A new stock assessment by the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) suggests that the Main Hawaiian Islands bottomfish restricted fishing areas (BRFAs) established two decades ago, when stocks were thought to be in deep peril, could be downsized — or perhaps even eliminated, which is something the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council has advocated for years.
While it remains to be seen whether the state Department of Land and Natural Resources will completely abandon its BRFAs, the bottomfish stock, managed jointly by the state and federal government, appears to be so healthy that the council is likely to recommend that future annual catch limits be set about 50-60 percent higher than they’ve been in recent years.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has traditionally approved of the council’s approach of setting bottomfish catch limits that pose about a 40 percent risk of overfishing. Based on the new assessment, a catch of about 490,000 pounds would pose such a risk. That’s about 184,000 pounds more than the 2017-2018 catch limit.
As recently as 2014, the center produced a much more pessimistic stock assessment update that suggested the commercial bottomfish fishery needed to reduce its annual catch by about 80,000 pounds to avoid overfishing. An independent review panel, however, found several faults with that assessment, which the center tried to remedy in the full “benchmark” assessment released earlier this year. Among other things, the center readdressed prior assumptions, included fishery-independent data, improved data filtering and standardization techniques, and incorporated fishing data from a broader time range. As a result of these changes, the center determined that there are several million more pounds of bottomfish available in the Main Hawaiian Islands than had been estimated in the 2014 update assessment.
The assessment also found that the period between 1981 and 1990 was the only the time there was a greater than 50 percent chance that overfishing was occurring and that for the past several decades, there was never more than a 29 percent chance the Deep 7 bottomfish stock was overfished. (The Deep 7 bottomfish species are opaka- paka, onaga, ehu, gindai, lehu, hapuupuu, and kalekale.)
Given the new assessment, Bruce Anderson, administrator for the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Aquatic Resources, announced at the council’s March meeting that his department planned to explore the possibility of opening half of the 12 BRFAs. “We’re seriously considering pushing that forward,” he said, adding, “the non-commercial catch is still a big question mark.” Under the assessment, the non-commercial catch was estimated to be about equal to the commercial catch.
Council chair Ed Ebisui, a bottomfish fisher himself, practically beamed over the new report. “It really seems like we’re beginning to really drill down and dial it in. We … owe a debt of gratitude to the science center and the fishermen who participated in the fishery-independent research. … We always felt the fishery was healthy. Now the science seems to be catching up,” he said.
The council ultimately voted to send a letter to the state urging it to open all of the BRFAs and offering its support in developing a data collection plan if and when that happens.
Team to Discuss Protection Of False Killer Whales
From April 10-13, a federal take reduction team (TRT) will meet in Waikiki to discuss ways to prevent the Hawai‘i tuna longline fleet from harming the Main Hawaiian Islands population of false killer whales, which has been determined to be endangered. Data suggest that the current suite of measures in place to minimize the fleet’s impact on the whales needs refining.
For one thing, the required employment of weak fishing hooks has failed to keep hooked whales from breaking lines and swimming away with trailing gear that could threaten their survival. As recently as February, a false killer whale hooked in the mouth inside the exclusive economic zone around Hawai‘i broke the line as the crew attempted to keep it taut and straighten the hook. The whale escaped with a wire leader and about 12 meters of fishing line attached to it, according to a description of the incident.
“We still don’t have a silver bullet solution to reduce the number of interactions. So how do we let the animal go without gear?” asked council protected species coordinator Asuka Ishizaki at the council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee last month. She reported that of the 35 false killer whale interactions observed since 2013, the whales straightened the hooks in only four cases. This despite the Hawai‘i Longline Association’s creation of an instructional video on how to best handle a whale hooking. In 10 of the cases, the lines broke; in 11 cases, the lines were cut, she said.
She said members of the industry are working on ways to cut the wire leaders that are attached to the lines and release the hooks. If successful, the practice could also benefit incidentally caught sharks and endangered leatherback sea turtles she said.
Another whale protection measure that Ishizaki suggested the TRT revisit is the southern exclusion zone (SEZ), which is a swath of ocean south of the island chain that would close to the longline fleet if it seriously injured or killed two false killer whales within the EEZ in a calendar year.
To date, the SEZ has never had to be closed. But Ishizaki said that even if the fishery’s whale takes triggered a SEZ closure, it “wouldn’t do much to prevent interactions,” since only three have been seen to occur in that area since the zone was established.
She noted that the fleet’s increasing use of the high seas could become more of a focus of the TRT, since so few of the whale interactions since 2013 have occurred within the exclusive economic zone around Hawai‘i, which extends out to 200 nautical miles. Between 2013 and 2015, the fleet was estimated to have killed or seriously injured an average of about 21 false killer whales a year on the high seas and only four in the EEZ, she said, adding that a brewing question among TRT members is whether the fishery is spending more of its time on the high seas to avoid triggering a SEZ closure.
Of the eight false killer whales the fishery interacted with last year, only two were within the EEZ, said Kevin Brindock of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s protected species division.
As of last month, the fleet had interacted with two false killer whales this year, one within the EEZ (mentioned earlier) and one on the high seas. As of press time, the National Marine Fisheries Service had not yet determined whether the whale caught inside the EEZ was considered to be seriously injured.
Two Retirements From Council Office
Paul Dalzell, former senior scientist with the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, could always be relied upon for a colorful quote. And at last month’s council meeting, where he and fellow retiree Charles Ka‘ai‘ai were honored for their years of service, Dalzell did not disappoint.
In recounting the events that punctuated his council career, he noted that he and executive director Kitty Simonds had “midwifed” the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, the international fishery management organization that now sets tuna quotas for the region. For the past several years, Simonds has made no secret of her belief that the commission has given Hawai‘i longliners short shrift. “Kitty wishes she’d strangled it with its own umbilical cord,” Dalzell said.
Dalzell leaves the council staff after 21 years.
Ka‘ai‘ai, the council’s former indigenous program coordinator, spent 17 years with the agency and a fair amount of that time overseeing the incorporation of the traditional native Hawaiian aha moku/aha kiole system into the state’s natural resource management scheme.
Simonds pointed out that Ka‘ai‘ai was a successful litigant in some significant lawsuits over native Hawaiian rights, including a decades-old case that resulted in a $600 million settlement award to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.
While he said he’ll miss the adventure of being sent to foreign lands with little more than a laptop, “what I’ll miss least is the pace, the intensity. … It’s tough to work for the council. … If you can’t [keep up], you get winnowed out real fast,” Ka‘ai‘ai said.
— Teresa Dawson