Wespac Seeks to Further Expand Bigeye Tuna Quotas for U.S. Fleets

image10_01_medAt a time when the bigeye tuna stock in the Western and Central Pacific is being overfished — and by some standards, is already in an overfished state — the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council last month asked the National Marine Fisheries Service to find ways for the U.S. purse-seine and longline fleets to catch more than what federal and international conservation measures currently allow.

And this comes at a time when NMFS is facing a strong challenge in federal court to a rule the agency proposed last year allowing the Hawai`i longline fleet to use, as a kind of slush fund, bigeye catches attributed to the territories of Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa once the fleet has hit the U.S. bigeye tuna quota set by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC).

Under the WCPFC’s current tuna conservation and management measure, the United States longline fleet may catch up to 3,554 metric tons (mt) of bigeye this year. That tonnage is further reduced by 52 mt, however –the amount by which the longline catch exceeded the quota last year. If the measure remains unchanged, the quota will be lowered to 3,395 mt in 2017.

In previous years, when the quota was 3,763 mt, the Hawai`i longline fleet, aided by Congress and NMFS, took advantage of what some perceived to be a gray area surrounding the way the WCPFC treats the U.S. Pacific Island territories. As Wespac put it in a recent press release, “Under the WCPFC, the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam and the CNMI, as well as the Pacific territories of other nations, are treated as a Small Island Developing State (SIDS) for most purposes. As such, they are not subject to bigeye tuna catch limits by the WCPFC.”

Under this premise, which plaintiffs in the federal court case dispute, NMFS last year adopted bigeye tuna catch limits of 2,000 mt for each territory, of which 1,000 mt could be transferred annually to the U.S. longline fleet under private agreements between the territories and the vessel owners. This arrangement, formalized under Amendment 7 to the Pelagic Fisheries Ecosystem Plan (FEP) for the Western Pacific region, has allowed Hawai`i longliners to catch more than 4,000 mt a year, well exceeding the WCPFC quotas.

But this year, the Hawai`i longline fleet has been catching bigeye tuna at a “banner pace,”as NMFS Pacific Islands Regional Office director Mike Tosatto said at Wespac’s meeting last month. And the agency’s fisheries scientists predict that unless NMFS finalizes a rule authorizing the 1,000 mt transfer for 2015 soon, the U.S. longline fishery in the Western Pacific will likely be shut down at the end of August, months earlier than it’s ever been closed in the past. (Each year, NMFS must specify the amount of the territorial quota that can be used by the U.S. longline fleet.)

The U.S. Pacific purse-seine fleet has already reached both its international and federal fishing-day limits and was forced to close early last month.

With one U.S. fleet closed and another poised to follow suit, Wespac voted to recommend that the United States develop a national Western and Central Pacific Ocean bigeye tuna catch limit that would apply to the U.S. purse-seine and longline fisheries and consider including in this the catch limits for the U.S. territories.

“This could achieve greater flexibility in managing the impact of the U.S. fishermen on bigeye tuna while meeting the WCPFC’s conservation objective,”a council press release stated.

Whether it would be feasible, or even legal, remains to be seen.

Legal Challenges

Whether or not NMFS can allow the Hawai`i longliners to assign part of their bigeye catch to territorial quotas hinges on the outcome of the U.S. District Court complaint filed last November by Earthjustice on behalf of the Conservation Council for Hawai`i, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Turtle Island Restoration Network.

The conservation groups argue that Amendment 7 “dodges quotas intended to prevent overfishing by creating a separate quota for ‘U.S. Pacific Territories’and then allowing that quota to be transferred to Hawai`i-based fishermen who neither fish in territorial waters nor land their catch in the territories,”a 2014 Earthjustice press release states.

Earthjustice attorney David Henkin was quoted as saying that the United States should set an example for responsible fishing and not make a mockery of the international protections for bigeye tuna that it agreed to in 2013.

Among other things, the complaint argues that under the WCPFC’s tuna conservation measure, any fish caught by the U.S. longline vessels and attributed to the U.S. territories should count toward the U.S. quota.

The groups have until July 20 to file a motion for a summary judgment finding that Amendment 7 is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise illegal. NMFS and the Hawai`i Longline Association, which has intervened in the case, have until August 20 to file memoranda in opposition. A hearing on the motion for summary judgment has been scheduled for September 25.

U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi ruled last month that NMFS and the HLA cannot file their own motions for summary judgment until ten days after she issues a ruling on the motion from Earthjustice.

