“It’s just one right turn, one left turn and then south.”
Six hours later, the sunrise woke me up from a sporadic sleep and a few of Fiji’s 330 islands came into view below. We flew over rural villages, mountain forests and blue waters before touching down 3,200 miles southwest of Oahu on Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu.
Smiles accompanied the omnipresent Fijian greeting as I exited the plane, breezed through customs and taxied to Denarau, a compound of resorts and luxury homes just outside of Nadi, a town of roughly 50,000 people on the island’s west coast.
The Sheraton Fiji Resort, site of the commission’s annual meeting, stood in stark contrast to the humble homes and rustic markets that lined the road on the way there.
Osea Naiqamu, Fiji’s minister for forests, opened the commission’s meeting Monday with a reminder for all present to work together, to be mindful of the disparities that exist between nations and keep the goal of returning the Pacific to “a state of certainty once again.”
A noble task, as some commission members observed, but easier said than done.
Commission Chair Rhea Moss-Christian highlighted the need to hammer out a harvest strategy, review conservation and management measures for tunas, mitigate bycatch — particularly sharks — and address the safety of observers who go out on commercial fishing boats to ensure the rules the commission sets are actually being followed.
“Your discussions this week are designed to move you forward,” she told the packed conference room.
Feleti Teo, who has served as the commission’s executive director for the past two years, underscored how the commission’s scientists have determined that bigeye and bluefin tuna in particular are overfished and in need of a recovery plan to ensure they will be available in the future.
The U.S. longline fleet of roughly 140 vessels, almost all of which are ported in Honolulu, targets adult bigeye tuna — one of two types of tuna known as ahi in Hawaii; the other is yellowfin — for local sashimi markets and restaurants that serve residents and tourists eager for freshly caught fish.
Honolulu’s port continues to rank among the highest by value in the country, with $100 million of fish landed — predominantly pelagic fish such as tuna and billfish.
The industry is key to reducing the state’s reliance on foreign imports, too. Nationally, 91 percent of U.S. commercial seafood is imported compared to 59 percent in Hawaii, according to a report by John Kaneko of the nonprofit Hawaii Seafood Council.
Setting limits on how much tuna each nation can catch is a major part of the commission’s work. The current policy is good through 2017, but members said they will be laying the groundwork this week for negotiations that will likely ensue over the following year.
Teo underscored the harvest strategy as a key plan for the commission to approve. The plan calls for having the members agree to actions to be taken should a stock drop below a biologically sustainable level.
This proactive approach would replace the reactive nature that the commission has experienced, which often results in members just looking out for their own interests.
“From where I sit, it is unacceptable to operate an organization without a clear strategic direction,” Teo said.
He recognized the complexities involved in reaching agreements among numerous nations with diverse interests.
“Our dialogue should be rephrased,” he said, noting the need to put the sustainability of the stocks ahead of profits.