Wespac Sets Sights on Increasing Catch of Bigeye Tuna in Eastern Pacific Ocean

posted in: Fisheries, Marine, May 2014 | 0

The international limit on the Hawai`i longliners’ catch of valuable bigeye tuna in the waters of the Western and Central Pacific Ocean has been pretty well shredded with the recent amendment to the pelagic fishery management plan of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council (Wespac). That amendment allows bigeye tuna to continue to be caught and landed even after the quota of 3,763 metric tons set by the Western and Central Pacific Fishery Management Commission has been reached, by attributing all bigeye caught beyond the quota to the U.S. Pacific-flagged territories of Guam, American Samoa, and Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

With that out of the way, and with an anticipated increase in the number of active vessels in the longline fleet, the council now is turning its sights to the Eastern Pacific. Although bigeye tuna are generally in better health in those waters, and the limits on bigeye impoased on Hawai`i longliners there affect only a handful of larger vessels, Wespac staff outlined a plan at the council’s March meeting to relieve the fleet of those bonds as well.

The bigeye tuna quota for the Eastern Pacific, st by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) is 500 tons, but it applies only to vessels longer than 24 meters – a class that represents just about 15 percent of the Hawai`i longline fleet, according to a report prepared by council staff. Shorter vessels are not subject to any restrictions at all on their catch of bigeye from waters under IATTC jurisdiction.

Most of the bigeye tuna taken by the Hawai`i fleet comes from the Western Pacific. The Eastern Pacific region lies east of 150º West longitude, more than 500 miles east of Honolulu. Owing to distance, and also frequently rougher seas, the Eastern Pacific has not been fished as regularly as waters to the west of the islands.

Since 2005, overall longline catches of bigeye in the Eastern Pacific have decreased. In 2012, the four main Asian fleets (China, Japan, Korea, and Chinese Taipei) used an average of only 35 percent of their allowable quotas. Hawai`i catches from the region, on the other hand, have bucked the trend, increasing from 1,000 mt in 2008, to 2,000 mt last year, the report states.

With Hawai`i catches increasing, the Eastern Pacific quota has become a “major management burden,” the Wespac report states. Last November, NMFS closed the fishery because it had determined that the longer vessels had reached their 500 metric ton limit.

Wespac senior scientist Paul Dalzell suggested that the strict cap on the U.S. fleet could be eased given the overall health of the stock.

“All in all, the stock in the Eastern Pacific is in a happier place than in the Western Pacific,” he said. Furthermore, the existing IATTC scheme creates a disparity between the larger and smaller vessels in the Hawai`i longline fleet, he continued.

“The larger boats may have to stop fishing if the limit is reached,” he said, or they may have to shift their effort to the Western Pacific.

Quadrupling the large-vessel quota to 2,000 mt would improve the fleet’s efficiency and allow Hawai`i vessels to capture the fish allocated to Asian fleets but uncaught by them, he said.

But there would be a downside, he added. “We get more fish — yay for us — but what if the Asian fleet comes back? [We’ll have] the same old problems – overfishing and a possibly overfished condition,” he said. “Any increase in catch has the potential to compromise the nice place we’re in right now.”

Even so, Dalzell’s report to Wespac also floated the possibilities of increasing the Eastern Pacific quota to 5,000 mt for vessels greater than 24 meters, 5,000 mt for the entire U.S. fleet, and eliminating a quota altogether.

At its peak in 2008, the total catch by the Hawai`i longline fleet in the Eastern and Western Pacific was more than 5,800 mt. When asked by council member McGrew Rice whether the Hawai`i fleet could even catch 5,000 mt in the Eastern Pacific alone, Dalzell said it was not unlikely. He noted that, for the first time, more than 130 vessels are operating in the fishery and it’s likely to grow to as many as 145 in the next two years.

“The Hawai`i market will always need to import more fish,” even though the Hawai`i bigeye longline fishery is largest in the United States, he said. “So, we need the fish.”

Mike Tosatto, director of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Pacific Island Regional Office, voiced caution about tinkering with the Eastern Pacific quota. It could result in having the the 500 mt quota apply to the entire longline fleet, not just the vessels greater than 24 meters long, he said.

