“I am concerned about the Deep 7 bottomfish fishery. We were overfishing in the past. We are not overfishing now. We could be overfishing in the near future if we make the wrong decision now,” warned National Marine Fisheries Service Pacific Islands Regional Office administrator Mike Tosatto at the June meeting of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council (Wespac).
A recent draft stock assessment of the “Deep 7” species of Main Hawaiian Islands bottomfish suggests that the catch limit imposed on the fishery over the past few years may be about 80,000 pounds too high. But rather than acting to reduce that limit and thus prevent overfishing, the council voted on June 26 to retain the status quo while its Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) further scrutinized the methods used by the Pacific Islands Fishery Science Center (PIFSC) in preparing the draft assessment.
In 2006, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) determined that the “Deep 7” species of bottomfish – opakapaka, onaga, ehu, kalekale, gindai, lehi, and hapu`upu`u – were being overfished in the Main Hawaiian Islands. A year later, the state and NMFS agreed to co-manage the fishery under an annual catch limit of 178,000 pounds. Over the years, the limit, based on PIFSC stock assessments, crept up to 241,000 pounds, then to 243,000 pounds, then jumped in 2011 to 325,000 pounds, where it remains to this day.
The current limit is based on an annual catch limit (ACL) of 346,000 pounds, which a NMFS working group determined poses a 41 percent chance of overfishing. To err on the side of caution, another NMFS advisory group determined that the ACL should be reduced by six percent to account for management uncertainty. The resulting reduced limit is referred to as the annual catch target (ACT).
In June, PIFSC research biologist Annie Yau presented the preliminary results of the most recent stock assessment to the SSC and, later, to the full council. The new assessment used the same approaches as the last one, “with one minor improvement in CPUE [catch per unit effort] standardization,” the draft assessment states.
Using catch and effort data from 1948 through 2013, Yau said she found that the stock biomass has been increasing in recent years. She stated that last year, there was a 45 percent probability that the stock was in an overfished state and a 31 percent chance that overfishing was occurring that.
Still, in commenting on the overall status of the stocks, she said she was confident the stock was neither overfished nor was overfishing occurring.
For her draft projections for the 2015 and 2016 fishing years, Yau determined ACLs that reflected a range of overfishing probability levels that were based on possible catches from 2014 (the season won’t end until September). For example, if the council wanted an ACL that posed a 50 percent chance of overfishing and the 2014 catch was 325,000 pounds, the 2015 ACL would be 316,000 pounds, with a target catch somewhat lower than that. (Yau did not include any ACTs in her presentation.)
To manage with just a 41 percent risk of overfishing, and based on a 2014 catch of 325,000 pounds, the ACL would be 264,000 pounds, Yau reported. That would result in a target catch of around 248,000 pounds. (At press time, the 2014 catch was a little under 290,000 pounds.)
But Wespac’s science advisors chose not to recognize the Science Center’s work as the best available scientific information. Instead, the SSC recommended that the council maintain the current catch limits while it further analyzed the CPUE standardization change in the stock assessment report.
Before Wespac members voted on whether to support the SSC’s recommendation, Tosatto of NMFS urged the council to tread carefully.
“I need the council to know it has many options before it, and you need to enter this discussion with your brain engaged because this is one of the important pieces of business we have,” he said.
SSC representative Charles Daxboeck noted that the PIFSC model would lead to an 80,000 pound reduction in the ACL and suggested that an SSC subcommittee hold a one- to two-day meeting to examine the CPUE standardization.
“Given the new assessment confirms the status of the stock has improved, the SSC does not foresee [problems with sticking to the] 2011 stock assessment until CPUE standardization concerns are resolved,” he said before recommending that the council set the 2015 Acceptable Biological Catch (ABC) and corresponding ACL at 346,000 pounds.
Maui-based commercial bottomfish fisherman Layne Nakagawa testified in support of the SSC’s recommendations.
