WASHINGTON — For the past three months, much of Hawaii’s longline fishing fleet, the one that normally stocks the state’s markets and restaurants with fresh poke, ruby red ahi and slabs of swordfish, has been tied up in port as the coronavirus ravages the islands’ economy.

With tourism all but shut down due to Hawaii Gov. David Ige’s 14-day quarantine and restaurant service reduced to takeout for social distancing purposes, there’s less demand for fish.

Prices have dwindled to the point where going out on the water can be more expensive for fishermen than the price of the catch coming in.

State and federal governments have done little to help out, despite the fact that fish are a critical source of protein for the islands’ residents.

Wholesale, retail, and restaurant sector buys gather around rows of ahi to place their bids at the Honolulu Fish Auction Tuesday, November 20, 2018. The competitive open bidding process lasts each day until every fish is sold. (Civil Beat photo Ronen Zilberman)
The Honolulu fish auction was going strong in November 2018. That was well before the coronavirus pandemic halted tourism to Hawaii, shuttered restaurants and reduced demand to a trickle. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat

“We are the largest food producing industry in the state by a tremendous margin,” said Michael Goto, who’s the auction manager for United Fishing Agency in Honolulu. “If we saw a complete shutdown of fishing effort that would be devastating.”

Goto, in addition to running the Honolulu fish auction, is on the board of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, or Wespac, the quasi-governmental agency that oversees the fish stock from Hawaii to American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

He said it was important for the Honolulu fish auction to stay open to give fishermen an outlet to keep making money and ensure that local grocers could get food to the community.

Still, the longline fleet, which represents 90% of the commercial fish landings in Hawaii, is suffering, Goto said.

“Like most industries nobody is making any profit right now,” Goto said. “Everybody is just scraping through.”

Eric Kingma, who is the executive director of the Hawaii Longline Association and a former staffer at Wespac, did not respond to Civil Beat’s request for an interview.

Kingma told The Washington Post in April, however, that 100 of the 140 longline fishing vessels that target fish such as bigeye and yellowfin tuna, swordfish and mahi mahi, were tied up in port due to the lack of demand caused by the pandemic.

He said the numbers just didn’t make sense for longliners, especially when a trip out to sea can cost up to $45,000 — more than the landed value of fish at today’s cratered prices.

“It’s a complete disaster,” Kingma said, “a disaster that many vessels will not recover from.”

Michael Goto, of United Fishing Agency, wants to keep the fish auction open so that fishermen have the opportunity to work and sell their catch. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

One way the Hawaii Longline Association has tried to mitigate the losses is by partnering with the Hawaii Foodbank. In April, the association announced that it had donated 2,000 pounds of fresh fish to the food bank, and that through the partnership the food bank planned to purchase $50,000 worth of seafood landed by the state’s longliners.

Over the past two months, the association estimates it lost $10 million in revenue as compared to its recent five-year average. If today’s conditions remain, the fleet is expected to lose up to $50 million this year alone.

When Congress passed the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act in March there was $300 million set aside for fisheries assistance.

It took more than a month for U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to announce how the money would be split, and when he finally did Hawaii fishermen learned they would only be eligible for $4.3 million despite the fact that Honolulu Harbor is considered one of the top fishing ports in the country with an estimated dockside landed-value of more than $100 million.

Hawaii’s commercial and recreation industry as a whole supports around 9,900 jobs, according to a 2016 study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and generates approximately $1 billion in sales.

Hawaii’s fishing fleet has mostly been in port since the coronavirus pandemic began. The longline fleet has received some federal bailout money but industry officials and political leaders say it is not enough. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Alaska and Washington, on the other hand, which received $50 million each in federal aid, generated $4.4 billion and $8 billion respectively. California’s fisheries, which support 142,000 jobs — more than Washington, Alaska and Hawaii combined — received $18.3 million.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources will be in charge of disbursing the $4.3 million in federal funds to Hawaii’s fishermen, but has yet to do so.

In a May 8 press release, the agency said it first needed to develop a spending plan and get approval from NOAA before ailing fishermen, guides and seafood processors could apply for funding.

Brian Neilson, who’s the head of DLNR’s aquatic resources division, said in a statement that while the money will provide some relief, the funds “will only cover a fraction of the economic losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, so we continue to encourage residents to support our local fishers and seafood producers as much as possible.”

“We have hundreds of industries throughout the country and all of those industries would love to have a specific emergency funding source.” — U.S. Rep. Ed Case

A DLNR spokesperson said Friday that the agency is still awaiting guidance from NOAA and the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission on its spending plan and that it could take “a month or more, but could be less” before it is completed and approved.

Big Island resident Rick Gaffney, who’s the head of the Hawaii Fishing and Boating Association and former member of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, said fishermen have had to get creative during the outbreak, whether it’s fish processors opening up drive-thrus for customers or small boat owners selling directly to individuals.

The $4.3 million in federal money is nowhere near enough for the thousands of people working in commercial and recreational fishing in Hawaii. He said he worries most about the single-vessel commercial fishermen and other small operators who missed out on federal disaster loans or the newly formed Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses that pumped hundreds of billions of dollars into the U.S. economy.

Gaffney said he expects that most of the $4.3 million is going to be gobbled up by the longliners, a group he describes as the “elephant in the room.”

“A lot of this money is bypassing the small players,” Gaffney said, “and my bet is the same thing is going to happen with that $4.3 million.”

Hawaii Congressman Ed Case says the state’s fishermen need more money, but that it’s hard to secure funds when every industry is suffering. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2019

Hawaii Congressman Ed Case, who sits on the House Natural Resources Committee, said the $4.3 million headed to Hawaii to support its fishing industry is “completely insufficient.”

He said he’s also been frustrated with the Commerce Department and NOAA’s slow roll out, which he described as one of the slowest in all of government.

In April, he signed on to a letter with several of his colleagues urging Ross to move faster to help the nation’s commercial and recreational fishing industry, which generates an estimated $200 billion in sales.

Case voted Friday on a new $3 trillion relief package that includes an additional $100 million for the fishing industry. The Republican-controlled Senate is unlikely to pass that bill and even then it wouldn’t be enough, he said.

That’s why he encourages Hawaii’s fishermen to take advantage of any government program they can to help during the crisis, whether it’s the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses or others.

“We have hundreds of industries throughout the country and all of those industries would love to have a specific emergency funding source,” Case said. “We tried to help all businesses throughout the country, especially our small businesses, and then we added over and above that — $300 million and maybe $400 million — specifically targeted to the fishing industry.

“Again, is it enough for that industry? No. But every industry, every business is struggling right now and it’s very difficult to have enough for everybody when everybody is in that situation.”

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