“We can expect a decision on Amendment 7 litigation in early fall,”NOAA general counsel Fred Tucher told the council at its June meeting.

Wespac executive director Kitty Simonds asked whether any delay in the lawsuit would affect efforts by NMFS to specify the 2015 catch limits for the U.S. Pacific Island territories. At its March meeting, the council had recommended setting the 2015 and 2016 territorial limits at 2,000 metric tons, with 1,000 available to be assigned to U.S. longline fleet.

“Currently, the plaintiffs have not challenged your 2015 specification because there is no final agency action. They have to wait for a final rule to file a complaint,”Tucher replied. “We would probably oppose any effort to bring the council action into the litigation until a final agency decision on the specification,”he said.

NMFS had expected to finalize by June the rule setting the U.S. longline quota for 2015 at 3,554 metric tons, an action required to conform to WCPFC requirements. And only after this would the agency be proposing a rule allowing the Hawai`i longline fleet to assign up to 1,000 mt of its catch to one of the three territories.

NMFS’s Tosatto said his office would be processing that rule over the summer “as expeditiously as we can so it’s in place when we are estimated to meet the [WCPFC] quota.”

Exploring Options

Whether NMFS will be able to achieve that by summer, if at all, seemed to be in question at Wespac’s Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) meeting held a week before the council meeting.

At that meeting, lead council scientist Paul Dalzell reported on a workshop held in April on the

possibility of implementing a catch-share program for bigeye tuna. In such a scheme, permitted Hawai`i vessels with a history of catches would divide up the available quota into shares, which could then be sold to one another.

The council discussed this same idea five or six years ago, but fishermen ultimately weren’t interested. With the increasing likelihood that catch limits could soon close the fishery in the Western Pacific, Wespac staff broached the subject again.

The Western Pacific region has seen the longline fleet increase in size after years of fluctuating between 120 and 130 boats. This year, about 140 longline vessels are active, Dalzell said. And that increase has resulted in fish being caught at a record pace.

SSC member David Itano observed that this year is the first time he could remember the Honolulu fish auction having regular daily sales of over 100,000 pounds.

“It’s really concerning. Back when we had 120-130 boats a year, it was fine. Now its 140. We have the potential for [more than] 160. It’s gonna be a real mess,”he said.

Even so, the fishers at the April meeting were reportedly still reticent to endorse a catch-share program. Dalzell admitted, “Once you’ve gone down the catch-share path, you can’t go back. It’s kind of a lifetime commitment [and] some boats are going to get knocked out of the fishery.”He added that catch-share programs can also pose a barrier to new recruits to the fishery.

However, SSC member Paul Callaghan blamed the lackluster response on the cushion that  Amendment 7 provides.

“Fishermen feel they don’t need a catch-share program because now they can allocate overage to Guam or CNMI, [but] once the fishery starts closing three months ahead of time, that’ll wake them up,” he said.

“We need to show them when their season would have ended without Amendment 7. This situation is tenuous and might end at any moment,”he added.

Jared Makaiau of NMFS’s Sustainable Fisheries Division reported that his agency was still reviewing Wespac’s recommendation on the territorial catch limit and analyzing it to “bring it into compliance with applicable laws.”Once that’s done, his office would send it to NOAA for further review.

“So Jarad, will it make it or not?”Simonds asked.

Makaiau responded that he did not know because under some of the stock assessment model runs that have been done, overfishing will occur.

“National Standard 1 is difficult to overcome,”he said, referring to a section of the Magnuson-Stevens Act that requires conservation and management measures adopted by NMFS to “prevent overfishing while achieving, on a continuing basis, the optimum yield from each fishery for the United States fishing industry.”

If NMFS were to approve the territorial transfer of 1,000 mt, “while it’s a negligible increase in fishing mortality, it’s still going in the wrong direction,”he said.

Simonds pointed out that, region-wide, it’s the purse-seine fishery and not the longline fishery that is increasing its catch. Makaiau responded that, even so, “the stock status is subject to overfishing and is overfished.”

Council staffer Eric Kingma noted that the bigeye stock is only overfished under WCPFC’s reference point, but under the council’s pelagics management plan, it’s not. He also stressed the small percentage of catch caught by the Hawai`i longline fleet in the region.

“Even without a Hawai`i fishery …bigeye overfishing continues. That is something that is real, and we’re having a real minor impact on the stock,” he said.