“We do need to look at bigeye as a Pacific-wide stock issue and … we would want to make sure it’s the right time to change the status in the [Eastern Pacific],” he said.

Dalzell’s report noted that despite the fact that fishing in the Eastern Pacific has shrunk over the years, and that the most recent bigeye stock assessment suggests overfishing is not occurring, catch levels are currently near the maximum sustainable yield.

Wespac’s Scientific and Statistical Committee underscored the same point in its report to the council. Bigeye tuna in the Eastern Pacific is a “fully utilized stock and there is no surplus available,” it stated.

“Keep that in mind regarding quota sharing,” SSC representative Charles Daxboeck said.

Still, the council recommended that NMFS prepare a proposal to increase the U.S. Eastern Pacific longline bigeye limit, “taking into account bigeye conservation and management objectives of the IATTC and the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

* * *
Council Challenges ‘Welfare Economics’ of SIDS

If international measures to protect bigeye tuna are going to be less effective because of “welfare economics” – as Wespac senior scientist Paul Dalzell called it – the United States wants to make sure countries claiming they’re shouldering a disproportionate burden of these measures can prove it.

So this fall, the council plans to convene a workshop to establish a methodology to determine the true financial burden on these countries and “get figures with some background in economics and not simply plucked out of the air,” Dalzell said at Wespac’s March meeting.

Such an approach could help determine whether the conservation measures adopted by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission last year that further restrict purse seining around fish aggregating devices (FAD) should be weaker, stronger, or left as is when the commission meets again next December.

By all accounts, the conservation and management measure (CMM) the commission passed last year to end overfishing of bigeye fell far short of what is needed. In the Western Pacific, bigeye tuna catches exceed sustainable levels by as much as 40 percent. While more developed nations saw cuts made to their longline quotas and purse seine fishing days, small island countries were exempted from certain fishing restrictions. What’s more, measures to further reduce purse-seine sets on FADs, in which large numbers of juvenile bigeye tuna are unintentionally caught, were deferred at last year’s WCPFC meeting out of concern that they would disproportionately harm small island developing states and territories, also known as SIDS.

The international commission regulates catches of highly migratory species of fish throughout the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. At its coming meeting, it will have to adopt some arrangement to ensure that the existing CMM for bigeye tuna does not impose a disproportionate burden on the SIDS. Otherwise, the provision in that measure to restrict FAD fishing in the exclusive economic zones of those SIDS will not go into effect in 2015 and 2016.

Although a requirement to avoid imposing a disproportionate burden on SIDS – Article 30 2(c) – is part of the convention establishing the commission, last year was the first time it was used to justify certain CMM provisions.

When WCPFC delegates meet again in Samoa at the end of this year, Dalzell said, SIDS representatives will undoubtedly continue to argue that the 2013 CMM on tropical tunas violates Article 30.

“We’re going to be beaten over the head that CMMs … particularly for tropical tunas, pose a disproportionate burden on small states,” he added.

In a report to last year’s commission, a group of small coastal states claimed that the three-month FAD closure in effect in 2013 cost them about $60 million. Representatives from Tuvalu, one of the smallest countries in the world in both size and population, further testified that the closure cost it $1.5 million a month, which, over three months, equaled about 12 percent of its gross domestic product. If true, the closure proposed for 2015 and 2016 would cost the country about 20 percent of its GDP.

At Wespac’s meeting, Mike Tosatto, administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Pacific Islands Regional Office, supported the idea of a workshop. It would, he said, help make sense of some of the disproportionate burden claims that have been made – and which have tended to be regarded with skepticism by the United States’ delegation.

“Until that’s settled, I don’t know what’s going to change,” he said.

Developing coastal states, including SIDS, “have successfully sought exemptions for their developing fisheries from most conservation and management measures. While this satisfies short term concerns, there is increasing recognition that these exemptions are significantly undermining the effectiveness of conservation and management measures,” states a 2012 paper by Australian researcher Quentin Hanich.

These states have effectively protected their interests with WCPFC increasing their share of the purse seine fishery between 2004-2010 “at the cost to the high seas share of the fishery,” he writes.

Wespac generally does not care that much about the purse seine fleet. U.S. vessels that participate in that fishery are based in California, not Hawai`i. But the conservation and management measure that restricts purse seiners does directly impact the Hawai`i-based longline fleet, which is of concern to Wespac and the U.S. delegation to the commission.

