Longline Fishers Propose Gear Changes To Mitigate Bycatch of Protected Species

posted in: January 2021 | 0
Oceanic whitetip shark.

The Western Pacific Fishery Management Council held its 184th meeting in December – virtually, as necessitated by the ongoing pandemic.

None of the highly dramatic and controversial issues that have characterized many of the council’s meetings over the decades were on the agenda. Instead, the meeting was characterized by discussions of how to reduce bycatch in the longline fishery of several protected species, including oceanic whitetip sharks and seabirds.

In 2018, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration determined the oceanic whitetip shark to be threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Its population in the Pacific is thought to have declined 80 to 95 percent just since the mid-1990s.

The sharks are especially prized in some cultures for their fins. Since finning has been effectively banned in the U.S., the chief threat to the sharks that the longliners now pose is in their incidental catch. Even if the sharks are released, estimates of post-hooking mortality are greater than 40 percent.

In an effort to improve survivability, the Hawai‘i Longline Association (HLA), representing the interests of most of the 140 or so longline vessels operating out of Honolulu, is proposing to transition from steel trace leaders – the part of the line that attaches to the hook – to monofilament leaders.

The HLA unveiled its proposal at the council’s advisory Scientific and Statistical Committee meeting, held in late November, a week before the full council met.

“HLA will work to ensure that all Hawai‘i-based active vessels in the deep- set fishery” – the fishery that targets bigeye tuna – “will convert from steel trace wire leaders to monofilament nylon leaders,” the association said in a statement submitted to the SSC. “This conversion will begin in the first quarter 2021, with all Hawai‘i-based active vessels using monofilament nylon leaders by July 1, 2021.”

As part of the transition to monofilament leaders, HLA said in its written announcement, vessels would also employ long-handled line cutters “to maximize gear removal as close to hook as possible for oceanic whitetip sharks and other species.” Also, HLA said it would assist the National Marine Fisheries Service and the council in disseminating handling guidelines for oceanic whitetip sharks and giant manta rays. The guidelines “describe techniques for safely releasing sharks and rays with as little as possible trailing gear attached,” the HLA noted.

The trailing gear is one of the chief causes of death and serious injury to sharks, marine mammals, and sea turtles that interact with the longliners. When the animal is released with a length of wire still attached to an embedded hook, the trailing gear can wrap around fins or flippers and lead ultimately to the animal’s death. Past efforts to mitigate the problem involved adopting weaker hooks that – in theory – would straighten when the line was pulled taut as the animal was hauled near the boat. In practice, however, few of the weak hooks performed as the were intended to.

Eric Kingma, executive director of the HLA, told the SSC that the main reason wire leaders were used in the first place was to reduce fly-backs, which occur when a taut leader is cut. With the switch to monofilament line, vessels would deploy fly-back prevention devices and recon- figure branchline weight and materials, all measures intended to reduce the risk of crew injury.

Another element of the transition would be to partner with NMFS to train captains and crews on handling the sharks, manta rays, and also leatherback turtles.

“The best available science supports the expectation that the gear conversion will substantially reduce the impact of the deep-set fishery on oceanic whitetips and other shark species,” HLA says. “These reductions are due, in part, to the fact that sharks can more easily bite through monofilament line, resulting in earlier release, and that crews can efficiently release sharks that are brought to the vessel with less gear attached…. HLA believes the gear change will also have significant conservation benefit to giant manta rays, leatherback sea turtles, and false killer whales.”

Just how much or little the U.S. fisheries contribute to the decline of oceanic whitetip sharks was described in the report of the Oceanic Whitetip Shark Working Group convened by the council. Mem- bers included scientists and researchers from NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC), from NMFS’ Pacific Islands Regional Office (PIRO), the state of Hawai‘i, and representatives from HLA.

Impacts from all U.S. commercial fishing in the Western Pacific region on the spawning potential of the sharks – a measure of their capacity to reproduce – amounted to 1.2 percent, the group reported. About two thirds of that – 0.8 percent – is attributable to the Hawai‘i tuna longliners. “Closing all U.S. fisheries for 17 years may lead to a 4 percent increase in stock biomass by 2031,” the group’s report said.

