The Western Pacific Fishery Management Council (Wespac) is moving to lift measures, in place for more than a decade, that require the Hawai‘i shallow-set longline fleet, which targets swordfish, to stop fishing if it hits its annual limit of loggerhead and/ or leatherback sea turtle takes. Both species are federally listed as endangered.
Since 2004, as a result of a court battle over the Hawai‘i swordfish fishery’s ever-increasing catches of the rare sea turtles throughout the 1990s, the fleet has been subject to the caps, which are aimed at protecting listed species from jeopardy. The fleet has also had to implement a number of other measures to minimize its impacts on the turtles, such as using mackerel-type bait, large circle hooks, and de-hooking devices.
While the measures have led to significantly reduced turtle catches — 90 percent for loggerheads and 85 percent for leatherbacks — the fleet did hit its loggerhead cap in 2006 and its leatherback cap in 2011. (In both instances, the caps were 16 and 17, respectively, at the time. They are currently 34 and 26.)
So are those caps still necessary?
The National Marine Fisheries Service’s Pacific Islands Regional Office has recently decided to re-evaluate the shallow-set fishery’s impacts on endangered species, and Wespac has taken the opportunity to make a case that hard caps are unnecessary. NMFS is expected to produce a new biological opinion (BiOp) and incidental take statement (ITS) for the fishery, which will specify a new acceptable level of interaction between the fishery and a variety of protected species. The last biological opinion and ITS were done in 2012.
Once the new BiOp and ITS come out, Wespac must recommend how NMFS’s regulations should be amended to best implement the statement’s findings.
At a meeting last month of Wespac’s Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC), council staffer Asuka Ishizaki detailed the reasons why the caps may be superfluous and possibly even detrimental.
She said that the fleet’s fishing effort and its interactions with the turtles have been relatively stable since the protection measures were initiated in 2004. Although swordfish fishing isn’t as profitable or stable as bigeye tuna fishing by the deep-set longline fleet, she said the local swordfish stock is healthy and she didn’t see the fishery going away anytime soon.
“It’s unlikely the fishery would return to the historical, 1990s effort level,” she added, referring to when fishing effort and turtle interactions were at their peak.
“Despite the poor economic performance of this fishery in recent years, fishing effort in future years may reasonably range within lev- els seen since 2004, as high global swordfish demand in combination with fresh sustainable swordfish from Hawai‘i fisheries could rapidly change levels due to market demand. Additionally, the largest component of the Hawai‘i longline fleet is comprised of Vietnamese-American ownership, which have a long-term history of targeting swordfish, and changes in bigeye limits for the deep-set longline fishery could encourage more vessels to resume targeting swordfish as an alternative in the event of a bigeye closure,” a staff options paper stated.
Since 2004, the fishery has interacted with, or taken, an average of 9.9 loggerheads a year and 7.8 leatherbacks a year, she said. She noted that the fleet was estimated to have annually killed an average of only 0.1 adult loggerhead female and one adult female leatherback, adding that those takes represent
a small percentage of adult female populations of both species that interact with the fleet, which total about 6,673 adult female leatherbacks in the North Pacific population, and about 1,949 adult females in the Western Pacific population of loggerheads.
Citing a 2009 Marine Policy article by Gordon Rausser and others, Ishizaki continued that any closure of the Hawai‘i swordfish fishery triggered by the turtle hard caps would result in an influx of fish entering the local market from countries with higher turtle bycatch rates.
“As a result of the swordfish fishery closing, they brought in fish from elsewhere. They estimated the closure between 2001 and 2004 resulted in an increase of 3,000 sea turtle interactions across the Pacific,” she said, adding that a 2016 study (by Hing L. Chan and Minling Pan in Marine Resource Economics) estimates that after the fishery reopened in 2004, somewhere between 842 and 1,826 fewer turtles were caught in the Pacific.
Should the new BiOp produce lower ITS levels than what has governed the fishery in recent years, “it would increase the probability that the hard haps would be reached,” she said.
The committee ultimately recommended that hard caps be lifted. “”We don’t believe there’s a biological basis for a hard cap specification. It’s an arbitrary figure,” said committee member Milani Chaloupka. When the full council met later in American Samoa, it supported the committee’s recommendation, although the state of Hawai‘i’s representative opposed lifting the hard caps.
Specifically, the council recommended removing the annual loggerhead and leather- back hard caps and associated fishery closure procedure since “gear measures implemented in 2004 have been successful in reducing sea turtle interactions in the fishery and that the hard cap measure is no longer necessary given that the fishery and turtle interactions are likely to remain relatively stable in the future.” It added that removing the hard caps would “reduce uncertainty in the fishery and eliminate the potential for spillover and transferred effects of increased overall impacts to sea turtles in the Pacific.”
Not mentioned anywhere in Ishizaki’s presentations to the SSC or the council was a June 2017 article in the Journal of Ocean and Coastal Economics that contradicts the findings in both the Rausser et al. and Chan and Pan articles that the closure of the Hawai‘i swordfish fishery in the early 2000s led to a dramatic increase in turtle deaths.
