Bigeye tuna, false killer whales, green turtles, and an expanded marine sanctuary in American Samoa.
Those topics were among the more controversial ones discussed at the meeting of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, held last month in American Samoa. But while the topics may be vigorously argued outside the council’s meeting rooms, inside the Governor Rex Lee auditorium in the village of Utulei the voice of dissent was rarely heard.
The one notable exception was the subject of fishing rules proposed for the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa; council executive director Kitty Simonds made little effort to hide her contempt for anyone who supported the sanctuary. Otherwise, the meeting was as tightly scripted as a convention of the Chinese Communist Party.
Nonetheless, the reports and discussions at the three-day-long meeting shed light on recent changes in the fisheries under Wespac’s jurisdiction – changes that bode ill for the health of the fish populations that are the mainstay of Hawai`i’s most economically important fishing sector: the deep-set longline fleet.
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Structural Ecosystem Changes
The Hawai`i longline vessels that chase bigeye tuna are seeing their catches consist more and more of fish for which there is no market, with fewer of the large tunas that they target.
Sam Pooley, director of the National Marine Fisheries Service Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, gave the council the grim news in his report on work done by scientists at his facility. In this instance, the work, by Jeff Polovina and Phoebe Woodworth-Jefcoats, found that in the 16 years from 1996 to 2011, the proportion of fish greater than 15 kilograms (about 33 pounds) in the catch fell from just over 70 percent in 1996 to barely 45 percent in 2011.
Meanwhile, the proportion of the catch that consisted of noncommercial species that are discarded climbed steeply, to where in 2011 it made up 36 percent of the haul. (In 2009, that percentage soared to 45 percent.)
In his written report to the council, Pooley stated, “As the largest fish (including target species such as bigeye tuna) are exploited by the fishery their declining population exerts less predation pressure on smaller fish, thus allowing the population of smaller (often less commercially valuable) fish to grow.”
“Taken as a whole, the observed and modeled trends indicate that size-based predation plays a key role in structuring the subtropical Pacific ecosystem,” he wrote.
The composition of the catch is changing, in addition to the size of the fish, he continued. “The catch of noncommercial species such as lancetfish and snake mackerel increased from 30 to 40 percent of the total catch,” Polovina and Woodworth-Jefcoats found. In fact, the catch of lancetfish – a virtually inedible species – “has surpassed bigeye tuna catch and this noncommercial species is now the most abundantly caught fish in the Hawai`i-based deepset longline fishery.”
Mike Goto, a council member from Hawai`i representing the interests of longliners, noted that the fleet was also taking higher numbers of small skipjack tuna. Goto, who works at United Fishing Agency, the fish auction house in Honolulu, told the council, “The Hawai`i longline fishery saw an unprecedented amount of skipjack over the last six months. We’ve never seen this before…. We still don’t understand why that happened, because it’s never happened before.”
The council’s senior scientist, Paul Dalzell, said he found Goto’s observation “interesting.” The troll fishery in Hawai`i, which generally targets skipjack, has had a “fairly flat” catch over the last thirty years. “So to see this [increase] in a fishery not targeting skipjack is I think quite significant.”
Goto also stated that short-billed spearfish “is becoming an important catch in Hawai`i. There’s record-high [catch] for that species.”
According to annual reports of longline catches maintained by NMFS, 35,205 skipjack were caught by the fleet in 2012, against 25,791 caught in 2011. The catch-per-unit-effort for skipjack rose from 0.61 fish per thousand hooks set to 0.78 per thousand hooks.
The number of short-billed spearfish caught in 2012 was 11,423, down from the 2011 catch of 15,723. The CPUEs for both years were 0.39 and 0.37, respectively.
Paul Dalzell reported on the actions – or lack of them – at the most recent meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, the international organization that is charged with conserving tunas and other valuable fish stocks in the region.
A conservation measure for bigeye adopted in 2008 had not resulted in the curbs, on the order of 30 percent, to bigeye fishing that the commission’s scientists determined were necessary to restore stocks to healthy levels. “Since then,” Dalzell said, “every year, the commission basically kicked the can down the road, tweaked the measure a little bit.”
At the 2012 meeting, held in Manila last December, the commission members imposed a 10 percent cut on the catch of Chinese longliners. The Chinese haul had increased more than tenfold over the last decade, Dalzell noted, and the actual volume of its catch “is hard to pin down.”
The commission did agree to convene a working group in August to develop a multiyear management measure, satisfying all parties. “Good luck to that,” Dalzell said.
The quota assigned to the Hawai`i longline fleet remains at 3,763 metric tons of bigeye a year. In the continuing appropriations act for 2012 (signed into law on November 18, 2011), the quota was effectively lifted for 2011 and 2012. The law allowed for most of the longline vessels home-ported in Hawai`i to attribute part of their catch to American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, or Guam if there was an agreement between the territory and the fleet. As Environment Hawai`i reported in January 2012, the Hawai`i Longline Association entered into just such an agreement with American Samoa, in return for payment of $250,000 into the Sustainable Fisheries Fund for the territory.
