Things are looking up for the Hawai‘i deep-set longline fleet, and not just because a new stock assessment for bigeye tuna in the Western and Central Pacific suggests that it is neither overfished nor subject to overfishing.
This past summer, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission bumped up the United States’ Eastern Pacific bigeye tuna catch limit for longline vessels longer than 24 meters from 500 metric tons a year to 750. What’s more, it specified that member countries with specified limits (China, Japan, Korea, Chinese Taipei, and the United States) may transfer up to 30 percent of their quotas to another member that also has a set limit. Japan had already been sharing its quota with China, but the new rule makes it clear that others can do it as well, and sets limits on those transfers.
For the past few years, Hawai‘i’s larger longliners have had to stop fishing in the Eastern Pacific before the year’s end because they were predicted to meet the 500 metric ton quota set years ago by the IATTC. (The United States hadn’t done a good job of negotiating when the tuna conservation measure was originally created, according to Kurt Schaefer of the IATTC. Schaefer is also a member of Wespac’s SSC.)
Wespac and its staff have been pushing recently to increase the U.S. quota in the Eastern Pacific, as the Hawai‘i fleet has been shifting its effort there more and more. While the Scientific Committee of the international Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) recently determined that there is a 77 percent probability that the stock is not experiencing overfishing and an 84 percent probability that the stock is not overfished, winning a quota increase in the Western Pacific region won’t be easy, said Wespac’s Eric Kingma at the council’s meeting last month.
“It’s going to be a tough go for us. … There’s a lot of different proposals in play. Most of the U.S. proposals have not received a lot of support from other members. They may have to give up some of their other interests. December 1 will be the next opportunity to negotiate,” he told the SSC, referring to the WCPFC’s next meeting.
Earlier this year, the United States proposed that quotas apply to fishing occurring between 20 degrees North latitude and 20 degrees South latitude, where 80 to 90 percent of bigeye catches occur. Kingma noted that nearly 58 percent of the United States’ longline catch and nearly 43 percent of Japan’s occurred north of 20 degrees North.
Other commission members, however, have proposed cutting the United States’ longline annual quota to 2,800 metric tons. It currently stands at 3,250 metric tons.
Kingma said such proposals are mostly driven by politics. “A few hundred metric tons’ reduction is not about conserving bigeye. It’s about negotiations,” he said.
The Scientific Committee has recommended that the fishing mortality level resulting from any new bigeye tuna measure not exceed the average mortality level for the years 2011 to 2014. Should the commission decide to apply that standard to each participating member county, the United States would likely see a reduction in its quota, since, according to NMFS’s Mike Tostatto, its recent average caches have been higher than the 2011-2014 average.
Wespac executive director Kitty Simonds suggested that the United States should just ignore the Scientific Committee’s advice.
“It’s always bothered me that our quota is pathetic, frankly, compared to the rest of the countries. Most of us think we should be asking for a much higher quota and the purse seine quota should be lowered so we can increase our quota. … Purse seiners have continued to catch bigeye, which is the fishery for the longliners,” she said.
“The Science Committee has recommended things over the years and nobody pays attention to them,” she continued, adding, “We shouldn’t be shy. … I don’t think we need to follow that [advice from the committee].”
Graham Pilling of the Pacific Community, which prepared the bigeye stock assessment for WCPFC, told Wespac’s scientific advisors that his agency will be evaluating 49 different bigeye tuna management scenarios ahead of the December WCPFC meeting. He said his agency plans to prepare a grid of various combinations of purse seine and longline effort and catch levels “and pull things like spawning biomass and fishing mortality values out of that.”
The council ultimately voted to recommend that the United States work to obtain a bigeye tuna quota of 6,000 metric tons under the new tropical tuna conservation and management measure to be adopted at the WCPFC annual meeting. Such a quota would perhaps eliminate the need for the Hawai‘i longline fleet to enter into quota transfer agreements with U.S. Pacific island territories in order to continue fishing through the end of the year.
As Wespac noted in its recommendations, NMFS has for the past three years failed to authorize the transfers before the fleet hits the WCPFC bigeye quota. This year, there was a six-week gap during which longline vessels that were longer than 24 meters and/ or not also permitted by America Samoa had to cease fishing for bigeye.
The closures, however temporary, are “pretty catastrophic for the price of seafood. … This uncertainty always creates a sense of anxiety in the seafood community,” said council member Mike Goto, who also manages the Honolulu fish auction.
“We started with an original limit of more than 4,000 metric tons. Now, it’s 3,250 metric tons. The PNA [Parties to the Nauru Agreement, which is made up of several small Pacific island nations] proposed reducing it to 2,800 metric tons. Clearly, any rationale based on biology and stock assessment has gone out the window and has been replaced by spite, certainly with the PNA,” said Wespac senior scientist Paul Dalzell.
“What does China have? What does Japan have? The United States government needs to stand up for its fisheries,” Simonds added.
In addition to recommending that the United States seek a quota increase, the council also recommended that the government not accept any longline quota reduction. Specifically, it wanted the United States to acknowledge that any proposed reductions in its longline bigeye limit in the Western and Central Pacific “would prevent the U.S. in joining consensus on a new tropical tuna measure.”
— Teresa Dawson