The Hawaii-based longline fleet has once again bought short-term rights to keep fishing for bigeye tuna after reaching its quota.

Even with the ability to effectively double their allowable catch by paying $250,000 for half of the unused quota from the Northern Marianas, Guam and American Samoa, Hawaii longliners — with support from the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council — are still pushing to fish for more tuna and open up protected waters inside national marine monuments.

That’s worrisome to environmental groups that fear the effects on fish stocks and international tuna quota agreements.

The catch limit for bigeye tuna was reached by Hawaii’s longline fishermen by September. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Their lobbying over the past few months could pay off under the Trump administration. Last week, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended the president change the size of the Pacific Remote Islands and Rose Atoll monuments and let Wespac manage fishing there.

Zinke did not include any proposed changes for Papahanaumokuakea in his memo to President Donald Trump. Longline fishermen and Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds, among others, have urged him to restore their access to 442,000 square miles around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands that President Obama added to the monument last year.

Environmentalists breathed a sigh of relief when they saw Zinke had not addressed Papahanaumokuakea. But they are still concerned about what the unpredictable Trump may actually do. There’s no clear timetable for a decision, but he has started taking action on other monuments.

In April, Trump ordered a review of 27 national monuments, including the Pacific marine monuments. Millions of public comments poured in, overwhelmingly in favor of leaving them alone.

Nonetheless, Trump announced last week his intention to dramatically downsize Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments in Utah. He reportedly has plans to make changes to others soon.

Paul Achitoff, an attorney for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm, said the fishermen have not been hurt in any meaningful way by past presidents’ decisions to set aside certain waters as marine reserves.

“The monument designation has not prevented them from fishing to their heart’s delight,” he said.

The fleet of roughly 140 longline tuna vessels, predominantly based in Honolulu, hit its annual limit of 3,138 tons of bigeye within the first eight months of this year, prompting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to close the fishery in the Western and Central Pacific on Sept. 1. The fleet has reached its catch limit early for the past several years.

The feds reopened the fishery in October under an agreement signed by Quota Management Inc. President Khang Dang, Hawaii Longline Association President Sean Martin and Northern Marianas Gov. Ralph Torres that involves the fishermen paying $250,000 for 1,000 tons of the territory’s 2,000-ton limit. Similar agreements are in place with Guam and American Samoa.

The money 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.

NOAA Fisheries authorizes and tracks the bigeye tuna caught by Hawaii’s longliners in the Pacific. This was the most recent data available as of Dec. 4. 

The longliners caught their additional 1,000 tons by Wednesday but are continuing to fish though the quota-sharing agreement with American Samoa.

David Henkin, staff attorney with Earthjustice, continues to criticize this practice, although a judge disagreed with him in a ruling on a lawsuit the firm filed over it a few years ago.

“They’re taking full advantage of their ability to fish without limit, contrary to the scientific understanding of what is needed to ensure we have fish around for the future,” he said.

Henkin said the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, the international body that sets tuna catch limits, should make sure the U.S. and others don’t circumvent the agreements. The commission held its annual meeting last week in the Philippines.

Wespac has continued to assert that bigeye tuna in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean is not subject to overfishing or considered overfished. The council at its October meeting agreed to ask the U.S. government to push for a 6,000-ton catch limit with the commission.

“Our quota is pathetic,” Simonds said in a statement, noting that China and Japan are allowed to catch four to five times as much. “The United States needs to stand up for its fisheries.”

Wespac spokeswoman Sylvia Spalding said the U.S. bigeye quota is “sub-optimal” for the Hawaii longline fishery and should be increased to benefit Hawaii seafood restaurants and businesses.

“Without the U.S. territory agreements, local ahi prices would escalate and fresh sashimi and poke would not be an option for many at their Christmas and New Year celebrations,” Spalding said.

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