WASHINGTON — With the swipe of his pen, President Donald Trump nixed a remnant of the late U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye’s legacy.
On Aug. 2, Trump signed a bill that had easily passed both chambers of Congress to eliminate a Hawaii-friendly exemption in the Billfish Conservation Act of 2012.
That 2012 measure, which was signed into law by then-President Barack Obama with bipartisan support, effectively made it illegal to import or sell billfish such as marlin or spearfish in the mainland U.S. Swordfish was not considered under that legislation.
The only state with an exemption was Hawaii — thanks to Inouye, a powerful ally of Hawaii’s commercial fishing industry. Other Pacific insular areas, including Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa, were also allowed to sell billfish on the mainland.
With Inouye out of the picture, so is that exemption.
More than 550,000 pounds of American-caught billfish landed in Pacific islands have been marketed to the mainland U.S. each year, according to the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, also known as Wespac.
The value of that haul last year, the council estimated, was about $830,000 dockside and $2.5 million when considering the wholesale and retail markets.
Hawaii will retain some special status, however, in that fishermen can still catch and sell billfish in the islands, something no other state can do.
While Wespac opposed the elimination of the exemption for the islands to sell billfish to the mainland, it was popular elsewhere.
“We’ve done a huge favor for the worldwide population of billfish,” said Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportsfishing Policy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “Now it’s crystal clear that our focus is on conserving billfish. Period.”
Angers was involved in negotiations over the original Billfish Conservation Act in 2012.
Identical versions of this year’s bill were introduced by U.S. Rep. Darren Soto and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, two Florida Democrats who sought to close what sportfishing advocates such as Angers saw as a conservation gap.
When Congress passed the original act, Angers said, the purpose was to close off U.S. markets to foreign-caught billfish as a means to drive down demand.
Global stocks were declining, particularly in the Atlantic, and the U.S. was the largest importer of billfish. Smaller populations meant fewer fish not just for eating but for recreational fishermen as well. Marlin and other billfish are prized in the sporting community.
Angers said Inouye was apprehensive about an all-out ban on commercial sales of billfish, in part because it was a traditional and cultural fishery in Hawaii.
He was also getting pressure from Wespac, which advocates for longliners.
Angers said conservation advocates showed a lot of deference to Inouye, who had been in the Senate since 1963 and was one of its most powerful members.
“We learned a lot from Senator Inouye about the cultural traditions of the state of Hawaii,” Angers said. “I believe advocates for the bill were happy to accommodate his wishes.”
Still, there was concern that Pacific billfish weren’t being managed in a sustainable way. Poachers, too, were a problem. Because of the loophole, Atlantic billfish could be marketed as coming from Hawaii.
Jason Schratwieser, conservation director for the International Game Fish Association, said the intent of the Billfish Conservation Act was not to remove a foreign market and replace it with a domestic one.
But that’s exactly what happened, he said, when Inouye was able to push through the exemption that allowed Hawaii and other Pacific territories to catch and land billfish commercially to sell on the mainland.
“He was obviously a very powerful figure,” Schratwieser said. “Going into this our focus was on the big problem of the U.S. being the biggest importer of billfish.”
Inouye’s relationship with Hawaii’s commercial fishing industry was well-established.
The senator, who died in December 2012, advocated on behalf of the Hawaii Longline Association, Wespac and other interests.
Rick Gaffney is a former Wespac council member and the current head of the Hawaii Fishing and Boating Association. He said Inouye was a conduit for the commercial fishing industry, which had his ear.
“Inouye had a very close relationship with Wespac and the Hawaii Longline Association,” Gaffney said. “When Inouye was in office at his peak they were extraordinarily powerful. Since he’s left office that power has waned.”
The 2018 billfish legislation is a good example. Wespac’s executive director, Kitty Simonds, opposed the legislation and urged the Trump administration to sink it.
Wespac issued a press release saying “America’s seafood consumers may soon be deprived of sustainably harvested domestic marlin products.”
According to the press release, Hawaii Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa wrote an “additional views” memo about the 2018 legislation along with federal representatives from Guam and American Samoa, saying it would “negatively impact the livelihoods of the fishermen” in their districts.
“We support needed conservation efforts in the Atlantic, but do not believe that Pacific fisheries need to be targeted in order to achieve these goals,” they wrote.
The bill passed in the House on a voice vote, meaning any opposition was not recorded. But before the vote was taken, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, a Republican from Utah, said the bill had the support of “everybody and their third cousin.”
Eric Kingma, who works for Wespac in international fisheries and enforcement, said the billfish act and the prohibition on sales has always been more of an “Atlantic issue.”
He said billfish in the Pacific, with the exception of the striped marlin, seem to be doing OK.
“It’s really unfortunate this is not going to save any billfish and you’re not going to get any conservation benefit out of it,” Kingma said.
Meanwhile, fishermen and small business owners who package and sell their products, such as smoked marlin and jerky, will be harmed, he said.
“This is not just about the longliners,” Kingma said. “This conservation act trickles down to the average troller and the weekend warrior who has a marine license to sell the marlin that he caught with his son.”
He said the supporters of the legislation are special interests within the recreational fishing community. There’s a long history of tension between sports and commercial fishermen.
“In this fight they seem to have persuaded Congress and the president,” Kingma said.
Gaffney described Hawaii’s commercial billfish haul, when compared to its main targets of tuna and swordfish, as “gravy.”
It’s rare longliners would specifically go after billfish unless they needed to fill their holds on the way back home. Instead, most of the billfish come aboard as bycatch, which is then sold off at port.
But, he added, the amount of lost income for fishermen isn’t something to be shrugged off.
“That $800,000 spread out over 120 vessels may make the difference between making it and not making it,” Gaffney said. “The longline fleet is not that profitable.”
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, who was appointed to Inouye’s seat after his death and now occupies the same office as Inouye at the Hart Senate building in Washington, has been keeping a close eye on the billfish legislation.
But unlike Inouye, Schatz said he does not believe the commercial benefits of selling billfish outside of Hawaii outweigh the conservation concerns.
Under the new legislation, fishermen will still be able to catch billfish and sell it within Hawaii borders. The same is true for other Pacific islands. Schatz said that’s why he’s OK with the exemption being eliminated.
“It’s a relatively small fishery — less than $1 million annually — and most of it is incidental or bycatch that they’re making use of in the ahi fleet,” Schatz said. “I think we can consume that amount of billfish locally, and to the extent that our fleet can feed our people I think that’s better policy.”
Angers said there might be some conservationists who would argue that all 50 states should take billfish and marlin off the menu. But he’s not one of them.
“Frankly, 49 out of 50 is pretty darn good,” Angers said. “You should never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
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