That lifting of the quota limit expired on December 31, 2012. According to Mike Tosatto, adminstrator of NMFS’ Pacific Islands Regional Office in Honolulu, language ipassed by the Senate would allow the same arrangement to continue through 2013.
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Global Assessment of Honu
A year ago, the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs, on the motion of the Maunalua club (Kitty Simonds, president), petitioned NMFS to find that the Hawaiian green sea turtle was a distinct population segment of the species and that it no longer warranted protection as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.
In his report on the status of several endangered species petitions to NMFS, Tosatto stated that the agency could not make a decision on the Hawai`i population without considering it “globally, consider the status of all populations.” Only after that is done will the agency propose its finding.
Simonds questioned Tosatto on NMFS’ review of the petition: “I just want to make sure I heard. You said that you folks have to conduct a global status review before DPS can be designated. I want to know why.”
Tosatto clarified that the decision to review the status of the species globally was not a statutory requirement, “but it’s clearly what NMFS chose.”
“Why?” Simonds asked.
“It’s a national status review,” Tosatto responded, “not a regional status review. So when the petition came, although it was a petition to name a Hawai`i distinct population segment, nationally, NMFS determined it would not be regional but national… probably because it has been quite some time since the greens were last reviewed. As you know, for years and years they were saying they would do this review. It took a petition to kick them in the pants.”
Simonds continued to press Tosatto on the matter and Tosatto attempted to explain the agency’s actions. Bringing her questions to a close, Simonds said, “I’m not satisfied, but I accept your explanation for now.”
Chiming in on the subject was Ed Ebisui, another Hawai`i council member who fishes out of Hale`iwa, on O`ahu’s north shore. “Seems to me that we’re talking about balance,” he said. “Now, I’ve never ever seen as many green turtles as we have now. They’re so plentiful that last year, I took a canoe and went into the river, to a place where I’ve fished and crabbed… And the place was overrun with turtles. I couldn’t believe it… They’ve grazed – something has grazed our reefs clear of algae, the seaweed that the reef fish need to reproduce. So everything’s out of whack. The turtles are so hungry they’ve now devastated all the vegetation in the river.”
Ebisui then linked the abundance of turtles to the abundance of sharks – and a rise in shark attacks on humans. “People wonder why” the attacks are increasing, he said. “Well, you know what? One of the main food items for tiger sharks are turtles. More tiger sharks, more attacks. My question is: wouldn’t the agency embrace delisting something, to be able to show this as a case where the system works? We’ve restored the sea turtles. Everything is good. Why would there be resistance to delisting a species?”
Tosatto replied that the issue wasn’t so much resistance to delisting on the agency’s part so much as “there’s work still to be done…. As an agency, we are looking at what it takes to delist and cry success for the Endangered Species Act. I think the honu presents a good candidate for that. From my perspective now, we need to do the work.”
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False Killer Whales
Since new regulations kicked in on the taking of false killer whales by the deep-set longline fleet, the fishery is facing the threat of being closed out of some 150,000 square miles of ocean if two of the animals are seriously injured.
On January 29, the first serious injury was recorded by an observer. Not until March 4 was the determination made by NMFS that it was an instance of mortality or serious injury – that is, that the gear entanglement or injury was so serious that it threatened the animal’s life. The regulation requires that the determination be expedited, and Tosatto attempted to explain how a finding that was issued five weeks after the interaction occurred was, indeed, “expedited.”
“It seems a long time to be expedited,” he said, “but I do feel that we went as quickly as we could. One, the ship has to get back in port, we have to debrief the observer, get details to our Science Center, which then has to consult with two other science centers, and then get it back to PIRO [the Pacific Islands Regional Office of NMFS], where the final determination is made. While that seems long, it’s pretty timely in my mind.”
Hawai`i council member McGrew Rice, a charter boat operator from Kona, expressed his skepticism over the extent of injury that would be inflicted by the hooking of a false killer whale. “I’ve had an issue with the insular whales being listed from day one,” he said. “But it’s happened so there’s nothing I can do about it right now.” Still, he went on to say, “I think an important thing that needs to be looked at is the determining of the false killer whales hooked on longlines – what kind of shape they’re in when they’re released. Knowing, as long as I’ve been on the ocean myself, how tough these animals are that have hooks in them that are damaged and stuff, and how they survive. The important thing that needs to be looked hard at, is not to penalize fishermen if all of a sudden there’s a circle hook on one corner of the mouth of a false killer whale.”
According to the information provided by the observer who witnessed the false killer whale take on January 29, as the crew reeled in the mainline, “the branch line broke, releasing the whale with an estimated 6-10 meters [20 to 33 feet] of the branch line, all of the leader (~0.3 m), and the hook … still attached.” The length of the trailing line was one of the main factors in determining that the incident should be categorized as a mortality or serious injury. Line can become entangled around the animal’s extremities and cut into the flesh, resulting in the devastating loss of a limb.
At its meeting last October, the council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee established a subcommittee to look into the status of false killer whales (FKWs) and how NMFS determines the number of animals that the longline fishery can take – a number known as the potential biological removal.