Mitigating Bird Takes

HLA and the council are backing yet another measure that they say should reduce bycatch of albatrosses and other seabirds. For several years, the council had been concerned over the longliners’ rising take of albatross, especially black-footed albatross, a trend that noticeably began creeping upwards in 2014. Suspected factors behind the increase are oceanographic changes and “unique captain effects.”

In 2019, the council, HLA, the Science Center, and NMFS’ regional office undertook a research project to look once more at tori lines as a means of reducing bird bycatch. The device consists of a tall pole erected at the stern of the vessel as lines are set or hauled in. A line attached to the top of the pole has streamers attached to it at regular intervals. As the vessel moves in the water, the streamers fly over the water where the lines are being set or hauled in, interfering with the birds’ ability to go after bait on the line.

Research conducted by that team suggested that tori lines, in combination with blue-dyed bait, significantly reduced albatross feeding attempts and contact with longline gear.

On the other hand, the strategic discharge of offal, now required when birds are present, had the potential to increase bird interactions when gear was being set, the group found. As its report states, the regulation requires vessels “to discharge fish, fish parts, or spent bait while setting or hauling, on the opposite side of the vessel from where the longline gear is being set or hauled, when seabirds are present. … The regulations do not specify the amount or frequency of offal discharge, thus a small amount of offal or bait discarded during setting or hauling would meet the requirement. Additionally, … effective use of strategic offal discard would require a dedicated crew to observe seabirds and discharge offal accordingly. This measure therefore creates compliance and enforcement challenges, and it is likely that the strategic offal discard is not being utilized in a manner that is effective.”

As to the blue-dyed bait requirement, that has been the subject of complaints by the longliners. In workshops held by the council with the industry, they noted that the requirement to use blue-dyed bait was intended for squid bait used by the swordfish longliners, not the fish bait that most longliners now use. Participants in the workshop “indicated that blue-dyed bait is not favored by fishermen as the dye is messy and thawing of bait reduces retention on hooks.”

Based on that research, the HLA applied to NMFS for an experimental fishing permit that would allow up to four stern-setting vessels to use tori lines and forego having to employ strategic offal discharge or use blue-dyed bait, both of which are normally required when vessels fish north of 23 degrees north latitude. Each vessel participating in the experiment would be equipped with an electronic monitoring system. According to the notice in the Federal Register, “A stern-mounted video camera would monitor the number of birds present, and seabird attacks and contacts, during gear setting. After a vessel returns to port, scientists would review the video recordings and would verify seabird captures through logbook data.”

Tori poles had been considered as a seabird bycatch mitigation measure back in the 1990s, when NMFS was first considering regulations intended to reduce seabird interactions with the fleet. According to the options paper prepared by the council on the basis of the research group’s work, limited tests backs then “showed that the deterrents were effective in reducing seabird contact rates with bait and gear… However, these studies also identified issues with practicality and crew safety resulting from tori line entanglement with gear. The council considered inclusion of tori lines in the seabird mitigation measures in 1999 and again in 2004, but to date tori lines have not been included as an option for the Hawai‘i longline fishery.”

Fines and Other Wrist Slaps

One of the routine reports heard by the council at their regular meetings comes from NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement (OLE), Pacific Islands division.

Three of the investigations that the OLE conducted in the 10-week period from September 1 to November 16 involved violations of fishing regulations by U.S.-flagged purse seiners. In the case involving the highest proposed fine – $119,000 – the captain of the purse seiner failed to release silky sharks at least 17 times between May and June 2018 while in an area under the jurisdiction of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission. “After months of deliberating and preparing for an administrative hearing, a final settlement agreement of $63,000 was issued and paid for by the respondents. This was a successful case and ‘a first case of its kind’ resulting in a successful prosecution involving silky shark regulations,” the OLE report said.

Another case involving a U.S. purse seiner involves allegations from a foreign observer aboard the vessel who alleged that the vessel set its net on or around a live whale shark, something that is strictly prohibited. The case has been forwarded to NOAA’s general counsel for prosecution.

The third case was requested to be investigated by the Cook Islands Ministry of Fisheries. In that case, the Cook Islands alleges that the U.S. purse seiner was fishing illegally within that country’s EEZ. “OLE conducted an investigation and sent a completed case package to Cook Islands Fisheries for their review and final disposition,” OLE’s report states.

