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Hawaii’s longline fishermen will hit their annual 3,138-ton limit for bigeye tuna in the western and central Pacific by early September, according to a forecast Wednesday by federal fishery biologist Christofer Boggs.
But that’s not expected to stop them from setting their hooks for more ahi through the end of the year. In fact, the longliners may be able to haul in another 3,000 tons thanks to deals that let them attribute additional catch to certain U.S. territories in exchange for payments to a federally managed fund.
Environmental groups are concerned that the quota-sharing agreements are leading to overfishing.
But they’re good news for consumers who enjoy fresh ahi poke, sashimi and tuna steaks that are revered in the islands. Prices can spike when the fishery closes and a constant supply helps the market remain more stable.
Boggs delivered his report to the Scientific and Statistical Committee that advises the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council. The council, known as Wespac, is tasked with developing policies to prevent overfishing, minimize bycatch and protect fish stocks and habitat but has a long history of fighting for measures to benefit the fishing industry and getting sued for hurting the environment.
The fleet of roughly 140 longline vessels routinely reaches its bigeye quota early. Last year, the fishermen did so at record pace, hauling in their allotted 3,554 tons by mid-July. The prior record was 2015, when the fishery was temporarily closed by early August.
The current pace is more typical, said Boggs, who heads the Fisheries Research and Monitoring Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center.
But he repeatedly cautioned that “it is not a smart forecast. It’s a really dumb forecast.”
The projection is based on eight-year averages of the amount of bigeye tuna caught by Hawaii’s longline fleet in the western and central Pacific. It does not factor in how hard the longliners are fishing, known as catch per unit effort. And there is no real-time data to know where the boats are.
“We don’t know what they’re catching now,” Boggs said.
There’s a 25 percent chance, for instance, that the fishermen will hit their limit a few weeks earlier than forecast. That’s what happened last year.
An agreement with at least one U.S. Pacific island territory, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, has already been secured for the longliners to resume fishing after they reach their quota, according to a copy of the contract that Civil Beat obtained through a federal Freedom of Information Act request.
The arrangement was previously approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service but it still has to sign off on the deal each year. Wespac is working to help make this as seamless as possible so the boats do not end up docked while waiting for the feds to push the paperwork through.
The deal between Quota Management Inc. President Khang Dang and CNMI Gov. Ralph Torres involves paying $250,000 for 1,000 tons of the territory’s 2,000-ton limit. The money is deposited into the Western Pacific Sustainable Fisheries Fund in support of fisheries development projects identified by the territory, such as harbor improvements.
QMI can assign its rights and obligations to the Hawaii Longline Association, a wholly owned subsidiary of QMI. HLA is a nonprofit trade association formed to advance and benefit the Hawaii-based commercial longline fisheries industry.
Similar agreements have been made in the past with Guam and American Samoa, though the price has steadily increased. In 2013, it was $150,000 for 1,000 tons of CNMI’s quota.
The forecast shows the longliners catching 4,877 tons of tuna in the western and central Pacific by the end of the year. That means they will need agreements with at least two territories to keep fishing, which would cost $500,000 combined.
David Henkin, staff attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, calls the quota-sharing deals a “shell game” that allows overfishing, but the courts have so far disagreed. A U.S. District Court judge ruled in 2015 that federal regulations allow Hawaii fishermen to continue sidestepping these catch limits.
The longliners, who fish by extending miles of line with thousands of hooks, have also been heading to the eastern Pacific for bigeye, where they have been catching more fish at a faster pace.
Vessels over 24 meters long can catch up to 500 tons in the eastern Pacific. They had caught more than half of that allotment as of Tuesday, according to NOAA.
Boggs said the catch by large vessels in the eastern Pacific was “radically higher” earlier this year but has tapered off. He said he suspects some of those longliners are now heading to the western and central Pacific.
The quota limits are set by two different international bodies, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, which manages the western and central Pacific, and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, which oversees the eastern Pacific.
The WCPFC — a treaty-based organization of 26 members including Pacific island nations, the United States, Japan, China and South Korea — is holding its annual meeting in December in the Philippines, and it’s a critical year for bigeye tuna.
The prior three-year quota agreement, which gradually reduced countries’ limits to help bigeye tuna stocks recover from overfishing, expires at the end of 2017. Wespac, fishermen, government officials, environmental advocates and scientists will all likely be at the commission’s meeting to try to influence the decision.
Despite declining catch limits over the past decade, Hawaii’s longliners are bringing in more fish thanks to the quota-sharing agreements with the territories and increase in the amount of bigeye caught in the eastern Pacific.
Bigeye tuna is not considered overfished but has been experiencing periodic overfishing since 2004. Wespac officials have said it’s not Hawaii’s longliners who are to blame. They point at other countries whose quotas are far higher, like Japan, which had a catch limit of 19,670 tons in 2014. The U.S. limit at that time was 3,763 tons. Japan’s limit was dropped to 16,860 in 2017.
“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,” Eric Kingma, who handles enforcement and Environmental Protection Act issues for Wespac, said last year when the tuna limits were being debated.
Wespac is set to meet for four days next week. The agenda includes new stock assessments, proposals on fishing regulations for Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument and updates on plans to reduce the incidental killings of endangered species like false killer whales.