Hawaii’s longline fishermen didn’t get everything they were hoping for at the most recent annual meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, an international body that sets tuna catch limits for the U.S., several Asian countries and small island developing states.

But they did come out of the weeklong meeting in the Philippines with an agreement that will let the Honolulu-based fleet fish for an additional 400 tons of bigeye in 2018. Their quota next year will be about 3,500 tons, the same level as 2016.

Eric Kingma of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, a quasi-governmental body that manages 1.5 million square miles of U.S. waters, described the new catch limit as “suboptimal” for the roughly 140 longline vessels in Hawaii that target bigeye tuna for fresh sashimi markets and restaurants.

Hawaii’s longline fleet can go after slightly more bigeye next year under the new catch limits that were negotiated earlier this month by an international tuna commission. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

He said the measure does recognize the financial arrangements that Hawaii’s longliners have had the past few years with three U.S. Pacific island territories to extend their catch by up to 3,000 tons. The deals involve paying $250,000 into a fisheries development fund managed by Wespac in exchange for the ability to fish for an additional 1,000 tons and attribute it to that territory.

In 2017, the U.S. longline fleet hit its annual limit of 3,138 tons within the first eight months of the season, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service. The fishermen then caught an additional 1,000 tons by the first week of December that they attributed to the Northern Marianas and have continued fishing for another 1,000 tons under their agreement with American Samoa. There is a similar arrangement with Guam should they need it, but that doesn’t seem necessary this year.

Negotiations were “difficult” at the commission’s meeting earlier this month, Kingma said. The new tropical tuna measure was finally hammered out among just the heads of each country’s delegation at around 3 a.m. on the last day, a real “barn burner.”

Wespac entered the meeting wanting the new U.S. longline limit for bigeye tuna in the western and central Pacific to be increased to 6,000 tons but only got a small fraction of that.

China made a push to boost its limit, too, and ended with a quota of 8,224 tons for next year. Its delegation was able to secure an extra 500 tons through an agreement with Japan to make a one-time transfer.

Japan’s limit for 2018 is 18,265 tons, the largest of any country. Korea is second, with a limit of 13,942 tons next year, followed by Chinese Taipei at 10,481. Last year Japan caught 12,610 tons, its lowest amount in decades, which would make the transfer to China inconsequential for Japan.

Kingma said a new stock assessment, which the commission’s Scientific Committee released this summer, painted a rosier picture for bigeye.

“We are in a different place than we were a few years ago,” he said. “It’s a new territory with bigeye.”

Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council staff member Eric Kingma says the new bigeye stock assessment represents a “new territory” for tuna quota limits. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

The committee — which includes scientists from each county, including NOAA’s Pacific Islands Science Center biologist Keith Bigelow as the lead for the U.S. — determined at its August meeting in the Cook Islands that there is a 77 percent probability that the bigeye stock is not experiencing overfishing and an 84 percent probability that it is not in an overfished condition.

Still, the committee recommended taking a “precautionary approach” and not increase fishing from current levels.

Kingma said the science behind the new stock assessment will be revisited next year. He said he is hopeful the science can be firmed up at the committee’s August meeting so they can head into the commission’s meeting next December with stronger support for an increased catch limit.

David Henkin, staff attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice, said he remains skeptical.

“If the science now says that the Hawaii-based longliners can fish without limits, that would be good news for everyone,” he said. “Given that the science has been saying for years that bigeye are in big trouble, however, something seems fishy (pun intended). We will reserve judgment until reputable scientists weigh in.”

Kingma said Wespac is also hoping the commission can take into account where each fleet catches most of its fish and the fleet’s capacity when setting quotas.

“We will continue to harp to the tune that the Hawaii longline fishery is different than other longline fisheries,” Kingma said. “Every pound can be found with respect to our observer coverage and we’re going to continue to voice that in the future. And in terms of our management regime, it’s the most regulated.”

There are independent observers on board 20 percent of Hawaii’s longline vessels, which is four times as much as required and far more than other countries are doing, he said.

The commission’s next annual meeting will be in Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia.

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