Neither the expansion of marine monuments nor the strict bigeye tuna quotas set by international fishing organizations have stopped Hawai‘i’s deep-set longline fleet from growing. Last year, the fishery had a record number of active vessels, 145, which together set a record number of hooks, 53 million, mostly on the high seas. But despite a favorable stock assessment last year that suggested the Western and Central Pacific stock of bigeye was neither overfished nor subject to overfishing, and despite the wishes of its executive director Kitty Simonds, the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council (Wespac) last month voted to maintain the current quota allocation regime.
Under that regime, the National Marine Fisheries Service establishes a 2,000 metric ton (mt) annual bigeye catch limit for each of the U.S. territories of Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Of that limit, each territory may make an allocation of up to 1,000 metric tons to the Hawai‘i longline fleet, which until this year had been subject to an ever shrinking quota set by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC).
At the WCPFC’s annual meeting last December in Manila, tuna catch restrictions for longliners and purse seiners were relaxed somewhat given the rosy new stock assessment. The U.S. longline limit for 2018 was increased from 3,345 mt in 2017 to what it was in the two previous years, 3,554 mt. The commission also made it clear that the U.S. territorial quota transfers, which some argued improperly increased the U.S. quota, were acceptable to it.
Still, the 209 mt bump was cold comfort to some. Wespac and the majority of the group that advises the U.S. delegation to the commission had both recommended that the Hawai‘i longline quota be increased to 6,000 mt, which is roughly what the fishery has been landing with the additional quota from the territories. While the current regulations would continue to allow such catch levels, it’s clear Simonds wanted more.
“The U.S. delegation failed to obtain the council’s recommendation,” she said, calling the 209 mt gain “very small.” She also lamented that while the Hawai‘i fleet regularly exceeds the U.S. quota, some countries aren’t catching anywhere near theirs. Indonesia, which years ago was given a quota of more than 5,000 mt at the expense of the United States’ quota, caught only eight tons of bigeye last year, she pointed out. “Something is wrong. … There never really is a level playing field,” she said.
While acknowledging that a 6,000 mt U.S. longline quota is “just pie in the sky,” Simonds said she hoped the U.S. delegation would try again to increase it.
Hold On …
The commission does plan to revise the quotas for longliners and purser seiners at its meeting in December. By then, the Secretariat for the Pacific Community (SPC) is expected to have a revised stock assessment that incorporates information gleaned from examining a set of otoliths (ear bones) from some large, old bigeye. According to fishery biologist Keith Bigelow, that information could affect the estimated growth curve of the fish, which could then affect the overall stock assessment.
When the new assessment came out last year, a number of countries, including Japan and the United States, disagreed with the new growth model that contributed to the findings that the stock was healthy, Bigelow told the council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee last month. The new set of otoliths that are being evaluated could have “a huge influence with the stock status,” he said.
“There may not be in the history of Earth a more valuable set of fish bones. They’re looking to impact a $5 billion industry,” added council staffer Eric Kingma.
Results of the review are expected to be available in August.
The possibility that a new stock assessment could yield a very different result from last year’s may have factored into the council’s decision to maintain the status quo. When Kingma presented the SSC and the council with analyses, produced with the aid of the SPC, showing that the bigeye stock status would remain pretty much the same if NMFS allowed the territories to transfer their entire 2,000 mt quotas to the Hawai‘i fleet, committee and council members from Hawai‘i, American Samoa and NMFS objected to the idea.
“The stock assessment changed drastically last year. It could change again. I’m not comfortable doing anything different,” said Hawai‘i SSC member David Itano.
Council member Henry Sesepasara also supported the status quo, but for a different reason. He noted that American Samoa has its own longline fleet, which does catch some bigeye. “We don’t want to leave our fleet without the chance to catch bigeye tuna,” he said. Hawai‘i’s Ryan Okano also said the state supported the status quo.
NMFS Pacific Islands Regional Office administrator Michael Tosatto added that adopting regulations that would allow an increase in territorial transfers might not go over well with other WCPFC members.
He explained that the paragraph in the current WCPFC tuna conservation measure that explicitly allows the territorial transfers to continue “was agreed to based on our argument that the U.S. would maintain the status quo. … That was part of an overall argument to get to the 2016 level of catch.” He warned that while increasing territorial quota transfers might not appear to harm the stock, “it might be diverting from the intent of the negotiations.” And if the United States doesn’t live up to that intent, commission members might not be open to making any more concessions, he suggested.
Finally, NOAA counsel Fred Tucher pointed out that any action that would increase the fishery’s effort also raises protected species issues, which would need to be evaluated in a biological opinion (BiOp). The last BiOp for the fishery analyzed the use of about 48 million hooks a year, which is somewhat less than what the fishery currently deploys.
In the end, the council voted to maintain the practice of specifying a 2,000 mt catch limit per territory, with the condition that each may transfer up to 1,000 mt of its quota.
— Teresa Dawson