“We’ll make the best case we can with the information and the decision makers will tell us the answer,”Makaiau said.

At the full council meeting, a clearly frustrated Simonds suggested that “maybe the science is all wrong.”

“This ‘overfishing’ has been going on for 20 years. So why are we calling it overfishing?” she asked.

Sean Martin, co-owner of Pacific Ocean Producers, later urged the agency to initiate “different management measures”to keep the Hawai`i fleet fishing.

“We don’t even know if we’ll be fishing in the [Western and Central Pacific Ocean] in August or September. You can imagine the kind of uncertainty that gives to the industry [and] to the visitor industry,”he said, referring to how much local restaurants and hotels rely on a steady supply of fresh bigeye.

Council member Mike Goto, who runs the Honolulu fish auction, expanded on the potential impacts to the fishing and associated industries if the Hawai`i longline fleet were to have to stop fishing once it hits its quota.

They will have to return at once to Honolulu to offload before heading out to fish in the Eastern Pacific, where overfishing of bigeye is not occurring.

“This potential market flood is scary,” he said. Having the fleet’s catch go to the market all at once is “not optimal for everybody,” he continued. “It will create a huge backlog.”

Purse-Seine Plea

The bigeye longline fishery isn’t the only U.S. fishery operating at record pace this year. On June 15, NMFS closed the U.S. purse seine fishery in the Western Pacific because the fleet of nearly 30 vessels had reached its high seas/U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone limit of fishing days and had also used up the 300 days it had to fish in the territorial waters of Kiribati.

In the past, the U.S. fleet’s annual allotment was about 4,000 vessel-days of fishing in Kiribati, where it would catch more than half of its total haul for the year. But late last year, the country decided to slash that number down to 300, freeing up the remaining days for purchase at a higher price by other foreign purse-seine vessels.

So in May, with closure of the U.S. purse-seine fishery imminent, Tri Marine International (which just opened a new tuna cannery in American Samoa earlier this year) petitioned NMFS to adopt a rule that would exempt U.S.-flagged purse seine vessels from the WCPFC high seas limit, so long as those vessels agree to deliver at least half of their catch to American Samoa canneries.

Purse-seine vessels fishing out of American Samoa want to fish in American Samoa and the canneries want to keep them close, as well, Tri Marine chief operating officer Joe Hamby told the council at last month’smeeting. He said he was worried the vessels will go to countries such as the Federated States of Micronesia or Papua New Guinea, where they can still fish under the South Pacific Tuna Treaty. If they do that, “they won’t want to come back to American Samoa to unload,”he said.

A rule similar to Amendment 7 that would treat American Samoa as a quota-free SID would allow U.S. vessels to keep fishing in and around the territory and keep his company’s new cannery afloat, as well, he argued.

Earlier in the council meeting, member William Sword of American Samoa noted that 68 percent of the territory’s economy relies on the tuna canneries. And without a purse-seine fleet, “we have no cannery,”he said.

“Kiribati pulled the rug out from under us,”he continued, adding that his government was desperately seeking ways to negotiate more fishing opportunities with both the U.S. government and international fishing bodies.

Council member McGrew Rice of Hawai`i suggested that longliners in American Samoa could ramp up their efforts to fill the gap, but Sword shot that idea down. “That’s not gonna do it,”since the canneries need 450 tons of fish a day, he said.

In the end, the council supported Tri Marine’s effort to open up U.S. purse-seine fishing around American Samoa and went so far as to recommend the establishment of a combined purse-seine and longline national bigeye tuna quota for the Western Pacific, one that would include each of the 2,000 mt allocations set for the three territories. The council also recommended that NMFS consider developing regulations that allow fishing effort and catch from Pago Pago-based U.S. purse-seine vessels to be attributed to American Samoa. The latter recommendation would be contingent upon the vessels not landing any more bigeye.

Whether or how such a thing would comply with the current WCPFC tuna conservation and management measure or with federal law is unclear. Tosatto, who abstained from voting on both items, says that because NMFS hasn’t yet answered Tri Marine’s petition, he can’t comment on how the WPCFC would react.

“I can say that NMFS would only propose regulations that the agency deems to be legally sufficient in complying with all applicable U.S. laws, treaties and obligations,” he states in an email to Environment Hawai`i.

