Debate Heats Up Over Potential Impacts Of Expanded Monument on Longliners 

posted in: July 2016 | 0

(This article has been corrected to clarify Mike Goto’s estimate of the percentage of fish exported.)

When it comes to the arguments that supporters and opponents of the proposed expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument have put forth about the potential impacts of ending commercial fishing there, there’s a lot to sort out: what matters, what’s open to debate, and what’s just plain wrong.

For example, the grassroots group Expand Papahanaumokuakea stated in a white paper last month that expanding the monument would protect deep sea habitats from the damaging effects of bottom trawling, when, in fact, that type of fishing has been prohibited throughout federal waters around Hawai‘i since the 1980s.

Another example: In its April 8 letter to President Barack Obama, the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council (Wespac) suggested that closing federal waters around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) to fishing would “exacerbate the problem of sharks preying on juvenile seals.” As pointed out later by Don Schug, a former Wespac staff economist and currently a member of the NWHI Coral Reef Ecosystem Advisory Council (RAC), “The assumption seems to be that the longline fishery reduces the population of sharks that prey on monk seals. However, … the letter notes that the major threat to Hawaiian monk seals are Galapagos sharks, which, according to the letter, occasionally cross the open ocean between islands, but are generally resident at a single island. Elsewhere, however, the letter states, ‘Sharks caught by the Hawai‘i longline fishery are highly migratory pelagic sharks that do not show site fidelity to the NWHI.’ Moreover, the letter reports that 96 percent of the sharks caught by the Hawai‘i longline fishery are released alive.”

Wespac senior scientist Paul Dalzell later conceded that his agency had, indeed, contradicted itself. He agreed that attacks on monk seal pups (not juveniles, as the letter had erroneously stated) are made by Galapagos sharks at French Frigate Shoals.

The White House is expected to hold at least two meetings in Hawai‘i (one of them on Kaua‘i) to give the public a chance to comment on the proposed expansion before the president makes a decision. It’s likely the debate over whether or how much fishing should be allowed in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone around the NWHI will continue until then, as will efforts to nail down relevant facts. We focus here on two areas of dispute: benefits a large marine protected area provide to NWHI tuna stocks and the amount of fish caught by Hawai‘i longliners that actually stays here.

Spillover Effects 

One of the main arguments made by expansion supporters is that providing a haven, or pu‘uhonua, for the tunas targeted by longliners will enhance fish populations both inside and outside the monument, so even if vessels are forced to the high seas, they’ll still be able to catch ample amounts of tuna.

The white paper developed by Expand Papahanumokuakea discusses the potential benefit to bigeye tuna, which is the main target of the Hawai‘i longline fishery. Bigeye in the Western and Central Pacific are considered subject to overfishing, and the paper notes, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has assessed the species as “vulnerable to extinction.”

A global analysis of marine reserves — mainly those in coastal and bottom habitats — found that they generally result in more and larger fish, as well as greater species diversity, the paper states.

“[T]he principle that fish populations rebound when fishing pressure is removed appears to hold true for offshore species, too. For example, Filipino fishermen caught skipjack, yellowfin, and bigeye tuna inside High Seas pocket 1, an area of high seas between the Philippines and Guam closed to most fishing countries. These fish were on average larger than fish of the same species caught inside the Philippines EEZ,” the paper states, citing a 2015 report to the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission.

The group also cites studies involving genetic testing and chemical signatures that suggest bigeye and yellowfin tuna are not as highly migratory as previously thought. That being the case, it argues, “spillover effects of the fish that do swim outside of the area of protection would benefit fishermen.”

Wespac’s Dalzell, however, stated in a June 5 email to Schug that studies “do suggest limited movement of yellowfin tuna, but not bigeye tuna. … [S]ince yellowfin can both feed and spawn around Hawai‘i, there is little incentive for them to move on elsewhere, unlike bigeye, which appear to need to spawn in lower, more equatorial latitudes.”

At the RAC’s June 8 meeting, Wespac’s Eric Kingma vehemently disputed any suggestion that expanding the monument would benefit bigeye tuna. “Some people have a little bit of information and want to play fishery management,” he said, noting that a recent assessment of the bigeye tuna stock in nine subregions across the Western and Central Pacific has shown that the region closest to the NWHI is not overfished or subject to overfishing. In more equatorial waters, where fishing pressure is concentrated, the stock depletion rate is much higher, he said.

“You’re not going to be saving bigeye by expanding the monument. That is a true statement,” he said.

Eric Kingma
Eric Kingma

Indeed, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community’s 2014 stock assessment for bigeye tuna in the Western and Central Pacific found only a slim difference between the spawning potential under historic fishing levels and the spawning potential of an unfished state in Region 2, where the Hawai‘i fleet spends most of its time. However, contends University of Hawai‘i Fisheries Ecology Research Lab director Alan Friedlander, “They don’t really know what a virgin stock is. By the time they did the assessment, it was already exploited. I believe [the unfished biomass] was much, much, much higher than the current assessment indicates.”

Furthermore, Friedlander says that while an expanded monument might not currently help bigeye as much as it will Hawai‘i’s resident stock of yellowfin, that may not be the case once climate change brings warmer waters closer to Hawai‘i. “Bigeye could potentially be spawning closer to the Hawaiian arichipealago. Then there would be a direct effect from monument expansion,” he says.


Many in the local fishing community have stressed how important it is that Hawai‘i longliners provide the fish that feeds Hawai‘i.

As fishery scientist David Itano told the RAC at its June 8 meeting, every disadvantage forced upon highly regulated U.S. fishermen benefits more loosely regulated foreign fleets that catch fish “with a higher ecological debt.”

“This industry … provides a resource unmatched in terms of local production,” Kingma said, adding that he wanted to clear up some “misinformation of how much fish stays in Hawai‘i.”

Wespac itself stated in an October 2015 press release that most of the fish caught by the Hawai‘i-based fleet is consumed in Hawai‘i. “Only three percent is exported,” the press release said.

At the RAC meeting, however, Kingma offered significantly different figures. According to peer-reviewed journals, he said, 80 percent of fish caught by Hawai‘i longliners stays in the state; 18 percent is exported to the mainland, and two percent is distributed to international buyers.

“Seventy to 80 percent of this fishery stays here,” he said, amending the numbers yet again.

When it came time for public testimony, Department of Hawaiian Home Lands deputy director William Aila disputed Kingma’s numbers, reporting that Mike Goto, manager of the Honolulu fish auction and a member of Wespac, recently told the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ board that almost 50 percent of the fish caught by longliners leaves the state.

“That was a mistake,” Kingma interjected, but Aila insisted that’s what was said.

Goto later clarified to Environment Hawai‘i that he had told OHA that “less than half ” of the fish is exported, and Aila had apparently interpreted that to mean nearly half. While he would not provide an exact percentage of the fishery’s exports because he said that was proprietary information, he said it’s closer to Kingma’s numbers. Goto said it’s around 30 percent, but varies from year to year.

In any case, Expand Papahanaumokuakea states, federal catch data show that the fleet’s landings and landed values remained constant after the 2014 expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument and the same would result from a monument expansion in the NWHI.

—Teresa Dawson


Volume 27, Number 1 July 2016

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