Having just recently survived litigation against its rule allowing Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa to each transfer 1,000 metric tons (mt) of their bigeye tuna quotas to the Hawai`i longline fleet, the National Marine Fisheries Service is wary of efforts to tinker with the status quo.
Under standards set by the international Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, bigeye tuna are not only subject to overfishing, but are overfished. NMFS’s management plan for the fish, however, uses a different standard to determine whether a stock is overfished — maximum sustainable yield (MSY) (versus a percentage of unfished spawning biomass). Because MSY has not been breached, NMFS continues to allow the transfers despite arguments by environmental groups that those transfers illegally circumvent the U.S. longline quota set by WCPFC.
Currently, NMFS sets quotas for those territories at 2,000 mt each and allows them to transfer up to 1,000 mt. Analysis by NMFS’s Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) shows that transferring all 3,000 metric tons in a given year leads to only a 1 percent change to the median stock status reference point ratios. A 2,000 mt transfer, which is what occurred last year, would result in a change of less than 1 percent.
Given the heavy scrutiny of the fishery, however, the quota transfer scheme has to be bulletproof to survive any challenge, said NMFS’s Jarad Makaiau at the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council’s meeting last month. Makaiau is head of the Pacific Islands Regional Office’s sustainable fisheries branch. He recommended that the council, in recommending future transfer limits, should take into account the fact that the Hawai`i fishery has exceeded its allowable take of threatened green sea turtles.
With a similar warning from NOAA general counsel Fred Tucher, who also noted that an environmental impact statement would likely be required for any transfer scenarios not already evaluated by NMFS, the council voted to maintain the status quo. This is despite the fact that some of the territories argued for increasing their quotas to 3,000 mt.
A few members on Wespac’s Scientific and Statistical Committee had also balked at the prospect of expanding the territorial quotas and/or the transfer amounts. Alton Miyasaka of the state’s Division of Aquatic Resources suggested that an analysis of the impacts resulting from a quota hike should be done before the council selects its preferred quota transfer scenario. Fisheries scientist John Sibert added that his personal feeling was that the catch limits set forth by WCPFC should be maintained and that “options for territories to develop their own aspirations are maintained.”
While the council is not now able to prove that a further increase in the U.S. longline fleet’s allowable catch won’t hinder the stock’s ability to rebuild, that may not be the case next year, when the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) is scheduled to provide the WCPFC with a new stock assessment for bigeye. Given the fishing data for 2015, it’s possible the stock will be found to be in better shape than it is now, thereby opening the door to an argument by the United States that increasing its longline quota for bigeye won’t deter the stock’s recovery.
Last year, total bigeye catches in the Western and Central Pacific were the lowest they’ve been since 1996. The purse seiners, according to a WCPFC report, caught the lowest amount of bigeye since 2007 apparently as a result of lower effort and possibly environmental conditions. Longline effort also dropped, the report stated.
“There may be a bit more bigeye about than there was before,” Wespac senior scientist Paul Dalzell told the SSC.
Factoring in the most recent catch data, WCPFC’s scientific committee has tentatively determined that the spawning biomass of bigeye has improved by a hair. Instead of comprising 16 percent of its unfished state, it’s now 17 percent. (Once the spawning biomass exceeds 20 percent of its unfished state, it will no longer be considered overfished.) However, this determination assumes that catches reported by other countries that fish in the Western and Central Pacific are accurate. And as Tucher told the council last month, NMFS must evaluate the impacts of the action it’s authorizing “cumulatively with all other impacts in the region.”
“You can have cumulatively significant impacts even though your action contributes a small portion of mortality,” he said. NMFS Pacific Islands Regional Office administrator Mike Tosatto added that in a worst-case scenario, Indonesia’s reported bigeye catch of 10,000 mt was actually 39,000 mt. “We would have to consider that in the action we take. … That might mean we could not approve this [quota transfer],” he said.
Despite all of the international regulations aimed at reducing bigeye catches, the Hawai`i longline fishery keeps growing, said Chris Boggs, director of the PIFSC Fisheries Research and Monitoring Division. Last year was the first time the fleet had to acquire quota transfers from not one, but two U.S. territories, and this year, the fishery has agreements in place for transfers from all three territories, just in case.
The reason for the multiple transfers is mainly that the fishery’s catch rates in recent years have been phenomenal. But that may soon change, according to local fisheries scientists. In a presentation to the SSC, PIFSC’s Jeff Polovina explained that the high catch rates are largely attributable to an El Niño event in 2012 that led to the spawning of a lot of bigeye. Those fish have finally grown large enough to be caught by the Hawai`i fleet. That “recruitment pulse,” plus an increase in effort this year and ocean temperatures that may have corralled the fish into tighter bundles, contributed to the fishery this year reaching its quota in record time, he said.
Polovina said that most of that bunch of fish spawned several years ago have been caught and “we probably peaked already in terms of catch rates. … From what we’re seeing, we don’t have high expectations for 2016 going forward.”
The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission’s management measure for tropical tunas expires at the end of next year. Given the drop in fishing effort this year and last, it’s unlikely commission members will make any major changes to it when it meets next month in Fiji. Even so, the United States is expected to try to lay further groundwork this year for a shift from country-based quotas to spatially based ones.
For several years, Wespac has stressed the fact that fishing effort in the region in which the Hawai`i longline fleet spends most of its time has very little impact on the overall stock status. If WCPFC, in its Conservation and Management Measure for 2018 and beyond, were to require the largest catch reductions to occur in areas where fishing pressure on bigeye is the greatest and be more lenient in areas with light fishing effort, the Hawai`i fishery could operate more freely and still not hinder the stock’s recovery, it’s argued.
Currently, the stock assessment for bigeye in the area evaluates fishing effort in nine spatial regions. The Hawai`i fleet fishes mostly in region 2, but spills over into the top of region 4. Upon a recommendation made by the U.S. delegation at last year’s WCPFC meeting, the SPC is working to identify different levels of regional longline bigeye catch that achieve fishing mortality at the maximum sustainable yield level within a certain time frame, i.e., 10 years. With that information, which should be completed by next month, the commission will be able to see how much fishing effort needs to be reduced in a given region to end overfishing.
The fact that Hawai`i longline fleet’s effort spans two regions may complicate any attempt to set regional limits. To simplify matters, Wespac staff suggested last month that WCPFC should re-draw the line between region 2 and 4 so that Hawai`i’s entire fishery is included in region 2. Scientists with the council’s SSC say data on the movement of yellowfin and bigeye tuna in the area support the boundary amendment.
SSC member John Hampton, who also works for the SPC, advised the committee that any arguments to revise the regional boundaries “are best framed in terms of what is the best scientific approach, rather than what suits the fishery needs of Hawai`i.”
“There are 30-plus members of WCPFC who have their own fishery needs. [It’s] easier for us to respond to a scientific argument than a political, domestic one,” he said.
— Teresa Dawson