Comments by council staffer Kingma during the SSC meeting suggest that, at the very least, implementing a bigeye tuna quota for purse-seiners would be a real practical challenge. The main problem, he said, would be with accurately estimating the amount of bigeye caught by purse-seine nets.

Purse-seiners generally target skipjack and albacore tuna, but juvenile bigeye are often taken as bycatch when setting on fish aggregating devices. Training someone to identify and estimate the number of bigeye in a mixed haul of 100 mt of fish would be difficult, Kingma said.

He added that negotiating and allocating a bigeye tuna quota for all purse-seiners in the Western Pacific would likely be contentious and highly political.

July 15 Acronym




Primary Productivity in Transition Zone Has Dropped Over the Last Decade or So

The nutrient-rich band of ocean above the Hawaiian islands known as the North Pacific Transition Zone (NPTZ) has become less so by about 20 percent over the past several years. That’s according to new research by the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC), a research arm of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Whether the decline is a sign of climate change or merely an instance of decadal oscillation, the drop in concentrations of marine chlorophyll just north of the island chain is “not a good trend” for the swordfish fishery, PIFSC Fisheries Research and Monitoring Division chief Christopher Boggs said at last month’s Western Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting in Honolulu.

The Hawai`i-based swordfish fishery often targets the transition zone because of its high productivity. The North Pacific population of loggerhead turtles, federally listed as endangered, also forages and travels along the band, as does “a diverse assemblage of tunas, billfishes, seabirds, sea turtles, and marine mammals,” a PIFSC summary report states.

But after years of monitoring, the center’s scientists have found that chlorophyll concentrations have noticeably declined within the 8,000-kilometer long NPTZ, where cool waters from the high-chlorophyll subarctic gyre converge with warmer waters from the low-chlorophyll subtropical gyre surrounding Hawai`i. (Chlorophyll concentration is an index of primary biological productivity, the summary states.)

Climate change modeling led by the center’s Ecosystems and Oceanography Division chief Jeffrey Polovina had previously projected that the NPTZ would become more subtropical — and more nutrient-poor — over the next several decades. Indeed, between 1998 and 2014, the NPTZ experienced an 18 percent decline in its median annual surface chlorophyll, although the decline did not occur over the entire time period, the report states.

“Rather, during the period of about 1998-2007 there is interannual variation but no trend, while during about 2008-2014 there is a significant declining trend,” it states.

The difference in chlorophyll may be due to a slowdown in the flow of water from the subarctic gyre, Boggs said. PIFSC’s research has shown that southward flows during the winters and springs of 2008 to 2014 were weaker than those recorded between 1998 and 2007.

Chlorophyll levels in the transition zone fluctuate seasonally, growing higher in the spring and winter and dropping in summer and fall. The long-term decline is mostly affecting chlorophyll levels in the spring and winter, “when the swordfish fishery is big,” Boggs said.

Not only have chlorophyll levels dropped by as much as 25 percent, maximum levels have dropped and are occurring two weeks later, all of which suggest that the zone is becoming more like subtropical waters, the report states.

“That system is becoming less productive,” Boggs said.

“Whether this represents a more permanent manifestation of climate change or simply a decadal variation will not be apparent for another decade or two but given the likelihood of higher trophic level responses to changes in chlorophyll concentration the situation warrants continued monitoring. Higher trophic level responses have yet to be documented,” the summary states.

Polovina says he does want to look at impacts of these changes on species higher up the food chain – at higher trophic levels – such as tuna and turtles, but adds that finding a good data source is challenging.

“The swordfish fishery is a possibility but the effort in that fishery has been moving eastward so generating a time series in the same area might be difficult,” he stated in an email to Environment Hawai`i.

According to NMFS’s 2014 longline logbook summary report, the Hawai`i fleet’s swordfish catches were up in 2014, but have “been on a downward trend since 2007.” About 20 U.S. longline vessels landed swordfish in Hawai`i last year.


NMFS Extends Comment Period

On Green Turtle Listing Proposal

Last month, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that they have extended to July 27 the comment period for their proposed rule to establish 11 distinct population segments (DPS) for the green turtle, Chelonia mydas, maintaining the Hawai`i population as threatened, and uplisting to endangered the populations that live in and around American Samoa, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI).

The previous deadline was June 22.

The extension was, in part, to allow public hearings to be held in American Samoa, Guam, and CNMI, which fall within the proposed Central West Pacific and Central South Pacific DPSs. Hawai`i’s green turtle population would be included in the proposed Central North Pacific DPS.