“Our analysis indicates that Rausser et al.’s and Chan and Pan’s conclusions about increased global turtle mortality are not robust, because while they provide evidence that demonstrates a correlation between the US
closure and a market transfer effect, this correlation can be explained by other factors,” authors Jason D. Scorse and Shaun Richards of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and Philip King of San Francisco State University wrote, adding, “For the market transfer hypothesis to be robust one must demonstrate that foreign fleets in the EPO [Eastern Pacific Ocean] increased their catch in response to the closure.”
They argued that most of the foreign fish that came to Hawai‘i during the closure came from Spain and noted that increased subsidies from the Spanish government and the European Union expanded the Spanish fleet’s fishing capacity during the closure period. “This increased Spanish fishing capacity was completely independent of US regulations (and began before 2001), but its effects coincidentally overlap with the 2001- 2004 closure. … [B]ecause of the closure, the US happened to provide a convenient and temporary market opportunity for the Spanish fleet, but they subsequently found many more willing buyers,” they wrote.
It’s unlikely that the influx of foreign fish came from the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO), since only two countries that fish there — Taiwan (Chinese Taipei) and the Philippines — saw increases in swordfish catch during the closure period and those increases weren’t caused by the closure, they wrote.
“Chinese Taipei did not directly increase swordfish effort; they continued a seasonal coastal harpoon fishery between 2001 and 2004, and the bulk of their increase in swordfish landings can be attributed to the development of their tuna fisheries and a subsequent increase in swordfish bycatch. The Philippines only fish for swordfish using municipal vessels and primarily use single hook hand lines, which would not overlap with the part of the WCPO used by the Hawai‘i longline fishery, nor very likely result in a large increase in turtle mortality,” they wrote. (The fishing industry in the Philippines is divided into four sectors: commercial, municipal, fishponds, and fish- ing lakes and rivers.)
They concluded that there is insufficient evidence to support the idea that a market transfer effect occurred during the closure period and that there is no robust evidence to suggest that “future restrictions or expansions of the Hawai‘i fishery will cause a corresponding net change in turtle bycatch by foreign vessels.”
“The notion of market transfer effects is bogus science that’s been bought and paid for by Wespac and is simply not supported by the data,” said Paul Achitoff, an attorney for Earthjustice, which supported an earlier version of the article. He added that there is no good, factual support for the argument made by Wespac and others that “if you don’t allow Hawai‘i’s fisheries to kill turtles other fisheries will kill more of them. There is no evidence other fisheries care at all what Hawai‘i’s fishery does.”
‘We Will Sue’
Market transfer effects aside, Achitoff said that the turtle take by the Hawai‘i swordfish fleet is already too high. Earthjustice, on behalf of the Turtle Island Restoration Network and the Center for Biological Diversity, sued NMFS over its 2012 BiOP and ITS setting the current level of take for loggerhead and leatherback, as well as the fishery’s seabird take. The federal District Court found in favor of NMFS. An appeal of that ruling is awaiting a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Basically, our position is they continue to allow excessive take of endangered turtles,” Achitoff said.
Wespac’s finding that the hard caps create uncertainty for the fleet “strikes me as absurd. The purpose of the hard cap its to create certainty. If you exceed the hard cap, [the fishery] closes. That’s certain,” he said.
He agreed with the council’s statement that turtle interactions fell as a result of litigation-prompted measures, but found no comfort in the agency’s belief that turtle take levels aren’t likely to reach the historical highs.
“That’s not the point. Analyses show the turtles are jeopardized by take below the levels that were pervasive prior to 2004. We don’t need to go back to 2004 levels in order for there to be a threat to the turtles’ survival. The threat continues with the take by the Hawai‘i fishery and other fisheries at current levels. It’s not that the data shows the leatherbacks [have increased] to some healthy levels. Not at all. They’re still critically endangered,” he said.
The council plans to meet with shallow- set longliners to discuss what they would prefer and it must still draft and take a final action on an amendment to its Pelagic Fishery Ecosystem Plan to lift the hard caps.
“If they introduce such an amendment and NMFS adopts it, we will sue them as we have done for the past 20 years,” Achitoff warned.
— Teresa Dawson
For Further Reading
Environment Hawai‘i has extensively covered the Hawai‘i shallow-set fishery’s impacts on sea turtles. Below is a short list of some of our stories over the years. All are available on our website, http://www.environment- hawaii.org.
Various articles and the editorial in our January 2000 issue;
“After Eight Years, NMFS Finds Longliners Jeopardize Sea Turtles,” April 2001;
“Endangered Species Act Violations Brought Against Vessels Accused of Targeting Swordfish,” August 2002;
“Fisheries Council Pushes to Lift Closures Imposed to Protect Turtles,” July 2003;
“Turtle Bycatch Continues to Frustrate Council Efforts to Reopen Swordfish Fishery,” December 2003;
“Swordfish Fishery Is Shut Down After Reaching Limit on Loggerhead Takes,” May 2006;
“New Report Supports Lifting Annual Limit on Interactions between Loggerheads, Fishers,” December 2008;
“Hawai‘i Longliners Lose Challenge to Settlement Over Loggerhead Turtles,” July 2011;
“Swordfish Longliners Hit Turtle Cap; Bigeye Fishery Closed in West,” EHxtra, 11/18/2011;
“Lawsuit Challenges Relaxed Limits on Turtle Takes by Swordfish Fleet,” EHxtra, 11/02/12.