“I don’t think as a commercial fisherman I can handle an 80,000 pound decrease. It’ll put me out of work for about six months,” he said.
Council staff proposed that in light of the improved condition of the stock, the council should accept the SSC’s recommendations. Tosatto, however, took exception to the SSC’s characterization that the stock had improved over the last decade.
“In the last decade, we were overfishing. We have a 45 percent chance we’re … overfished now. We are barely out of the woods, not on solid ground with this stock,” he said.
He admitted that there “is reason to look hard at this stock assessment” and that his agency would be submitting the report for peer review. Still, he said, he wanted the SSC to remain focused on its task of determining the best available science and not to worry about whether it will result in a lower ACL.
“There is a very good chance we will be using this stock assessment to set an ABC for this fishing year,” he said.
NMFS attorney Fred Tucher added his own concern about the SSC’s proposal that in effect, rejects the 2014 draft stock assessment as the best available science. He noted that under National Standard Guidelines adopted by NMFS, a report need not undergo peer review to qualify as the best available science.
“It’s desirable, but not necessary,” he said.
Should the SSC, using its own model, come up with a drastically different outcome from the PIFSC stock assessment, Tosatto is going to be put in the difficult position of having to choose one or the other and then explain his choice, Tucher noted.
“We are required under National Standard Guidelines to take into account the latest information,” he said. “Please keep that in mind.”
In the end, the council approved the SSC’s recommendation; Tosatto voted in opposition.
In addition to voting to maintain the current bottomfish catch limit, Wespac directed its staff to prepare an amendment to its Hawai`i Fishery Ecosystem Plan to establish a grace period allowing seafood dealers and markets to possess bottomfish for seven days after a fishery closure. The longline fishery has a similar grace period.
Council staff member Mark Mitsuyasu said that in the past, when the bottomfish fishery neared its annual catch limit, dealers stopped buying fish to avoid violating the ban on possession. Fishermen were coming up against deadlines depending on who they were selling to, he said.
Council member Mike Goto, whose family runs the Honolulu fish auction, said he remembered the last time the fishery closed.
“[We were] literally standing over fish and buyers were trying to figure out what was in their best interest,” he said, adding that a grace period would help.
– Teresa Dawson
A Guide to the Alphabet Soup
ACL or “Annual Catch Limit”: By 2011, the Magnuson-Stevens Act required all fishery management councils to set ACLs for all managed fisheries, except those with annual life cycles (that are not being overfished) and those managed under international agreements. ACLs are meant to prevent overfishing. Councils may not choose an ACL that exceeds the recommendation from its Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC).
ABC or “Acceptable Biological Catch”: Before setting an ACL, each fishery council’s SSC must first determine an acceptable biological catch level that takes into account a fish stock’s life history, reproductive potential, vulnerability to overfishing, and scientific uncertainty. The ABC also reflects an acceptable risk of overfishing, not to exceed 50 percent. Using the ABC as a starting point, the committee may set the ACL equal to the ABC or may set a reduced level based on social, economic, ecological, and management uncertainty factors. The ACL cannot exceed the ABC.
ACT or “Annual Catch Target”: Once the ACL has been determined, the council has the option to reduce it further to create a buffer, again, against things like management uncertainty and harmful social, economic, or ecological impacts. That reduced number is the ACT. In the case of bottomfish, a Wespac working group determined that the ACL should be reduced by 6 percent to account for management uncertainty.
For Further Reading
For more history on bottomfish management in the Main Hawaiian Islands, see the following articles available at www.environment-hawaii.org
“Council Adopts New Limits on Hawai`i Bottomfish Catches,” July 2011;
“Council Once More Increases Quotas for Bottomfish in Main Hawaiian Islands,” September 2009;
“Bottomfish Restrictions May Do Little for Stocks in Main Hawaiian Islands,” August 2007;
“Council Plan for Bottomfish Takes Little Heed of State Efforts,” April 2007.