Although the U.S. longline fleet will see by far the smallest quota reduction over the next three years of any major longlining nation, Wespac has railed against what it sees as a terrible injustice inflicted by the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), which includes more than a dozen SIDS.

In a press release following the close of the WCPFC meeting, the council called the FFA’s disproportionate burden argument a flimsy excuse for unchecked expansion of fishing by SIDS. The existence of such a burden had “yet to be convincingly demonstrated to the United States and other commission members,” it stated. Wespac chair Arnold Palacios said WCPFC negotiations seemed to be almost a game to some island nations.

“At the end of the day, when we walked out and the meeting was done, there was one country (Indonesia) who had an allocation three times what it had,” he said.

Tosatto said he hopes Wespac’s workshop brings together the right experts, including SIDS representatives, “so we can put out to them what a scientific analysis burden might look like to inform ourselves and then.”

“We need to sell the SIDS on this way of thinking. This would be a good opportunity to do that,” he said.

He added that last year, the United States delegation had ultimately agreed to reductions but “others didn’t follow through with their fair share.”

“The U.S. acts in good faith regularly and it’s not always returned,” he said.

While the upcoming workshop may help address some of those issues, Wespac executive director Kitty Simonds suggested that the U.S. delegation dig in its heels and take a less cooperative approach in the future.

If the Untied States gives in every time a signatory country thinks the U.S. quota should be reduced, “the Hawai`i longline fishery will become a small island developing nation,” she argued.

“We’re just waiting for the U.S. to say N-O [and] block consensus,” she said.

Palacios added that he was disappointed that some organizations blamed the United States for not doing more at the commission’s meeting last December to curb overfishing of bigeye.

“That, to me, was not truly the case,” Palacios said. “The U.S. fleets took a hit. There were signatory countries that were able to triple their quotas. Not only did we sacrifice … we got blamed for the whole convention not being able to come up with the significant management measures necessary.” (At the WCPFC meeting, the U.S. delegation’s ability to negotiate on bigeye quotas was compromised by the practice, initiated by an act of Congress in 2011, of allowing the bigeye catch over and above the quota to be allocated to U.S.-flagged Pacific islands via charter agreements.)

Council member McGrew Rice further lamented that when U.S. representatives at the WCPFC meeting dared to complain about its quota reductions, “a country blurted out a very prejudiced statement … that we are the largest, richest nation, so why are we grumbling.”

* * *
Council Selectively Endorses Informally Collected Whale Data

Does Wespac want a more scientifically rigorous stock assessment for Hawaiian false killer whales, as it claims, or does it simply want one that fishermen will like? That question arose following a discussion of estimates of false killer whale populations around the Main Hawaiian Islands.

Interactions with either the pelagic or the endangered insular stock of the mammals is one of the biggest problems the Hawai`i deep-set longline fleet faces. Under a take-reduction plan imposed by NMFS, if the fishery kills or seriously injures one or two whales in a given year, basically all federal waters south of the Main Hawaiian Islands and part of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands will be off-limits to those vessels until certain bycatch reduction thresholds are met.

NMFS estimates there are about 1,500 pelagic and 150 insular false killer whales around the Main Hawaiian Islands. And for the past several Wespac meetings, council members and staff have criticized the science behind those estimates, focusing, in particular, on the photo identification analysis provided by Cascadia Research Collective’s Robin Baird.

Last year, council staff went so far as to gather its own group of scientists to produce a new abundance estimate of the pelagic stock of false killer whales. Their modeling found that there were hundreds more whales than NMFS had estimated and that the population is increasing, rather than decreasing.

Earlier this year, without public notice, a subcommittee of Wespac’s Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) met to hear a presentation by Baird and question him about his methods. The subcommittee ultimately determined that his analyses “were not suitable for deriving the best available scientific information about abundance, abundance trends or key demographic parameters for the main Hawaiian Islands insular false killer whale population. Such abundance estimates should not be used at this time for management-related decisions.”

Subcommittee members included Milani Chaloupka, Pierre Kleiber, Jim Lynch, and Robert Skillman, whose model was used last year to produce Wespac’s abundance estimate of the pelagic stock.

