Hawaii’s longliners caught their quota for bigeye tuna early again this year. But that may not be an issue going forward if U.S. officials can negotiate a higher limit next week with an international fisheries commission.

Meanwhile, consumers can expect stable tuna prices for the holidays as the longline fleet continues to haul in a steady stream of fresh ahi to Honolulu’s fish auction.

The season for bigeye tuna, one of two types of fish known as ahi in Hawaii, was uninterrupted thanks in part to a quota-sharing agreement that lets the longliners fish beyond the internationally agreed upon limit for the U.S. in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean.

Hawaii’s longline fleet may have a bigger tuna quota next year if federal officials are successful in international negotiations next week. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Hawaii longline fleet of roughly 145 vessels, based in Honolulu, had a 2018 limit of 3,554 metric tons, which it hit Nov. 1.

But under an agreement with the Northern Mariana Islands, the longliners, as they have for the last few years, paid $250,000 into a fishery development fund and continued fishing for another 1,000 tons. The longliners were about 57 percent of the way through that extra allotment as of last week.

They have had similar agreements with two other U.S. territories, American Samoa and Guam, each for an extra 1,000 tons. But those arrangements may not be necessary next year.

Federal fishery managers want to negotiate a higher quota for the U.S. when the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission — the international body that makes such determinations — holds its annual weeklong meeting, which starts Saturday in Honolulu.

The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, or Wespac, one of eight regional councils that manage fishing in U.S. waters from 3 to 200 miles offshore, agreed in October to propose expanding the quota for bigeye tuna in the Western and Central Pacific to 6,000 tons.

The U.S. delegation that will be negotiating with the commission thought that was a bit high, but settled on pushing for a quota of 4,600 tons. That would still give Hawaii’s longliners an extra 1,000 tons before they would have to spend the extra money to use a U.S. territory’s quota.

“I think consumers would see a more stable marketplace and potentially lower prices if the U. S. had a higher quota,” Wespac’s Eric Kingma said. He explained that the fishery has been closed in prior years when there was a lag between the time the fishermen hit their quota and when the feds allowed them to resume fishing under the territory agreements.

Earthjustice, an environmental law firm, has for years faulted the practice of allowing Hawaii’s longliners to keep fishing after they hit their annual limit by using the unused quota of U.S. territories. The group filed suit to stop the extra fishing but in 2015 a federal judge ruled it could continue.

“The longliners continue to make a mockery of international efforts to promote a sustainable bigeye fishery,” Earthjustice attorney David Henkin said. “What is the point of establishing a catch limit if, year after year, the Hawaii longliners hit their ‘limit’ and then continue to fish as if the ocean has an endless supply of bigeye?”

Hawaii’s longline fleet of about 145 vessels is based in Honolulu. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

He described the catch limit like a household budget.

“A responsible fishery would live within its budget, keeping some fishing effort in reserve to meet the end-of-the-year demand for ahi, not blow its budget and then continue to fish on credit that is going to have to be paid by future generations,” Henkin said.

Federal fishery managers feel otherwise. And with the commission’s latest scientific assessment showing bigeye are not overfished or experiencing overfishing, they are optimistic the commission will expand the quota.

“It’s always better when your stocks are healthy going into an international negotiation,” Kingma said.

The commission had for the past decade steadily decreased each participating country or territory’s quotas for bigeye because the fish stock was in trouble due to overfishing. So Japan, China, Austraila, Pacific island nations and others had to cut back their overall catch.

But at the commission’s annual meeting, held last December in the Philippines, late-night negotiations led to a one-year agreement to increase quotas. Hawaii’s longline fleet received an extra 400-ton allotment — bringing the quota up to 2016 levels.

It’s been a different story for bigeye tuna in the Atlantic. Scientists have cautioned that if fishing there continues on its current pace, the stocks will become depleted within 10 or 20 years.

The international body that manages those fish stocks — the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas — recently wrapped up its annual meeting, held in Croatia this year.

Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council staff member Eric Kingma said it’s better heading into international negotiations when tuna stocks aren’t being overfished. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

The dozens of nations that fall under ICCAT’s jurisdiction were unable to reach an agreement on what their new quota limits should be, so it will remain at 65,000 tons for the seven biggest fishers and no limit for some other countries.

Delegates from Europe and African countries blamed Asian nations for blocking any measure that would affect their longline fleets, according to a Japan Times article last month.

Kingma said the WCPFC meeting this year is an opportunity for the U.S. to present how well it manages the longline industry in the Pacific.

“We hope the commission recognizes that and rewards that with respect to quota,” he said.

The U.S. fishery is unique in that it has far more federal observers on board its tuna boats to ensure compliance. The commission requires that 5 percent of trips must have an observer, which some countries still don’t do, but Hawaii’s fleet has at least 20 percent coverage, Kingma said.

The U.S. catch limits are also far lower. Japan, for instance, was allowed to catch up to 18,265 tons of bigeye this year. South Korea had a 14,000-ton limit and China could catch 8,200 tons.

The Hawaii longline fleet is also different in that it brings the tuna back on ice, ready for fresh sashimi markets in Hawaii and the mainland. Some of the fleets from other nations will “superfreeze” the ahi at -60 degrees Celsius and transship it at sea for delivery in other countries, Kingma said.

Still, environmental groups are concerned about the longterm health of the Pacific tuna stocks.

“We need to take seriously our responsibility to ensure there will be abundant fish to feed our children and our children’s children,” Henkin said.

“Management of the bigeye fishery needs to be based on good science about the level of fishing effort that is sustainable over the long term, not driven by a desire to maximize short-term profits,” he said.

Longliners fish by extending miles of line with hundreds of hooks off their boats. Courtesy: Isaac Wedin

The longliners — who fish by extending miles of line with hundreds of hooks off their boats — did not hit their initial limit as fast this year as they have in the past, which helped keep the market steady.

Last year, the fleet hit its limit of 3,138 tons on Sept. 1. And in 2016, when it had the same quota as this year, the fishermen had caught their 3,554 tons of tuna by July 22. There were one- or two-month stoppages in those years while waiting for the federal rule to be authorized so fishing could resume under the territory agreements. This year, the rule was authorized in October and the limit was hit in November, so there was no shutdown.

Kingma said the slower catch rates could be due to seasonal changes related to El Niño weather patterns, recruitment pulses, or that the tuna measures put in place by the commission are actually working.

“Fisheries are dynamic,” he said. “It’s likely a mix of management and favorable environmental conditions.”

Advocates for areas to be kept off-limits to fishing point to the longline fleet’s ability to meet its quota early for the past decade as a sign that setting aside large swaths of ocean as marine protected areas does not negatively affect the industry as it has alleged.

Fishermen and Wespac officials were strongly opposed to the creation and later the expansion of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument south of Hawaii around Wake Island, Johnston Atoll and other low-lying islets. President George W. Bush created both monuments and President Barack Obama significantly expanded them.

“The continued record annual catches by the Hawaii-based longline industry show the U.S can be a global leader by protecting marine habitat and sustainably managing its fisheries,” said Matt Rand, director of Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy in Washington, D.C.

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