“The primary concern for the council is the continued evaluation that FKW takes in the Hawai`i deep-set longline fisheries exceeds the potential biological removal,” wrote council staffer Asuka Ishizaki in her report on the subcommittee’s findings. The take number is high, she wrote, in part because a portion of the takes of animals identified only as “blackfish” – either pilot whales or false killer whales – are counted as false killer whale takes. Also, she wrote, more than 90 percent of the takes of false killer whales end up being categorized as serious injuries. (A take occurs anytime an animal interacts with fishing gear.)
The subcommittee also questioned the distinction between the insular population of false killer whales and the pelagic stock and the recently discovered population of FKWs in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. “It is arguable whether the distinction can be considered significant in the context of [the Marine Mammal Protection Act], whose goal is to maintain stocks as functioning elements in the ecosystem, not necessarily as unique inbred genealogies,” her report stated. “The subcommittee therefore recommends that a comprehensive analysis of spatial genetic structure of false killer whales be conducted, consulting world-renowned experts on genetics.”
One of the points disputed by the subcommittee was the low “recovery factor” applied to the insular FKW population. The value can range anywhere from 0.1 to 1.0, and for the FKW, it was set at the lowest end. The rationale for this, the subcommittee asserted, “was that the stock had been proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act by petition from the Natural Resources Defense Council. The fact of that proposal also forced the stock to be designated as ‘strategic.’ In other words, any organization or individual can petition for a stock to be listed under the Endangered Species Act as endangered, and ipso facto the [recovery factor] is automatically set to 0.1 and the stock designated as ‘strategic.’ This is decision-making driven by special interest group pressure rather than a science-based conclusion.”
In an email to Environment Hawai`i, Erin Oleson of NMFS’ Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center disputed the SSC subcommittee’s description of how the recovery factor was determined. “The [recovery factor] for the Hawai`i Insular FKW was set to 0.1 after two actions within NMFS: 1) The Hawai`i Insular FKW Status Review was published in 2010, within which the Biological Review Team concluded that the population was declining and at high risk of extinction, and 2) the Hawai`i Insular FKW population was proposed for listing under the ESA. The 2011 Stock Assessment Report for false killer whales indicates that the change in the [recovery factor[ followed from these actions. The change to [recovery factor] = 0.1 did not follow from the petition from NRDC to list the population.”
The council endorsed the subcommittee’s recommendations, even though one of them – to broaden membership in the group that determines whether an injury is serious – “is likely inconsistent with NMFS policy,” according to Tosatto. Only personnel from NMFS’ science centers are to make those decisions, he said.
Also, the council voted to have staff work with NMFS to “obtain all available photo identifications of false killer whales … for the purpose of independent analysis of the data.” This was not a recommendation of the SSC, but instead appears to have been drawn up by council staff. Speaking in favor of it was Kona council member McGrew Rice, who echoed the suggestion in the motion that private organizations – primarily the Cascadia Research Institute – were not producing scientifically competent reports. “All the ID data has come from private sectors,” he stated. “Not a lot comes from our own science center. Like I stated earlier today, the group that most of this photo ID came from spent two two-week periods in Kona and never saw a false killer whale.”
Both Oleson and Robin Baird, who has led many of the Cascadia surveys, pointed out that the institute’s work is reported in peer-reviewed journals. “NMFS has not requested access to the full photographic catalog for false killer whales held by Cascadia,” Oleson said in her email to Environment Hawai`i. “We have asked for analyses or other products as well as information on the atalog in general or about specific individuals or groups within the catalog, all of which have been provided. All analysis products provided by Cascadia are peer-reviewed, both at the Pacific Scientific Review Group and externally, in addition to review within NMFS.”
“In conversations with my constituents in the Hawai`i longline fleet, it’s important to bring up the fact that the shortline fishery … has been steadily growing and is doing very well economically,” said council member Mike Goto. The longline fleet was concerned that if a second false killer whale was determined to be seriously injured by the longliners, the shortline fleet, which sets lines less than a mile in length, would be able to continue fishing in the Southern Exclusion Zone.
The two fisheries, he continued, “are all on the same boat for certain things, but for others, it’s seen as inequitable. It was relayed to me to try to get this on the radar a bit more… This fleet is growing. Four more [shortline] boats are under construction in Kona right now.”
Paul Dalzell addressed the difficulties in trying to regulate the shortline boats. “At any one time when people are fishing, there may be shortlines, there may be guys using pole and line, droppers from reels on the side of the boat. Different gears, different kinds of fishing. It’s hard to get a sense of what is the true CPUE. A fairly crude catch-per-trip [metric] has to be used….
“This is a fishery that has swings and dips. It must be in a peak period now…. Clearly we need to take another look, characterize it now and see if any management measures are needed.”
Since 2010, the Hawai`i shortline fishery has been listed as a Category II fishery by NMFS, meaning that it may cause “occasional incidental mortality or serious injury” to animals protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Although this classification allows NMFS to place observers on board, the agency does not have enough funds to do so.
Volume 23, Number 10 — April 2013