As reported elsewhere in this issue, Baird abruptly left the meeting after what he considered to be unprofessional, adversarial questioning by Chaloupka. A copy of the subcommittee report provided to Environment Hawai`i makes no mention of this and simply notes areas where questions “were not sufficiently answered.”

In general, the SSC report criticizes Baird’s studies for what it describes as ad-hoc, opportunistic sampling methods, as well as the type of model used to estimate FKW populations.

The subcommittee recommended that NMFS’ Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) obtain the full photo-identification dataset of the insular false killer whale population so it can determine whether additional modeling could improve the analysis. It also recommended that the PIFSC make it a priority to conduct its own systematic surveys of the animals in the Main Hawaiian islands “to establish a dataset suitable for estimating abundance.”

“In view of the potential limitations associated with the photo-identification dataset, and the time needed to complete systematic surveys of the … population, the subcommittee further recommends development of alternative approaches to estimating false killer whale abundance,” the report states.

At Wespac’s March meeting, SSC chair Charles Daxboeck reported that the full committee supported the subcommittee’s recommendations and found that Baird’s research does not constitute the best available science.

He said that Baird probably holds about 60 or 70 percent of all data on false killer whales in Hawai`i and that NMFS has the rest.

“So he is the holder of the raw data and I think that the data that he releases to NMFS to do [stock assessment reports] is already reworked. That’s why we’re asking to get access to this through other channels by asking the funders of the research-gathering to ask him to release the data if they’re not military secrets and to ask NMFS for the data funded by them because it’s public money,” he continued.

“We’re not trying to assassinate the guy. … We’re trying to help this guy out,” he said, adding that others may be able to input Baird’s raw data into a model more appropriate for how the data were gathered.

Baird’s data includes photos he’s taken as well as those from whale watching tours, he said. “It’s all mixed in together.”

“[With] unstructured inputs, you get unstructured output,” he said.

In the end, the council approved the SSC’s recommendations and directed staff to explore alternative ways to provide robust estimates for FKW abundance.

Yet, after all the criticism of Baird for “unstructured” data collecting and the use of photos from whale watching tours, Wespac voted to recommend that the PIFSC “develop approaches to ensure information and photos from fishermen are incorporated into cetacean assessments for abundance estimates and stock structure.”

“Make sure the fishermen are involved in this. We see what happens every day out there,” council member McGrew Rice said.

To this, NMFS Pacific Islands Regional Office administrator Mike Tosatto noted that while Baird’s method of ad hoc data collection has its values and downsides, using fishermens’ photos and information – also a form of ad hoc collection – would be no better.

He then assured the council that any stock assessment his agency produced would be scientifically rigorous.

* * *
Enforcement Roundup

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Law Enforcement has levied a fine of $59,616 fine against H-N Fishery, Inc., whose longline vessel, Sapphire III, was caught twice in two days inside waters of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

Commercial fishing of all kinds is prohibited in the monument and entry by any vessel requires at a minimum a permit from the Monument Management Board.

After being instructed by the Coast Guard to leave the monument, the vessel was found the very next day “engaged in what appeared to be fishing activity within the Monument,” a report from special agent William Pickering states.

Pickering’s report was presented at Wespac’s meeting in March.

The report notes that the OLE has also recommended for prosecution a case in which a Hawai`i-based longliner was caught inside a closed area. The Princess Jasmine, owned by Dang Fishery, Inc., is alleged to have conducted one fishing set in the Main Hawaiian Islands Closed Longline Area.

Although these most recently completed investigations involved fishing violations, most of the OLE’s other cases involve interactions with protected species.

Pickering told Wespac that his office at times can field 1.5 humpback whale cases per day. The whale population has increased, “which of course is a good thing,” he said. But during whale season, Maui’s population swells to 5,000-plus visitors and “it’s just a matter of [the whale] population vs. number of people who want to get out on the water,” he said.

Finally, he noted that the U.S. attorney’s office declined pursue a case where a vessel owner was allegedly shooting at dolphins in Honolulu. The only witness was a young child.

“Based on the age and articulation, it was decided that case could not move forward,” said, adding that very young witnesses “don’t do well.”

“I’m not saying the witness was making anything up, but it was a tough case,” he said.


Teresa Dawson


Volume 24, Number 11 — May 2014


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