Hawaii’s longline fishermen will be able to catch nearly 18 million pounds of bigeye tuna next year under a recommendation adopted Wednesday by the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council.

That’s more than double the limit set by the international body that regulates fishing in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, but they skirt that by allocating the additional catch to U.S. Pacific island territories.

Federal and industry scientists said the bigeye stock in the region will remain sustainable, and that their modeling does not suggest the increased quota will lead to overfishing.

Westpac Executive Director Kitty Simonds at YWCA meeting room.
Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds supports increasing the amount of bigeye that Hawaii’s longliners can catch. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

That’s good news for poke bowl fans and lovers of fresh ahi sashimi. Wespac members said it could mean more stable prices and better availability in local and national markets.

But an increase in fishing concerns environmental groups who highlight how the longliners accidentally catch endangered turtles, dolphins, albatrosses and sharks while targeting tuna.

David Henkin, Honolulu-based staff attorney for Earthjustice, said the longline tuna fishery’s indiscriminate fishing methods — miles of line and thousands of hooks are strung off each boat — kill and injure countless non-target marine species each year.

“In January of this year alone, longliners fishing for tuna killed one false killer whale and inflicted life-threatening injuries to another, exceeding in only one month the level of fishing-related harm the species can withstand in an entire year,” he said. “Increasing the catch limit for bigeye tuna also increases the number of non-target animals the fishery kills.”

The fleet of 145 longliners, based in Honolulu, have already been exceeding their “base quota,” as Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds called it, for the past five years.

The Hawaii Longline Association has had agreements with U.S. Pacific island territories — Guam, American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands — to use half of their quota in exchange for $250,000 payments into a fisheries development fund managed by Wespac.

The new proposal, which would be effective through 2023, would remove the catch limit for each territory while increasing the amount of quota that Hawaii’s longliners can allocate to each territory by 50 percent.

Instead of 1,000 metric tons (2.2 million pounds) per territory, it would be 1,500 metric tons (3.3 million pounds) if approved by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as expected.

Westpac Meeting John Gourley and Dean Sensui chat during meeting.
Wespac members Dean Sensui, left, and John Gourley are concerned about the optics and negotiating strategy of increasing the catch through quota-sharing agreements with the territories. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Wespac’s science committee recommended last week that the full council should let Hawaii’s longliners allocate up to 2,000 tons (4.4 million pounds) in additional catch to each of the three territories.

The Hawaii Longline Association, which represents most of the fleet, had supported that decision as well. Executive Director Eric Kingma said it would be a “wise choice” that provides more flexibility to the industry and more utilization of a resource that is not being overfished.

He was one of the scientists who produced the paper on which the recommendation was made.

The longliners, which provide the bulk of Hawaii’s seafood and export fish to the mainland U.S. as well, are forecast to hit their limit of 3,554 metric tons (7.8 million pounds) for this year on Aug. 29, according to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service. 

At that point, as in years past, they will likely continue fishing under one of the quota-sharing agreements with the territories once NOAA approves it.

“It unfortunately is not out of character for Wespac to lobby for unlimited fishing, regardless of the serious harm it inflicts on the ocean environment,” Henkin said.

“Even if bigeye tuna stocks are currently deemed healthy (I defer to the scientists on that question), they will not remain healthy in the face of rampant overfishing. We need to fish responsibly if we want a future where we can rely on the ocean to provide food for our families’ tables.”

For some of the council members, it’s just a matter of how it looks to the public.

Wespac member Edwin Watamura of Waialua Boat Club said he receives questions about it from average citizens and finds it difficult to explain why the U.S. longliners can exceed the limit set by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, which other countries have to follow.

“The limit, they feel, was set for a reason,” he said. “And yet, we can skirt around that and receive 700% more. I’m just thinking that for optic’s sake it would be nice if we just had the correct amount of metric ton limit awarded to us.”

Wespac member John Gourley, a scientist with Saipan-based Micronesian Environmental Services, said the problem may be more than public perception. He said it might affect the outcome of the U.S. delegation’s efforts to convince the commission to boost the quota for Hawaii’s longliners.

“If we start asking for the maximum, it might undermine the ability to negotiate to get a higher catch for Hawaii,” he said.

Wespac member McGrew Rice of Ihu Nui Charters said years ago he made a deal at a council meeting, as a negotiating tool, to just go with a 2,000 ton limit for the territories — half of which Hawaii’s longliners could use to up their quota. But he said it didn’t work.

“We have to do a better job really of explaining how this all works,” Simonds said, adding that it really is a “win-win” situation.

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