With the help of federal fishery managers and the governors of three U.S. territories in the Pacific, Hawaii’s longliners have been able to work around international agreements so they can nearly double the amount of bigeye tuna they are allowed to catch each year.

That creative arrangement quietly hit a snag last year when Guam’s new governor decided she “did not want to play ball,” as one person in the industry put it. But it’s only spurred more creativity.

The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council came up with a new deal earlier this month that would let the Hawaii longliners catch the same amount of fish as before but they would only need two of the U.S. Pacific territories to participate instead of all three. The proposal goes to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for approval.

Kitty Simonds, Executive Director Wespac. Western Pacific Fishery Management Council.
Kitty Simonds, executive director of Wespac, oversaw a new deal for the tuna quota-sharing agreements between Hawaii’s longliners and the U.S. Pacific Island territories. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The Hawaii Longline Association, which represents most of the 150 vessel-fleet based in Honolulu, pays $250,000 into a federally managed sustainable fisheries fund in exchange for the right to fish for an extra 1,000 tons of tuna quota from one of the territories.

The fund, which is under federal investigation over its handling by Wespac, is intended to help the territories with fisheries development projects, like building docks or paying for scientific research. A Civil Beat report last year found lax oversight and conflicts surrounding the secretive fund.

In the past, the longliners have been able to secure agreements with each one — Guam, American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas. That boosted their potential catch by 3,000 tons, almost twice the 3,554-ton limit set by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, the international body that regulates fishing in the region.

But last year Guam got a new governor. Lou Leon Guerrero, a Democrat, replaced Republican Eddie Calvo. And Guerrero did not sign a tuna quota-sharing agreement with the Hawaii Longline Association.

Eric Kingma, a former Wespac staffer who now serves as HLA executive director, said the industry supports Wespac’s decision as it will provide the fleet more flexibility with the territory agreements.

“As the Hawaii longline fishery is the largest food producing industry in Hawaii, food security is very important,” he said, especially with uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“The Hawaii longline fishery needs to operate to its capacity, which it can’t do under the arbitrarily-set U.S. quota alone, but can do so sustainably in combination with (territory bigeye tuna) agreements,” Kingma said.

He did not respond to follow-up questions asking how the lack of agreement with one of the territories played a role in changing allocation levels.

Wespac also did not address questions about how the change in Guam’s willingness to participate affected the decision.

Eric Kingma, executive director of the Hawaii Longline Association, says the new quota-sharing arrangement will give the tuna fleet more flexibility. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2020

Wespac spokeswoman Sylvia Spalding said in a statement that the council repeated its recommendation of up to 1,500-ton allocation limits per territory, while capping total allocation transfers to 3,000 tons so as not to exceed allocation catch levels authorized in previous years. 

This action provides each territory the flexibility to negotiate agreements up to 1,500 metric tons, she said, provided the total of all agreements does not exceed 3,000 metric tons in 2020.

Last year, Hawaii’s longline fleet hit its initial quota of 3,554 tons before the end of the season, then caught an extra 1,000 tons through an agreement with CNMI by early November. The longliners continued fishing for another 1,000 tons after that through their agreement with American Samoa, which it used through most of December.

The Hawaii longliners set several records in 2019, including most trips (1,074), most hooks (63.5 million) and most vessels (150), according to a NOAA report at Wespac’s Scientific and Statistical Committee earlier this month.

Despite the extra effort, the fishermen only caught about 3,000 more bigeye tuna, commonly known as ahi in Hawaii.

Committee members suggested the increased effort was in part due to fewer longline vessels targeting swordfish since that fishery closed early after inadvertently catching too many endangered sea turtles. About 14 vessels switched their gear from shallow-set to deep-set to go after tuna instead.

Shelton Harley, an SSC member and scientist from New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries, questioned whether there could be a reduction in the efficiency of the fleet because of more boats and more hooks.

“It’s a valid question to think about what sort of fleet size, what level of hooks, whether you see a plateauing off,” he said.

Most of the fishing occurs on the high seas outside Hawaii’s exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 miles seaward of the island chain — much of which is protected from fishing under marine national monuments like Papahanaumokuakea.

The committee was shown a photo that Kingma said depicted a Taiwanese vessel almost running over a U.S. vessel in international waters. It was used to illustrate the point that there is increased foreign competition for tuna.

Wespac shared a chart that shows Japan’s 2020 bigeye tuna quota is 17,765 tons, followed by Korea with 13,942 tons, Chinese Taipei with 10,481 tons, China with 8,724 tons and Indonesia with 5,889 tons. The chart puts the U.S. (Hawaii’s longliners) at the bottom with 3,554 tons as its base quota, and notes how Japan transfers some of its quota to China, but doesn’t mention how the U.S. is actually able to catch 6,554 tons due to the extra quota it can receive under the territory agreements.

Wespac’s science advisory committee did not make a recommendation at its most recent meeting on the tuna limits for the territories as it has in the past. But last year, it recommended doubling the allowable quota-sharing amount to 2,000 tons per territory. That would give the Hawaii longliners the ability to catch nearly 10,000 tons, enough that some Wespac members questioned if that would be more than the market could handle.

But with fresh ahi poke bowls blowing up on the mainland, Wespac members feel confident there is enough demand locally and throughout the U.S.

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