In late 2011, Hawai`i longliners were about to reach their catch limit of bigeye tuna under an international quota system on the cusp of the busy holiday season. Congress rushed in and saved the day by passing a law allowing the longline fishery to continue catching bigeye through the end of the year by saying that whatever was caught beyond the international quota would be chalked up to the unused quota allocated in the same international system to one or another U.S. territory in the Pacific.
That quota transfer eventually became enshrined in federal regulations governing the Hawai`i longliners. In 2014, it was challenged by several environmental groups, but in December, U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi upheld it.
Last year, in the face of island nations in the South Pacific increasing the amount they charged U.S. purse seiners to fish in their exclusive economic zones and restrictions by Kiribati on fishing effort in its waters, Tri Marine International, owner of several purse seiners as well as the larger of two tuna canneries in American Samoa, petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to promulgate a rule that would do much the same thing for the purse seiners as NMFS had done for the longliners.
On May 25, it did just that, publishing a rule, effective on publication, that combines the U.S. fleet’s limit of 1,270 fishing days on the high seas between 20 degrees N and 20 degrees S with 558 fishing days permitted to the purse seiners inside the EEZs of U.S. territories and U.S. remote islands within the same latitudes (American Samoa and Guam, for the most part). That zone, established by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, is called ELAPS, for Effort Limited Area for Purse Seine.
According to NMFS, the rule “is being issued without prior notice or prior public comment because of the unexpectedly high level of U.S. purse seine fishing effort in the ELAPS in 2016.” It goes on to say that this level was “unexpected” because of a delay in the issuance of fishing licenses by the South Pacific island states that are party to the South Pacific Tuna Treaty. Those licenses were not issued until March 4.
That delay caused U.S. purse seiners to concentrate their fishing effort early in the year “in small pocket areas of the ELAPS that are not part of the Treaty Licensing Area and do not require Treaty licenses to fish,” NMFS stated.
The new rule gives purse seiners 1,828 fishing days, all of which can be conducted in the EEZ even though 558 fishing days will be attributed to the territorial quotas.
According to Michael Tosatto, administrator of NMFS’ Pacific Islands Regional Office, the limit for purse seine fishing days in U.S. territorial waters has been set at 558 since 2009. “Our obligation is to limit purse seine effort in the WCPFC area to 558 [fishing days] in the EEZs plus 1,270 in the high seas, which we do collectively… This rule is essentially the same as last year and we have been found compliant by the WCPFC on these provisions since 2009,” Tosatto stated in an email.
Tosatto said that for the first few years, the limit set for the United States EEZs was not reached. “In 2015, we reached 1,828 days in the ELAPS and effort in the ELAPS was prohibited,” he said. “We expect to reach the limit for the ELAPS again this year.”
When that occurs, U.S.-flagged purse seiners in the Western Pacific, source of most of the world’s skipjack tuna, will not be able to fish on the high seas or in U.S. Exclusive Economic Zones in the ELAPS area until the start of the next calendar year. To continue to fish, they would need to purchase rights to fishing days in the EEZs of the 17 South Pacific nations. Under the current terms of the South Pacific Tuna Treaty, the cost of a fishing day is around $12,000.
The new rule has not been received well by the island nations that participate in the South Pacific Tuna Treaty. Transform Aqorau, chief executive of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, representing most of those nations, described the move as “a superpower abusing a measure agreed to in December 2015,” referring to the WCPFC conservation and management measure for tunas that was adopted at the commission’s annual meeting in Bali.
The rule was announced just a month before the new negotiating session on renewing the Tuna Treaty was scheduled to be held, June 20-24, in Auckland, New Zealand.
— Patricia Tummons
For Further Reading
The December 2015 edition of Environment Hawai`i includes several articles on the U.S. purse seine fleet in the Pacific:
- “Rift in U.S. Purse Seine Fleet is Laid Bare in Comments on Tri Marine Petition;”
- “Purse Seiners, Longliners Share Blame for Overfishing of Western Pacific Bigeye;”
- “Treaty Sets Terms for U.S. Purse Seiners
- “Lax Safety Requirements for Vessels Making Up Purse Seine Fleet in Pacific.”
Volume 27 Number 1 July 2016