Wespac Endorses Changes in Gear Intended to Protect Sharks, Seabirds

Last month’s virtual meeting of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council brought few surprises, but the council did take two votes that should reduce the impact of longline fisheries on protected species. It:

• Voted to recommend a change in fishing rules for the deep-set (tuna-targeting) longline fishery, requiring the use of monofilament leaders instead of wire leaders. The leader is the short length of line that dangles from the branch line to the hook. The change is expected to reduce the fishery’s catch of oceanic whitetip sharks, a species federally listed as threatened; and

• Gave preliminary approval to the use of tori lines to discourage seabirds from interfering with the setting and haul of longlines. A tori line is a rope hung with streamers that is deployed from a fishing vessel as baited lines are set.

The Monofilament Leaders

The switch to monofilament line was proposed by the Hawai‘i Longline Association (HLA) last year. The organization, which represents most of the 146 or so permitted longline fishing vessels in Hawai‘i, announced that by July 1, its members would convert from wire leaders to monofilament to reduce the catch of oceanic whitetip sharks, which are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Each year, about 1,700 oceanic whitetip sharks are caught by the longliners; none is retained. The switch should allow the sharks, and perhaps other protected species as well, to bite through the line.

According to HLA and Wespac, the wire leaders had been preferred over monofilament line, since they reduced the chance that the weighted branch lines could fly back and injure crew during hauling operations.

In addition to requiring the use of monofilament leaders in the deep-set longline fishery, the council recommendation to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency that has final say over fisheries regulation, that it require clipping the line close to the hooked animal in order to minimize trailing gear, which can impair the released animal’s chance of long- term survival. This proposed rule would apply not just to the deep-set longliners, but also to the shallow-set fishery as well, which targets swordfish. That fishery already uses monofilament leaders, so the council opted not to include it in the monofilament requirement.

In addition to developing gear that will facilitate the switch to monofilament line, HLA executive director Eirc Kingma stated in written testimony, the organization is “developing crew training materials and a crew-dedicated web portal. Crew will login to a page on HLA’s website and receive training on oceanic whitetip shark (OCS) handling and safety protocols as well as other information.”

In developing alternatives for council consideration, the staff included the option of removing shallow hooks from each “basket” – the section of longline extending between floats. About 40 percent of the oceanic whitetip sharks are caught on the three shallowest hooks on either end of the “basket” (which consists of about two dozen hooks between floats). But the council rejected this option. In addition to catching sharks, these relatively shallow hooks also catch economically valuable species such as mahimahi, opah, and ono. The HLA has argued that this option would cost the deep-set longline fleet more than $11 million a year.

Brettny Hardy, an attorney with Earthjustice, testified on behalf of the Conservation Council for Hawai‘i and Moana Ohana, an ocean-oriented nonprofit based in Kona. The groups supported the requirement for monofilament leaders and removal of trailinggear, she said, but also strongly favored removal of the shallow hooks on either side of the basket.

In the final vote on the matter, the council approved just the monofilament and gear removal requirements.

In addition to needing to mitigate catches of the oceanic whitetip shark, the council was also required by the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which governs

U.S. fisheries, to address catches of the silky shark, which is subject to overfishing in the western Pacific. The councildetermined that the same measures that it has recommended to reduce the catch of oceanic whitetip shark would also reduce the catch of silky shark.

Tori Lines

For many years, tori lines have been used by foreign fleets to discourage seabirds from taking bait off the longlines as they are being set. While the council has had discussions over the years about requiring longliners to deploy tori lines, the council never fully embraced the idea.

Recently, though, increases in the bycatch of blackfooted albatrosses by longliners have prompted the HLA, the council, the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, and NMFS to take another look at the technique.

Asuka Ishizaki, the council’s endangered species specialist, outlined a possible regulatory approach to tori lines, requiring the attached streamers to be a minimum of 30 centimeters long and less than 1 meter apart. In addition to what might be required by rule, she proposed non-regulatory measures that would give flexibility to vessel owners as to the exact way in which the streamers are to be set.

The council voted to approve Ishizaki’s approach. Final action to forward a rule to NMFS will likely take place at a future meeting.

BiOp Involvement

A long-standing complaint of council executive director Kitty Simonds has been that the council is not made party to early drafts of biological opinions prepared by NMFS that describe impacts of fishing on endangered species or other animals that enjoy federal protection.

At the May meeting of the Council Coordination Committee – consisting of directors from all eight fishery management councils plus selected staff and consultants – the group endorsed “strengthened relations between NMFS and councils on ESA [Endangered Species Act] consultations.”

Under current policy, the council is given no special consideration, being allowed to comment on proposed biological opinions at the same time that they are made available for comment from the general public.

Simonds told the council that Sam Rauch, NMFS deputy assistant administrator for regulatory programs, had indicated he was open to this increased collaboration with councils in develop- ing BiOps.

Mike Tosatto, head of NMFS Pacific Islands Regional Office, replied that while Rauch had committed to reviewing the policy, “there are some core tenets” that can’t be changed. “We must have heard some different things out of Sam,” Tosatto added.

Tosatto said he regretted what had been done with the BiOp for the shallow- set longline fishery years ago, when the council was allowed input in advance of the draft becoming public. “What we did with shallow-set was wrong … I made that error. I won’t make it again,” he said.

In reply, Simonds noted how, in the past, when the council was denied an advance look at a BiOp, it did an end run around NMFS by getting it from HLA, which, thanks to litigation, had been offered an opportunity for input at an early stage of development.

— Patricia Tummons

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