As Hawaii residents eye the fresh ahi sashimi platters traditionally found on holiday dinner tables, major negotiations loom next year over how much tuna commercial fishermen should be allowed to catch.
Longline fleets have been operating under a three-year agreement that sets annual catch limits in an effort to help bigeye tuna stocks recover from years of overfishing. That deal expires at the end of 2017, setting up a showdown over the establishment of new quotas.
In addition to fishermen, expect government officials, environmental advocates and scientists to weigh in.
The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission — a treaty-based organization of 26 members including Pacific island nations, the United States, Japan, China and South Korea — 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.
Like other countries, the U.S. longline fleet of about 140 vessels, almost entirely based in Honolulu, wants the commission to let it catch more fish.
The U.S. fleet hit its 2016 limit of 3,554 tons of bigeye tuna in the Western and Central Pacific by July. Bigeye is one of two types of tuna known as ahi in Hawaii; the other is yellowfin.
Under agreements with Pacific island territories, including Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, Hawaii’s commercial fishermen were able to resume fishing for another 2,000 tons of bigeye this past year.
These quota-sharing deals, which involve the longline industry making payments of $275,000 into a fund that the territories can use for harbor improvements, have weathered lawsuits but still face criticism from some countries whose leaders view them as undermining the agreed-upon catch limits.
Quota-sharing deals are expected in 2017 as well, when the U.S. will see another cut in its bigeye catch limit, to 3,345 tons, under a measure approved by the commission.
The other major countries under the commission’s jurisdiction face similar cuts: China to 7,049 tons, Japan to 16,860 tons, South Korea to 12,869 tons and Chinese Tapei (Taiwan) to 9,675 tons.
Members of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, a 13-member body with jurisdiction over 1.5 million square nautical miles that includes Hawaiian waters, were at the commission’s annual meeting earlier this month in Fiji in large part to see where the discussion is going on future quotas.
Eric Kingma, Wespac’s National Environmental Policy Act coordinator, said the council wants to ensure its voice is heard.
Wespac has for years been pushing the commission to consider a spatial management system for bigeye tuna, one that factors in where most of the fish are caught rather than a blanket catch limit for each country.
Kingma said bigeye stocks are only about 20 percent depleted in northern latitudes near Hawaii, but are roughly 80 percent depleted closer to the equator where there’s more fishing.
“We’d like to see some relief with the catch limits.” — Eric Kingma, Wespac
“We’d like to see some relief with the catch limits,” he said. “And we’d like to see fishing limits applied to where mortality is the highest.”
Kingma appreciates the complexities involved with the commission reaching any kind of agreement, let alone on a major issue like quotas.
“It’s like herding cats sometimes with all these countries,” he said. “There’s a lot of history involved in these negotiations and there’s not a lot of wiggle room, unfortunately.”
At its meeting earlier this month in Fiji, the commission agreed to a 10-year rebuilding timeline for bigeye tuna stocks — something Dave Gershman of The Pew Charitable Trusts called a “positive step.” The nonprofit regularly attends the commission’s meetings, lobbying for stronger conservation measures.
Wez Norris, deputy director-general at Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, a 17-member group of Pacific island nations, said the 10-year time frame will impact next year’s conservation and management measure.
“That will be the benchmark that it will be tested against — will this remove overfishing within 10 years or rebuild the stock to the limit reference point in 10 years?” Norris said.
Mary Sestric, spokeswoman for the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, a partnership of scientists, tuna processors and environmental nonprofits, said the commission’s adoption of the interim time frame of up to 10 years for rebuilding the bigeye tuna stock was a “bright spot” of its December meeting.
“This action is essential for development of a harvest strategy for bigeye,” she said.
The target reference point for bigeye tuna is 20 percent of historical levels, according to Feleti Teo, the commission’s executive director. Bigeye has fallen to 16 percent of those levels.
“That will be the benchmark that it will be tested against — will this remove overfishing within 10 years?” — Wez Norris, Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency
A new stock assessment for bigeye, expected next summer, will also shape the discussion on catch limits.
Kingma is anticipating a “more optimistic” stock assessment. He said status updates from the scientists working on the assessment suggest it will show bigeye is still subject to overfishing, but the overall biomass is on a “little bit of an uptick.”
Another factor that could shape the bigeye quota discussions at the commission’s meeting next December is the presidency of Donald Trump.
He has spent the past few weeks filling out his Cabinet, but what positions his administration will take on commercial fishing remain uncertain. As a businessman, some expect a more aggressive approach to boost the bottom line for U.S. fishermen, even at the expense of the environment.
“It’ll be a big year,” Kingma said.
Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds, who for decades has strongly advocated for commercial fishing interests, wrote in the council’s newsletter this month that “Trump will follow a much different agenda” than President Barack Obama.
She has criticized Obama for expanding huge marine national monuments, including Papahanaumokuakea around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, that restrict commercial fishing.
Simonds said she hopes Trump will change the terms of these protected marine areas with an understanding of the economic importance of commercial fishing in this region.
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 tunas and billfish.
The industry is one key to reducing the state’s reliance on foreign imports. 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.
“We are at the beginning of a new era, one that promises to be interesting as our country adjusts to new policies and perspectives,” Simonds wrote in the newsletter. “Change is as inevitable as night and day. Our region’s fisheries and the Council need to be prepared to meet these challenges and opportunities.”