Federal managers overseeing Hawaii’s commercial fishing industry are weighing whether to uphold the boundary that prohibits longline vessels from fishing within 50 miles of the main islands’ shores, a review that has some small-boat fishermen nervous.

Several of those operators, who fish closer to shore, pushed back against lifting the so-called “Longliner Exclusion Zone” during a virtual “Fishers Forum” held last week by the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council.

The zone has been in place for nearly 30 years and extends to 75 miles in some places. A Wespac flyer for the event solicited public input on whether it’s still needed.

That got the attention of local fishermen such as Chris Freed. “Why is this even happening?” the Oahu fisherman said during his testimony. Freed and other fishermen said they’d actually like to see the 50- to 75-mile boundary for longliners extended even farther.

Fishermen unload their catch of fish at Pier 38 in the early morning hours in Honolulu, HI, Tuesday, November 20, 2018. The fish were sold later that morning at the Honolulu Fish Auction, the anchor of the Commercial Fishing Village on Pier 38. (Civil Beat photo Ronen Zilberman)
Fishermen unload their catch  at Pier 38  in Honolulu. Wespac officials are reviewing a decades-old restriction on how close to shore longliner vessels can operate. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat

Wespac officials said they’re not endorsing doing away with the zone. Rather, they have to review whether it’s still necessary every five years under federal law, they said.

“We’re mandated to do this,” Edwin Watamura, a vice-chair on the council, said Friday.

“It wasn’t about the council recommending that we get rid of the zone, by no means at all. It may have sounded that way in the announcement and the flyer, but I think if anything it was written that way for sensationalism to get people to join in on the conversation,” he added.

No longline operators testified during the meeting. The association representing that fleet of 145 or so vessels says it’s fine with keeping the long-standing exclusion zone.

The review wasn’t “anything we initiated,” Hawaii Longline Association Executive Director Eric Kingma said Sunday. “Quite frankly, we have much larger issues facing our fleet than that,” he said.

Top of the list is the dwindling local market for the longliners’ product amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Kingma said. The fleet also continues to face competition from foreign fishing fleets on the high seas outside Hawaii, he added.

Watamura said the zone within the islands was created after numerous longline vessels left the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean for Hawaiian waters in the 1990s. The influx sparked scuffles and confrontations with small-boat fishermen.

Longliners’ fishing lines can extend greater than 25 miles.

“They were setting them real close to the islands, like three miles out,” Watamura recalled of the early 1990s. “It’s a problem because they were setting their lines where we fish. There’s thousands of hooks.”

Nonetheless, Hawaii’s longliner fleet typically chases bigeye tuna, a pelagic fish that draws them out past the zone boundary anyway, Watamura added.

Besides the exclusion zone around the Main Hawaiian Islands, longliners and other commercial fishing operations are prohibited from fishing within 200 miles of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument shorelines. The marine sanctuary encompasses much of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

An additional “Southern Exclusion Zone” aims to protect false killer whales in the waters south of Hawaii. It’s triggered when longline fishing either kills or gravely injures two of the marine mammals there.

It’s not clear when Wespac will make a final decision on its review, but the exclusion zone is sure to come up at the council’s Sept. 15 meeting, Watamura said.

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