Going, Going, Gone: Will Ahi Vanish from the Auction Floor?

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The star attraction at the Honolulu fish auction is bigeye tuna, also known as ahi. It is the target of almost all of the 125 or so active boats in the Hawai`i longline fleet. The choicest fish are flown to Japan or end up in the kitchens of Hawai`i’s upscale restaurants and hotels. The rest are carved up in chunks by supermarket butchers. Most pieces end up plonked onto a plastic foam tray with a tiny piece of green plastic grass, wrapped in clear plastic, and sold for $10.99 a pound – except when the holidays roll around. Then, when ahi sashimi is an essential dish in every island celebration, the prices soar.

But ahi are in trouble. Since 1996, the Pacific stock of bigeye has been listed as “vulnerable” on the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. “Vulnerable” means that the species is not endangered but does face a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future. What qualified the bigeye for this status was a reduction of at least 20 percent in the preceding decade in population estimates as well as increasing levels of exploitation.

Since then, the situation of the bigeye has only deteriorated. For several years, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission has placed curbs on the annual catches of bigeye taken in waters of the Eastern Pacific. A more recent effort to rebuild depleted stocks of Pacific bigeye was taken last December by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), a relatively new regional fishery management organization that has jurisdiction over fishing activity in most of the Pacific Ocean, the source of more than half the tuna consumed globally each year. Last December, the WCPFC imposed catch limits on longliners and other curbs on purse seiners in hopes of attaining a 30 percent reduction in the losses to bigeye stock resulting from fishing.

It was certainly too little. An evaluation of the conservation measure made this summer found that even supposing that every member country or participating party fully complied with the prescribed limits, bigeye fishing mortality would actually rise this year.

Against this background, the decision of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council to approve a change in its management plan for bigeye and other pelagic species that could more than double the catch limit allowed to the Honolulu-based longline fleet is simply unconscionable.

What the council did was give each of the three island territories – Guam, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa – the authority to contract with the Hawai`i Longline Association to catch up to 2,000 metric tons a year of bigeye that will be attributed to the quota allowed to the territories by the WCPFC. The territories do not have the capacity to catch these fish on their own. What’s more, the infrastructure needed to handle the longliners’ catch and allow the bigeye to maintain their high value is lacking for the most part. Without that infrastructure, the Hawai`i longliners will be able to catch their quotas for the territories without suffering the inconvenience of having to leave their home waters, since the council thoughtfully put in a provision that conditions the need to land the fish three times a year in the territory on the adequacy of the infrastructure available to handle the catch.
Race to the Bottom

How bad off are bigeye? The data scientists use to make their assessments lead to some pretty grim conclusions. But the actual state of affairs is almost certainly bleaker. Scientists are handicapped by underreporting from some fishery participants, no reporting by others (Philippines and Indonesia being notable examples of this), and fuzzy data in still other cases (such as when the purse seiners’ catch of skipjack, yellowfin, and bigeye tuna is not broken down by species).

It may be understandable why each of the parties sitting at the negotiating table wants to increase its share of an increasingly rare – and to that extent, ever more valuable – catch. And in the world of diplomacy, where success is measured not by healthy tuna stocks but by the proportion of catch “won” by a country, maybe the United States can consider itself a winner, with the special exception carved out for Hawai`i longliners in the first place (they face only a 10 percent cut in their catches, while other longliners were whacked with a 30 percent reduction), and now the bonus quotas given them by the recent council action.

Perhaps the longliners and their minions at Wespac sincerely believe that ‘justice’ was somehow served in the actions taken by the council to enlarge the longliners’ share of the bigeye catch. It’s true that the longliners won’t have to suffer economic hardship and that the council’s action has spared Hawai`i consumers the inconvenience of having no platters of ahi sashimi and sushi to include in their holiday spreads this year.

But what of next year, and the years after that?

As Jeff Polovina’s presentation to the council showed, the effects of fishing down the marine food web are already being seen in the longliners’ catch. The diminished number of apex predators, including bigeye tunas, is affecting populations of shorter-lived, less marketable fish. That alone should be sufficient warning, but when combined with the most recent assessments of bigeye (which, pointedly, were not distributed to council members at the October meeting), the writing on the wall could not be clearer:

For bigeye, the status quo is not sustainable. Whether or not the Hawai`i longliners’ take of the overall catch is relatively small, the council should step up and do its part to save this magnificent animal.

And if it does not, cannot, or will not, the time for consumer action may be at hand. Can anyone say boycott?

— Patricia Tummons

Volume 20, Number 6 December 2009

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