If comments last month from Wespac’s American Samoa and Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands representatives are any indication, NMFS and FWS are likely to face heated crowds at the hearings this month.

Council members from Hawai`i, as well as council staff, also lambasted NMFS for refusing to delist the Hawai`i population, which, they argue, will survive any climate change impacts and are already exceeding the carrying capacity of foraging areas.

Richard Seman, council member from the CNMI, said his people have tried for years to get approval from the federal government to kill four turtles a year to “teach kids to respect the turtle.” He argued that allowing cultural take would open the door to more education about and, ultimately, the conservation of the green turtle.

If the turtle population around Guam and CNMI is uplisted, “I don’t know what the federal government is going to try to do to let us do it our way,” he said.

Patrick Opay, head of NMFS’s endangered species section, said it would be a hard sell for NMFS and FWS to allow take when they’re trying to tell people not to take the turtles.

“They are in trouble because of over harvesting,” he said.

But John Gourley, a council member from CNMI, countered that it was the federal government’s “don’t touch” approach to management that’s failed the turtles.

“That type of attitude alienates the very kind of people you have to have support your program,” he said, adding that had NMFS and FWS even attempted to allow cultural take, it would have gone a long way.

He warned that the people of CNMI already have ill feelings about the management of endangered species, noting that some people on the island of Rota, home to the critically endangered crow Corvus kubaryi, are shooting the birds because they’re seen as restricting agriculture.

Domingo Ochavillo, a council member from American Samoa who heads the territory’s Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources, added that NMFS and FWS probably didn’t even conduct a population viability analysis for the turtles in his region. He also said he didn’t think any management measures imposed by the federal government for the Central South Pacific would be applied across the DPS, which includes a number of foreign countries.

Council staffer Asuka Ishizaki argued that the proposed rule failed to quantify threats from climate change and sea level rise, which NMFS and FWS characterized as two of the main threats to the Central North Pacific DPS.

She noted that the agencies failed to supply any evidence that the loss decades ago of Whaleskate Island — a former popular nesting site at French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian islands — or the presence of the fibropapilloma disease have kept the Hawai`i population from growing.

What’s more, NMFS failed to fully reference a “significant publication” from 2010 suggesting that East Island at French Frigate Shoals will still retain about 70 percent of its existing sand area despite projected sea level rise, she argued.

That paper, by NOAA scientists Manjula Tiwari, George Balazs, and Stacy Hargrove, concluded that East Island, which already hosts about half of all of the Hawai`i’ population’s 3,000-plus nesting females, could support as many 30,000 of them. However, it continued that the turtle population at FFS “may be regulated by availability of food and forage in suitable habitats.”

Ishizaki also referenced another 2010 paper indicating that the some turtle foraging areas in West Hawai`i are near carrying capacity.

Climate change and sea level rise arguments for the Hawaii population are based on two assumptions not supported by the best available science, she said. The first is that French Frigate Shoals will disappear due to sea level rise; the second is that the turtles that nest there won’t relocate and will cease to reproduce, she said.

“Green turtles have the resiliency to adapt to changes in nesting habitat and alternative nesting habitat is available throughout the archipelago,” she said.

With regard to the proposals to uplist the populations around American Samoa, Guam, and the Marianas, Ishizaki complained that NMFS’s positions were based on old and insufficient data. Unlike Hawai`i, research in those regions covered only a small percentage of the thousands of atolls there, she said.

In addition to maintaining the listing status for Central West Pacific and Central South Pacific DPSs as threatened, Ishizaki said the council wants NMFS to reconsider the threatened listing for the Central North Pacific DPS. The agencies should also exempt cultural take of the turtles from the take prohibitions under the Endangered Species Act, and refrain from designating critical habitat, she added.

“Such designations are not likely to provide any measurable benefit to green turtle populations,” she said.

In response to the council’s comments, Opay tried to explain that although there are green sea turtle populations across the globe, the 2013 petition submitted by the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs to delist the population around Hawai`i also sought to separate it as a distinct population segment (DPS). That NMFS is now looking at dividing the global population into 11 separate DPSs “affects some of the decision making. … It’s almost like each DPS is its own species,” he said.

In an interview with Environment Hawai`i, Opay also stressed that, by itself, the concentration of the Hawai`i population’s nesting females at French Frigate Shoals played a significant part in the decision to maintain the DPS as threatened.

Teresa Dawson

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