Several cases involving longliners were noted in the report.

The one that goes back in time the longest concerns the U.S.-flagged longliner, the No. 1 Ji Huyn. Back in April 2016, it ran aground in the Aunu‘u unit of the American Samoa National Marine Sanctuary. The vessel wasn’t fishing at the time. Rather, it had been hired by the American Samoa Power Authority government to carry freight to the island of Manu‘a– an operation for which it lacked the needed permits.

Last month, the council was informed by OLE that a notice of violation and assessment (NOVA) had been issued in the amount of $20,000. “Further investigation into the owners of the vessel revealed that the corporation was a sham and that it applied for federal fishing permits by providing false statements,” the OLE report stated. The OLE completed its initial investigation and referred the case to the NOAA general counsel for natural resources for prosecution; “however, the investigation was declined and referred back to NOAA general counsel for enforcement section for review, and final disposition,” the report says.

Environment Hawai‘i first reported on this case back in July 2016. At that time, the OLE stated that although the corporation that owns the vessel has a U.S. citizen as its CEO, “[i]nvestigation has shown that a foreign national had control over the vessel at the time of the grounding.”

Soon after its grounding, the Coast Guard hired a salvage firm to remove fuel at a cost of $150,000. After it was finally removed in August, NOAA Sanctuaries began an assessment of the damage to the reef and other natural resources caused by the incident.

Another Hawai‘i longliner was investigated for fishing in the closed Southern Exclusion Zone; for this, the vessel owner was fined $2,500.

In the last of the fisheries violations, the OLE reported that an importer found to have smuggled sea cucumbers into Honolulu was fined $1,000.

Commission Fails to Act On Crew Members’ Rights

Last month, a crew member aboard the Honolulu-based longliner Sea Goddess fell overboard about 150 miles southeast of the Big Island. After two days of multiple passes over and in the area by Coast Guard vessels and aircraft, a Navy Poseidon aircraft, several Marine aircraft, and another longline vessel, the Coast Guard called off the search. Rescue crews conducted a total of 23 searches over the course of 45 hours, searching an area of nearly 9,000 square miles.

“Making the decision to suspend a search is never an easy one, said Ensign Jonathon Smith, a watchstander with the Coast Guard in Honolulu.

The crew member who fell overboard was from the Republic of Kiribati.

Three months earlier, another crew member was lost after falling overboard from the vessel St. Marie Anne, also homeported in Honolulu. This time, the missing man was from Vietnam. The Coast Guard again searched a nearly 9,000-square-mile area for 77 hours before suspending its efforts.

The foreign nationals, including the two who died recently, make up by far the largest part of crews on Hawai‘i-based longliners. The pay is low, hours are long, work is hard. Because they are not formally admitted to the United States, they have no protections that are available to workers legally admitted.

The employment of foreign labor by the Hawai‘i longliners has been challenged by Malama Chun, a Native Hawaiian fisherman. In September, the Hawai‘i Supreme Court heard oral arguments in his case brought against the Department of Land and Natural Resources, which issues commercial fishing permits to the foreign crew members. The permits are required of anyone working on a commercial fishing vessel.

The court has not yet issued a ruling in that case.

Following an Associated Press investigation in 2016 on labor conditions aboard fishing vessels, the Hawai‘i Longline Association undertook a self-audit and reported finding no evidence of sub-standard working conditions, human trafficking, or forced labor among crews on its members’ vessels.

Meanwhile, the subject of the often inhumane treatment of crews and observers on board fishing vessels in the Pacific came up for discussion at the meeting last month of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, which is the internationally sanctioned regional fishery management organization for the area in which Hawai‘i longliners conduct most of their fishing.

The commission was pressed by several non-governmental organizations to adopt standards that would provide some degree of transparency in reporting incidents in which observers were injured or died and to adopt labor standards for crews on fishing vessels.

Bubba Cook, WWF’s tuna program manager in the Western and Central Pacific, expressed his disappointment. “We remain very discouraged that some members are reluctant to address the serious human rights and labor issues that have come to light,” he said in a statement to the press. 

— Patricia Tummons

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