In the 1960s, huge foreign trawlers were raking the ocean floor for fish just a few miles off U.S. coasts, destroying the seabeds with their weighted nets and depleting once-bountiful stocks of pollock and perch, hake and herring, cod and haddock.

At the same time, Asian longline fleets were rapidly expanding their tuna-fishing grounds as they developed methods to deliver more frozen fish for canneries and fresh fish for sashimi markets.

The commercial fishing industry boomed into the 1970s, fueled by the world’s hunger for cheap protein. The Soviets soon had hundreds of factory ships in the Atlantic and Pacific, from Boston to the Bering Sea. The Japanese hauled in more than 24 billion pounds of sea creatures in 1975 alone — half of it caught within a couple hundred miles of another country’s coast. 

The U.S. issued 36 citations to Soviets vessels fishing illegally in U.S. waters within the first two months of the Magnuson-Stevens Act taking effect.

Yapese leaders in the Micronesian islands between Guam and Palau felt so threatened they budgeted $16,000 to buy a cannon and put it atop Yap’s highest mountain “to command a little respect from what they considered the illegal fishermen working the waters off their islands,” UPI reported in a May, 1978 story in the Hawaii Tribune-Herald. 

The U.S. had seen enough. It was time to create some breathing room for American fishermen, even as some were similarly plundering Mexico’s recently staked-off waters. And so Congress crafted a bipartisan law, now known as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, to create exclusive economic zones in the waters around the United States, including its Pacific territories and Hawaii.

The law, signed by President Gerald Ford in 1976, pushed foreign fleets 200 miles offshore, with some exceptions, and established eight regional fishery management councils to develop plans that promote sustainable fisheries. The councils were the first of their kind to manage natural resources in the U.S., each composed of roughly a dozen politically appointed members confirmed by the commerce secretary.

By design, the councils loaded up with members representing fishing interests. They knew who the new federal policy should benefit. 

“In many of our fisheries, there are simply too few fish and too many fishermen.” — 1977 speech by U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye

The late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, who worked with Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska and Democratic Sen. Warren Magnuson of Washington to pass the law, foresaw trouble. Fishery managers would need to confront a fundamental challenge early on to reach any semblance of sustainability.

“Management of foreign fishing may not be as sticky a problem under the new law as management of our own fishermen,” Inouye said in a 1977 speech at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Hotel addressing the nation’s largest seafood trade association. “In many of our fisheries, there are simply too few fish and too many fishermen.”

Congress succeeded in pushing out the foreign fleets but failed to anticipate how much fish the U.S. fleets would catch. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

The issue with foreign fleets catching too many fish too close to the U.S. did improve under the MSA. Enforcement was tricky given the vast expanses to patrol, but there were 76 citations in less than two months of the law taking effect; 36 were Soviets fishing illegally in the exclusive zones.

But a free-for-all among the Americans had emerged after the law booted most of their competition into international waters. New boats could not be built fast enough. Hundreds were under construction each year. More and more U.S. fishermen wanted in on the action.

Resources quickly started to dry up in some regions though, leaving them looking for untapped places to go, like the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Fishermen from the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and West Coast headed west in search of better opportunities to make more money. And holding a welcome sign in Honolulu was the newly created Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, with jurisdiction over 1.5 million square miles of ocean straddling both sides of the equator and the date line.

The inaugural members of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, including its first chair, Wadsworth Yee, front row center, around 1977. Wespac

A huge headline in a 1976 edition of the Honolulu Advertiser described how the MSA was creating a “budding, uncertain giant,” referring to how Hawaii grew from 6,450 square miles of land to include more than 600,000 square miles of ocean — four times the size of California. 

Over the next half century, Wespac managed the boom and bust of a lucrative lobster fishery in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands that 40 years later has still not recovered even though the area is now protected as a national monument.

The council oversaw the rise and fall of bottomfishing around the Main Hawaiian Islands, another rapidly depleted fishery that is only now starting to reopen.

Bigeye tuna, the beloved fresh ahi found in poke bowls and sashimi platters, was overfished for nearly 20 years and still requires cautious management as the local industry’s most lucrative fish since the 1990s.

Observers have likened the development of fisheries in Hawaii to a gold rush. Commercial fisheries ballooned in Hawaii for spiny and slipper lobsters, for bottomfish like opakapaka and onaga, for migratory species like tuna and swordfish. And some burst. Endangered seals and seabirds, turtles and sharks were collateral damage.

For the past generation, Wespac’s focus has been on the management of bigeye, one of two types of tuna known as ahi in Hawaii. The other is yellowfin, which along with mahi-mahi and swordfish round out the top four fish in terms of economic value to Hawaii.

Andrea Treece, an attorney with Earthjustice, described the “unique” influence the fishing industry has on the regional councils. 

“Certainly, behind the scenes the CEOs of the car industry are having an influence, but they’re not writing the rules for their own industry,” she said.

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